A new documentary about the New York Times arrives at just the moment America’s newspaper of record presents itself as something that stands not for news but for power, partisanship, and elitism. It’s titled “Obit,” perhaps in a witty response to the digital era’s advance on outmoded media. An inside look at how the paper’s staff of obituary writers and researchers perform their tasks, Obit may be the closest that any media-maker gets to examining the Times’ confidential procedures during this terrible period of oppositional journalism.
Director Vanessa Gould does not perform a head-on investigation. (What filmmaker or Justice Department official would dare?) With seemingly innocent curiosity, she supplies a virtual scrutiny of the Times that, for those incredulous viewers remaining among the information-addicted electorate, is desperately needed. And sure enough, for non-thinking people, Obit delightedly tours one of the paper’s most enduring, popular sections — the one devoted to the way of all flesh. Thinking folks, however, will know there has to be more to it than that.
Previous Times documentaries — Bill Cunningham New York (2010), Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011 )— were just puff pieces geared to fawning subscribers. In Obit, Gould structures a workday at the Times in four segments: Morning Meeting, The Morgue, Photo Meeting, and Page-One Meeting. Employees on the obit desk describe their duties with the pride one expects of white-collar (and mostly white) professionals; then, one of them recalls a letter from a reader who, begging to see a family member’s obit, naïvely claimed: “My uncle subscribed to the New York Times all his life. It was a religion for him.” That staffer’s not quite humble admission of a Times reader’s sacred devotion should correct any fantasy that these are your typical bureaucrats. Professional self-awareness shadows the rest of the film.
One obit writer anxiously confesses her duty and power: “You’re going to have to have command of this person’s life work and historical significance.” This is valuable insight into the ideology of an institution that many people refuse to recognize as having an ideological foundation.
Describing obit-writing as “a retrospective genre” and the effort to “do justice to a life” does not sufficiently explain how these summing-up stories — granted only to a few — are about life more than death. Obits, like the paper itself, go beyond reporting to establish reputation; obits certify biography and, indeed, verify history. Unlike old-time, florid local-newspaper funereal panegyrics, a Times obit declares a person’s life newsworthy, conferring a final moment of celebrity (and perhaps envy among some readers).
Gould features several quick montages of famous faces, sometimes settling on a subject such as British oarsman John Fairfax, or morphing the visage of typewriter repairman Manson Whitlock with Liberace’s. Obituary writer Margalit Fox uses these examples to prove how Times obits “in the 21st century can be as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects.” This lapse, from reporting to creative writing, exposes Times journalism as not just a first draft of history. In fact, it becomes the first draft of hegemony. It creates the attitude and perspective of an institution from which habitual readers routinely, unquestioningly, take their marching orders.
Times readers will figure out that much of their daily newspaper content is subjective rather than objective, smartly designed to shape their personal opinions?
We witness the source of trickle-down journalism when writers and editors ponder the obit of William P. Wilson, a late adviser to John F. Kennedy, who was instrumental during the 1960 Kennedy–Nixon television debates. The writers’ sense of political mission is unmistakable. (Here is the proverbial, secretive media bubble: like-minded people talking only to themselves while the public listens in.) “I’m trying to write an entertaining piece about history for people who don’t know the history,” says obit writer Bruce Weber. It seems he wants to turn the death notice into a political platform: “One of the things I haven’t nailed yet is the effect of this debate on subsequent presidential campaigns. I haven’t figured it out yet.” How many Times readers will figure out that much of their daily newspaper content is subjective rather than objective, smartly designed to shape their personal opinions?
As “inside-journalism,” Obit reveals a new problem: When everyone is sophisticated about media, there is no sophistication, only an acceptance of received wisdom and the status quo — the hegemony of the media establishment.
The loquacious Margalit Fox appeals to this sense of privilege when she addresses the “real anger and real pain” of readers who complain that women and people of color are underrepresented on the obit page. She cites history’s slow social progress to explain the page’s apparent lack of progress. But it’s a tautology in place of actual research and reporting that might improve the past rather than repeating and then blaming it. This defensive professionalism comes from the commanding heights of a media class that is confident it knows how to determine what is fit to print and what is not — elites who think they know best.
Early in Obit, Bruce Weber makes a quick presumption about an obit subject’s political affiliation, which makes it into print. Gould confronts the moment later and, to both her and Weber’s credit, features the reporter’s chagrin. “Don’t put in so many facts!” he chides himself. Times devotees should take Obit as a warning.
The 2012 film I’m Carolyn Parker by Jonathan Demme (1944–2017) belongs to the endangered species of great documentaries. I suppose it must be categorized as a documentary since it is a nonfiction, slice-of-life account of a real person, yet it transcends genre classification because it is, really, an extraordinary character appreciation.
Demme went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, but he had a different purpose from that of the carpetbagger journalists and filmmakers who used the catastrophe to show off their bleeding-heart bona fides. This film is part of Demme’s planned project to document the American issue of “right to return” — citizens of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward who were denied the right to reclaim their flooded homes. Demme found a fertile subject in the charming, articulate, middle-aged Parker, who had survived an unsuccessful marriage, assorted career ventures, genuine tests of faith, and then Katrina.
One friend tells Carolyn, ‘We are spiritual beings going through a human experience.’ That realization summarizes Demme’s art.
Parker held fast to her cultural and spiritual heritage and her citizen’s rights, which makes this a far richer film than Spike Lee’s two (count ’em) overblown HBO documentaries about Katrina or any of Anderson Cooper’s countless, grandstanding CNN reports/arguments that exploited the disaster. Lee and Cooper both showered typical liberal condescension on less fortunate people, merely to show off their own bourgie political dogma. But Demme worked artistically to show the distinctive, relatable qualities and atmosphere of Parker’s community and her warm, funny depth of character. (Her laughing, smiling reflexes are survival techniques.) At one point, Demme judiciously includes footage from Robert Flaherty’s splendid 1950 film Louisiana Story, but Demme’s film, though less remarkable aesthetically, is also sui generis.
Beyond the story of Parker’s survival against government intervention (FEMA and local politicians such as do-nothing Mayor Ray Nagin), this film surveys a modern American’s saintly endeavor. Nothing else in contemporary cinema matches the story of Parker’s effort to restore St. David Catholic Church on St. Maurice Street, her church home. It’s a tough struggle against various secular do-gooders, but Demme honors the sincerity of Parker’s faith and keeps a respectful distance when observing her praying or meditating in church. These moments are as full of serious wonder as anything in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
Like Carolyn Parker, Demme refused to indulge political grievance. Unlike knee-jerk liberals who offer pity, complaint, and outsider aloofness, Demme responded to his subject’s humanity. (His subtitle “The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful” is a droll redundancy.) We can bask in the grace exuded by Carolyn, her daughter Kyrah, and their neighbors. One friend tells Carolyn, “We are spiritual beings going through a human experience.” That realization summarizes Demme’s art.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.