As thoughtful and articulate as its best subjects, Vanessa Gould's Obit. (2016) pays loving tribute to newspaper obituaries and ponders the question: what makes a life worth remembering? It's a profession once dominated by writers who likely fell into the job from other departments, and maybe even as punishment. Formerly thought of as somber, rigid essays, modern obituaries---especially those in The New York Times---read more like inviting and celebratory time capsules, which often kick off with attention-grabbing "ledes" that draw in casual audiences who might otherwise ignore them. Gould's documentary, which follows her excellent debut Between the Folds (2008), does likewise.
The bulk of recent interviews, not surprisingly, features a handful of current and former obituary writers and contributors from The New York Times including desk editor William McDonald; senior writer Margalit Fox; writers Bruce Weber, William Grimes, and Douglas Martin; deputy editor Jack Kadden; assistant editor Peter Keepnews; photo editor Delores Morrison; and, during some of Obit.'s welcome detours, a handful of trips to the "news morgue" overseen by Jeff Roth, who's retained the unusual job for over 20 years. Their collective stories are valuable, candid, and often extremely passionate, from the unpredictable day-to-day routine of capturing history as it happens to the morbid but necessary practice of assembling "advance obituaries" days, years, or even decades before a death.
Fittingly, a few famous (or not-so-famous) figures are featured along the way, and their summarized obituaries are often paired with vintage photos or film clips. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), who left behind a strong and influential body of creative writing. John Fairfax (1937-2012), the first person in recorded history to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Jack A. Kinsler (1920-2014), whose unorthodox thinking saved the Skylab space station. Irving Cohen (1917-2012), AKA "King Cupid of the Catskills", who worked for 50 years at the same hotel. Candy Barr (1935-2005), infamous for a relationship with Jack Ruby and the murder of her estranged husband. Eugene Polley, inventor of the wireless TV remote. Colonel Thomas Ferebee (1918-2000), who came to regret dropping a bomb on Hiroshima. Elinor Smith (1911-2010), a pioneering aviator and record-breaking test pilot whose advance obituary was written in 1931.
Obit. creates a captivating spell during its short lifespan: one that celebrates an unusual business and some of its most vocal contributors while paying tribute to the changing medium that spawned it. Stylishly shot, the film enjoys a leisurely pace that's occasionally broken up by quick cuts and brief, bite-sized summaries of peculiar and noteworthy lives. Featuring crisp cinematography by Ben Wolf, a fitting score by Joel Goodman, and creative on-screen graphics that mimic newspaper headlines, Vanessa Gould's sophomore documentary cements her as a director to watch in the coming years. Kino's Blu-ray, though unfortunately light on extras, offers a strong A/V presentation that fans will enjoy.
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Obit. looks to be a notch above most genre entries, partially since the recent interviews look fantastic and are stylishly shot with great lighting and tasteful compositions. Color reproduction is impressive here, as are the extremely crisp scans of vintage photographs and newspaper clips that simply wouldn't hold up in standard definition; remember, most modern documentaries (from Kino or otherwise) don't always get a courtesy bump to 1080p. That's not to say that there aren't a few small bumps along the way: a lot of the older footage has been zoomed and cropped to fit a 16x9 frame, and some of these segments are already of limited quality to begin with. Sporadic problems during these older clips include dirt and debris, compression artifacts, mild interlacing, black crush, and more, though again it's almost certainly an issue with the source material and not the disc. Either way, Obit. is obviously a well-produced effort that looks very impressive on Blu-ray.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional images and stills on this page are not representative of the disc under review.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround, which has very little trouble handling the source material. Dialogue and front-channel effects are quite clear, while optional SDH captions are included during the main feature only. Surround activity is usually limited to music cues and gives the interviews and other footage a nice boost on occasion. Overall, it's a fine effort that falls in line with what you'd expect from a documentary of this type. Optional English SDH captions are included during the film, which helps with the spelling of certain names for further research.
The plain-wrap menu designs feature simple navigation and quick loading time, with separate access to chapter selection and subtitle setup. This one-disc release is housed in an eco-friendly keepcase with attractive poster-themed artwork and no inserts. No bonus features are included, aside from the film's Trailer (1:30). A missed opportunity!
Vanessa Gould's Obit. offers a thoughtful tribute to obituaries and the medium that made them popular, not to mention a celebration of many well-known (and not so well-known) historical figures from decades past. Like most above-average documentaries, it sheds light on an unusual subject and draws out warmth in the process, thanks to plenty of robust "characters" that emphasize the passion, poignancy, and peculiarity present in this most unusual business. If you're at all interested in the subject matter or writing in general, Obit. is definitely worth a look. Although Kino's Blu-ray package lacks any real extras (not even deleted scenes or reprinted obituaries?), the A/V presentation is strong enough to make this a worthy part of your documentary collection. Recommended to new and established fans alike.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.