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OBIT, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles

Like jour­nal­is­tic cousins of the late Rod­ney Danger­field, the writ­ers who staff the obit­u­ary desk at The

New York Times get no re­spect (the head­line for his obit: “Rod­ney Danger­field, Comic Seek­ing Re­spect, Dies at 82”). Peo­ple tend to avoid them at par­ties, fear­ing that some­thing may be catch­ing. And yet, says Mar­galit Fox, one of the younger mem­bers of the de­part­ment, obit­u­ar­ies have “next to noth­ing to do with death. And in fact, ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing to do with life.” The sub­jects who make the cut in the obit sec­tion of the pa­per of record are peo­ple whose lives have had an im­pact large enough to at least make a rip­ple with their pass­ing. The in­ven­tor of the Slinky and the in­ven­tor of the wire­less TV re­mote rate a men­tion, along with big­ger fish like states­men and movie stars.

They don’t have to have been good guys. As with Time mag­a­zine’s “Per­son of the Year,” they may have been vil­lains or mon­sters, but they were sig­nif­i­cant ones. They can come from the worlds of pol­i­tics, art, show busi­ness, lit­er­a­ture, jour­nal­ism, in­dus­try, medicine, sports, so­ci­ety, and any­where else that earns the at­ten­tion of the pub­lic and the news me­dia.

“Lit­er­ally,” says Bruce We­ber, a for­mer Times the­ater critic and cul­ture edi­tor now man­ning a desk in Obit­u­ar­ies, “I show up in the morn­ing, and I say, ‘Who’s dead?’ ” We­ber is the writer who pro­vides a through line in this gen­er­ally cap­ti­vat­ing doc­u­men­tary com­piled by Vanessa Gould (di­rec­tor of Be­tween

the Folds, a doc­u­men­tary that won a Pe­abody Award in 2010). The movie kicks off with We­ber in­ter­view­ing a widow over the phone, check­ing facts. The sub­ject turns out to be Wil­liam P. Wil­son, who served John F. Kennedy in the then lit­tle-known role of tele­vi­sion con­sul­tant for the fate­ful Kennedy-Nixon de­bates in 1960. Wil­son, thirty-two at the time, ad­vised his client on ev­ery­thing from clothes and makeup to what podium to use. Many ob­servers cred­ited Kennedy’s ap­pear­ance on TV with swing­ing the elec­tion.

The movie cov­ers a broad and fas­ci­nat­ing range of de­parted per­son­al­i­ties and their ac­com­plish­ments, but it keeps re­turn­ing to We­ber as he sweats over the Wil­son piece. Even­tu­ally it runs — and he has got­ten some­thing wrong. “Too many facts,” he ob­serves rue­fully, enun­ci­at­ing one of the ac­knowl­edged pit­falls of the trade.

Al­though the doc­u­men­tary’s range cov­ers no­ta­bles from the strip­per Candy Barr to the sainted Mother Teresa, the obit sec­tion has tra­di­tion­ally been de­voted dis­pro­por­tion­ally to white men. When peo­ple chal­lenge her on this and ask why, Fox tells them, “Ask me again in a gen­er­a­tion.” The is­sue, she ex­plains, is that with re­gard to the gen­er­a­tion that has reached obit­u­ary age — the oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans and nona­ge­nar­i­ans — newsmakers were over­whelm­ingly from that de­mo­graphic. The civil rights move­ment in the 1950s and ’60s and the women’s move­ment in the ’70s be­gan to change that, but the ef­fects won’t be broadly felt in the sec­tion for a few years yet. And one sus­pects that the peo­ple in­volved are in no hurry. Gould in­serts the Roz Chast car­toon of a man pe­rus­ing the obit page, with head­lines read­ing, “TWO YEARS YOUNGER THAN YOU,” “FIVE YEARS YOUR SE­NIOR,” and “YOUR AGE ON THE DOT.”

In the pa­per’s morgue, as a news or­ga­ni­za­tion’s vast fil­ing sys­tem of old clips and photos is somberly called, there is a sec­tion de­voted to “ad­vance obit­u­ar­ies.” Th­ese are folks who have reached an age at which death would not be un­ex­pected, or peo­ple whose body of work is per­ceived as be­ing com­pleted. Thus Eli­nor Smith, a pi­o­neer avi­a­tor who earned head­lines as “The Fly­ing Flap­per of Freeport” and was at six­teen the youngest li­censed pi­lot in the world, had her ad­vance filed in 1931, when she was twenty, pre­sum­ably con­sid­er­ing the risk fac­tor of her line of work. She died in 2010 at the age of ninety-eight.

The peo­ple who check out sud­denly, un­ex­pect­edly, in the full flush of a ca­reer, are the tough ones. “Those are the night­mares,” says We­ber. Michael Jack­son caught the de­part­ment by sur­prise. They were ready for Far­rah Fawcett, who had been ail­ing, but when the news fil­tered in the same af­ter­noon of Jack­son’s death, it set a wild scram­ble in mo­tion to make the pa­per’s dead­line. The as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Ron­ald Rea­gan caused a sim­i­lar tur­moil. “Whether you voted for him or not,” says one of the writ­ers, they were root­ing des­per­ately for him to pull through. A word of ad­vice with re­gards to dy­ing with­out warn­ing: Do it early in the day, to give a poor obit­u­ar­ist a chance to get some­thing down by the time the pa­per goes to press.

Once a grave­yard for old jour­nal­ists on their way down or tal­ent­less hacks be­ing sent a mes­sage, the obit­u­ary de­part­ment has gained in stature and re­spectabil­ity in re­cent years. Al­though it still fea­tures a lot of gray hair, younger faces like Fox are in­creas­ingly turn­ing up among the older ones, like the won­der­fully named Peter Keep­news. They all ac­knowl­edge one ba­sic fact of obit life: Writ­ing for the sec­tion makes them more keenly aware of their own mor­tal­ity. — Jonathan Richards

Re­mem­brance of peo­ple passed

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