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.

Podcast review (update): Backstory

With some shock, I learned that Backstory, a history podcast, will be stopping production on July 3, 2020. I previously reviewed Backstory and felt I would be remiss if I didn’t announce its impending demise.

Backstory has broadcasted episodes for 12 years. After that lengthy production, I cannot begrudge the historians from moving on to other things, but they and their program will be sorely missed.

Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Movie review: The Favourite (2018)

Not exactly a pick-me-up, The Favourite does makes one’s life seem not so bad. The royalty and elite in early 18th century England were a bit…immoral. The intrigue, backstabbing, and disregard for human life as portrayed seems extreme.

The movie focuses on two women close to Queen Anne—Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough) and Abigail Masham. The two women are cousins but Abigail lived a rough life. She fell from a position in elite society when her father sold her to pay for gambling debts, but then by chance, she ends up delivering a message to court and crossing paths with her cousin Sarah, who is the queen’s confidante (and, if one believes, lover).

A conniving and powerful woman, Sarah sort of takes Abigail under her wing. This isn’t all altruism and family loyalty. Abigail enters the ranks of employment at court as a scullery maid but is quickly pulled from this lowly spot when she helped heal the queen.

The queen is in poor health, suffering from grout among other things. After Abigail realizes that the queen is in pain from sore on her legs, she borrows a horse to go into the forests in search of herbs. Then she has the audacity to place the herb poultice on the queen’s legs as the queen sleeps.

Sarah orders that Abigail be whipped for her audacity, but after the queen’s favorable reaction to the poultice, Sarah orders that Abigail be made her own servant instead.

Abigail quickly learns from the intrigue surrounding her. She ingratiates herself with the queen and seeks to drive a wedge between the queen and Sarah. Eventually, Sarah is banished and Abigail takes her place at the queen’s side.

The broad strokes of the story are historical, but I am too ignorant of the details of early 18th century English court to comment on the details. Positions and fortunes at court shifted quickly depending on the whims of the queen and others’ conniving. Excess was everywhere…from the overeating by the queen to the duck races that the political and social elite engaged in.

The Favourite is a well-made movie that offers a glimpse into the court and personal life of Queen Anne. But the point of the movie? I am not sure. Perhaps that the life of the English court (and 18th century England in general) was so capricious. These times were definitely not the good old days.

Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.