Stream of the Week: OBIT – it’s really not about death


The one absolutely essential requisite for a fine documentary film is a fascinating subject, and Obit proves that an insightful filmmaker can find the fascination in the most unlikely place.  It’s about the writing of New York Times obituaries.  Director Vanessa Gould chose the subject when the NYT published the obit of an acquaintance whom she feared would become overlooked;  the story in her own words is here (scroll down).

The writers in Obit explain something counter-intuitive – good obituaries are very little about a person’s death.  Sure, they are published upon a death, but the key to an obit is to explain the person’s life.  It helps that the NYT obits eschew the old-fashioned and hypocritical canonization of the dead, instead pseudo-resurrecting them by finding what was most interesting about their lives.

Obit is a superb study on writing. We sit on the writers’ shoulders and observe their process in real-time.  Obit lives up to its tagline: Life on a Deadline.

Obit was released briefly earlier this year and is now available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

A breakthrough year for Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain in THE TREE OF LIFE

If any new face has broken through in 2011, it’s the actress Jessica Chastain.  First, she delivered a fine performance as an enabling 1950s mom in the most coherent part of The Tree of Life.  This week, she followed that with an excellent performance as a 1960s Mossad agent (the younger version of Helen Mirren’s character) in the thriller The Debt. She won critical praise for the trashy but aspiring housewife in a film I haven’t seen – The Help.  So we already know that Chastain is versatile enough to play soft and tough, brittle and sexy, action and romance.

Later this fall, she will have three more films in release.  In Take Shelter, she plays the wife of the mentally disintegrating Michael Shannon.  She’s a tough cop in The Texas Killing Fields.  And then she’s in Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Six movies in six months – that’s quite a way to start a career.  Here’s a New York Times profile of Chastain.

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times: whither journalism?

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times takes advantage of insider access to the newsroom and editorial conferences at the Times to explore the transition from the Era of Print Media to the Era of New Media Age.  Bopping between topics like WikiLeaks,, Iraq coverage, the Tribune Company bankruptcy and ProPublica, Page One is kind of all over the place, but I recommend it for hard news junkies (such as myself).

Fortunately, director Andrew Rossi recognizes an appealing character in NYT media columnist David Carr and lets the idiosyncratic and passionate, yet highly professional, Carr carry most of the film.  Rossi also makes the exceedingly wise choice not to predict how journalism will evolve in the new environment.