Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.


I caught a glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
The black robe
Was unmistakable.
Not today, I whispered,
As I stepped out into the sunlight
With lilies in my left hand.

Movie review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is a deep dive into personal and family trauma. The movie opens showing Lee Chandler, a handyman for apartment buildings, going about his daily repairs for tenants. He seems calm, collected, and competent until he deals with an irate tenant. We see the first glimpse of his anger followed by a fight in a bar. Clearly, he has some anger that he is dealing with.

Lee is a loner. He lives alone in a small apartment in the basement of one of the buildings that he maintains. He works alone. He doesn’t interact with people more than the bare minimum. And then he gets a phone call. His brother has died. He is pulled into the world of interacting with others, interacting with family.

Throughout, the movie intersperses scenes from the past with the present. Fun times with people on a fishing boat turn out to be him with his brother and nephew. Another scene shows his brother and family in a hospital room, hearing the news about his brother’s congestive heart disease. Other scenes show his own family, a wife, two young daughters, and a baby boy.

And then we discover the reasons behind his current situation, both his aloofness and his anger. He lost his children in a house fire and his wife to a subsequent divorce. He inadvertently caused the fire that set in motion the calamity that engulfed his life.

The death of his brother pulls him back into reality. His brother appointed Lee guardian of his sixteen-year old son with all the responsibilities for the house, the boat, and the finances. This is not something that Lee wants. He struggles to deal with it as Patrick struggles with the death of his father and the upheaval to his life.

The death of Lee’s children and now Joe’s death are not the only traumas. The movie points to trauma all around. Patrick seeks to connect with his estranged former alcoholic mom who abandoned the family. Lee encounters his ex-wife Randi, now married and expecting a child, who carries guilt and love for Lee.

The movie emphasizes that we are not alone in our trauma, or more aptly, we are all alone in our individual traumas but together in that we all experience trauma. Trauma touches everyone who reacts in their own individual way.

The movie conveys a second message: trauma never leaves. We carry it around every day for the rest of our lives. We cannot escape it. We do not heal from it. At best, we continue to live but it informs everything we do: how we think, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves.

Manchester by the Sea seems like a realistic portrayal of what it means to be human. Grief and trauma that we experience may ebb and flow but they never leave. They pop up in expected and unexpected times, like the dream that Lee has of his daughters warning him about a fire in the present, started by sauce that he is heating on the stove.

If you are lucky, you escape trauma and grief in childhood. But it will eventually strike and be something you encounter again and again. Perhaps this is why the movie touched me.

The question is how do you deal with the trauma and the grief each and every time you are forced to face it during your life?

Cabaret Poe

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I learned about Cabaret Poe last year from a woman at the Indiana Landmark Center’s Silent Halloween. I was intrigued.

The show is a combination of recitation, spoken word, singing, dancing, and jokes—all surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s works. The production has an air of the macabre sprinkled with humor in action and word. Three actors dress in Victorian-era-inspired clothing. (I kept thinking of steampunk. Hard to describe but you know it when you see it.) A fourth actor dresses all in black, as a dark, foreboding presence in the background. For some pieces, musicians play from behind the stage.

The show I attended was sold out and the audience, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed itself. (To my surprise, about 30 minutes into the two-hour+ show, a family got up and left.) At various times, the actors mingled in the audience and interacted with attendees.

During a recitation of different bits of Poe’s poems, an actor picked out different women in the audience to approach as the object of the poem he was reciting. And wouldn’t you know it, he wandered over to me, picked up my hand, and started to recite a poem about a beloved.

Eulaile, he entreated me.

I dwelt alone
In a world of moan,
And my soul was a stagnant tide
Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride —
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

When he reached “yellow-haired”, he paused and looked askance at me. (My hair is dark brown.) I tilted my head and raised my eyebrows, as if to say, “Yeah, well, sorry about that. Whatcha gonna do?” (Clearly, he had picked me because I did NOT have yellow hair. I was part of the joke.)

The troupe covered dozens and dozens of Poe’s works, and their performance mediums were varied. I realized in hindsight that I should have re-familiarized myself with Poe’s works from my youth and made my acquaintance with the rest of his oeuvres before I went to Cabaret Poe. Ah, hindsight. I had forgotten how truly dark Poe was. Perfect for the Halloween season.

Cabaret Poe, an Indianapolis original production by local playwright and composer Ben Asaykwee, is in its 9th season. If you cannot catch it this year, look for it next year. In the meantime, reread Poe as preparation to seeing Cabaret Poe or in celebration of the shorter days, the chill in the air, and the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).