Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 28, 2017 2:01 pm 
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Celebrating lives in print, at the end of them

"We don't have this bristling Rolodex of sources. You spend your day juggling phone calls to families, friends, and associates, speed-reading clippings printed out from online sources, and tenderly handling these yellowed, crumbling clippings from the morgue." So says Margalit Fox, author of one of the most successful New York Times obituaries of recent days, describing the work in her department, one of the new world's few surviving ones. The hit obit (yes, there are some) was of John Fairfax, who died in 2012, at the age of 74. Readers thought him the most "badass" person they'd ever encountered in the respectable paper's pages. In the seventies Mr. Fairfax crossed the Atlantic (alone) and the Pacific (with a woman friend), both times in a rowboat. But his life was even more exciting before he turned 14. As Fox reads this rollicking, enjoyable piece, we watch dashing films of the smiling, well-built Fairfax cavorting in a bikini, and realize how surprising and fun an obituary can be. People lead some pretty amazing lives, and the Times obits give us the rundown on them, once they're dead, recalling them in their heyday.

One of the Times obit writers notes party goers may draw away when he mentions his occupation, and the Italian word for it, "necrologo," could be the title of a Dario Argento film. But as we learn, this job tends much more to illustrate the Latin tag, "De mortuis nihil nisi bonum": "Of the dead (say) nothing, if it is not good." It's an opportunity to celebrate lives, to write about people you can't help falling in love with while patiently ferreting out their most hidden accomplishments. And so this film belies the old misconception that obit writers are gloomy, solemn, or death-obsessed lot. They are investigative reporters, they just never get to meet their subjects (alive). The film also represents a proud outing of an occupation that was previously shameful and closeted, the purview of newsmen on the way out. How odd that this work seems to be vanishing at the same time that it is, in a sense, in its own heyday, better practiced now, by modern journalists, than ever before, and more worthy than ever of our notice and our respect. How can you not love it when a man's story (Fairfax's, again) ends with a description of the game of bacarat, a favorite of James Bond? This film shows us why the obit section is many people's favorite part of the paper.

Incidentlaly, this movie's blurb asks "How do you put a life into 500 words?" Actually the material Ms. Fox gathered on John Fairfax for her Times obit was too good to confine to such limits: her obit of the oarsman and gambler, who broke up a fight with a pistol at nine and attempted suicide by jaguar at 14, runs closer to fourteen hundred words. This was, of course, an editorial decision, and we see the obit writers pitching their stories at daily conferences of the whole paper.

Another important obit of recent years, a sudden and devastating death for fans of American fiction, was the suicide of David Foster Wallace at 46, in 2008. Because he was so young, and the cause of death suicide, the usual rule of focusing on the life, only in passing on cause and circumstance of death, had to be set aside at the outset to focus on the final event and its causes and circumstances. The Wallace obit was only 1,117 words, by Bruce Weber. But there were several sidebar appreciations, including one by Times reviewer Michiko Kikutani. Journalists must be quick studies. Considering that Weber says here he was not very familiar with Wallace's writing when he went to work on the obit, it's a remarkably eloquent summary of the great gifts and accomplishments and equally great sensitivity and pain of the writer.

Weber is patient, modest, and very, very good. His DFW lead paragraph goes like this: "David Foster Wallace, whose prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, an experimental contemporary of William T. Vollmann, Mark Leyner and Nicholson Baker and a clear influence on younger tour-de-force stylists like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, died on Friday at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 46." Again, the subject matter calls for something more flowery, you might say, than a curt newspaper summary, more in keeping with the polymath genius just lost. This is not a formulaic "lede" (lead paragraph). Bruce Weber seems a master of the colorful sidebar historical obit lede (but perhaps they all are, or aspire to be). Later we see Weber sweat the lead for advertising pioneer William P. Wilson, who twealed JFK's TV debate image which may have won him the election. He has a deadline and a word limit, and he has the self possession to talk about what he's doing while his first two sentences struggle forth, coming and going on the computer screen. Throughout, Gould has excellent access to her subjects, and makes good unobtrusive use of it.

Why do you read obits? To find out who's died, so this film itself brings some sad surprises: Mary Ellen Mark, the great humanistic photographer who collaborated with her husband Martin Bell on the movie Street Wise, died in 2015. Her obit flashes onto the screen for only a moment.

The film has a wealth of illustrative stills and period film footage, and, as is the current custom, a lot of quick flash-frames of pages of type that only a high speed camera or a person with a freeze-frame at home can even browse through. To relieve the monotony of repeatedly returning to the same four or five talking heads, including Desk Editor William McDonald , the film resorts to zoom-jump cutting, which merely shows signs of strain. They information itself is enough. After all these are Times writers, and they know their work, even if, after a while, there are some repetitions. But Vanessa Guild brings obituary-writing to life.

Midway through, the film relaxes a bit and chronicles the office atmosphere. Again, because it's the American Journal of Record, it's interesting just to see the offices. They are individual and homey, though there's no effort to locate them in a larger space. There's a ramble by Margalit Fox about the "music" of old fashioned manual typewriters clack-clacking, livened up by a clip of LIberace doing Leroy Anderson's "Typewriter Song."

There is also a visit to the "morgue" (the repository of paper clippings, in manifold filing cabinets), which used to have dozens of employees at work and now is the responsibility of one. Then they go back to ranking the subjects by number or words they merit, where the obit goes, and if on page one where on page one. Inevitably we see David Bowie, Nelson Mandela, and the Pope flash by. The Times/ evaluations and summations, partly arrived at by a meeting of participants, are to be reckoned with. This is also partly a small dissertation on celebrity, fame, and how art distills an artist's perfect image. We also learn about how the writers sometimes must face deadlines, including the extreme challenge of producing a major obituary they weren't prepared for. Such was the day when the death of Farah Fawcett had seemed the major story, when suddenly, with four hours to press time, they learn that Michael Jackson had died.

This film is by Vanessa Gould, whose previous documentary concerned scientists and artists who turned to origami. Perhaps obituary-writing is almost equally hidden and odd, on the surface, but it turns out to be central to who we are, a continual revaluation and reviving of modern history, generation by generation.

Obit, 95 mins., debuted at Tribeca 2016, and logged ten other festivals including Hot Docs in Toronto, AFI, and Palm Springs. Distributed by Kino Lorber it entered theaters Apr.
28, 2017 (Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Theaters, NYC).

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