Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Dying to watch films

It’s official. I am now simultaneously missing both the best film festival I ever attended and the best film festival I never attended. The Seattle International Film Festival opened on Thursday. The Festival de Cannes opened one day earlier. At least both festivals are collectively thinking of me. I am still on lots of mailing lists from my days as a serial full-series pass holder. Even Cannes keeps me in its thoughts. Somehow its Directors’ Fortnight found out about me and has kindly inquired about my possible intentions to attend for a few years now. Sigh.

At least I have a good reason for not spending the late spring (or, as it is called in Ireland, summer) at a film festival or, for that matter, watching any movies full stop. After a few intensive weeks of writing/re-writing, novel number three is now firmly in the editing/proofreading/polishing phase. Other people are actually looking at it and reacting, helping and feeding back. This sucker may actually be released in this calendar year, which is a vast improvement in efficiency over the previous two tomes. This, however, does little for my blogging output.

In a modest effort to make amends, allow me to recommend a couple of movies, both Irish, playing at SIFF which I have already seen. Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary is an entertaining and ultimately touching portrait of a young woman trying to find herself. Seána Kerslake brilliantly makes the title character flawed but winning. John Butler’s Handsome Devil is a feel-good story of adversity and life lessons in a private boarding school that has proved very popular in its home country and should travel well.

One movie I have not seen but will at the first opportunity is Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit. It has spent the past year cruising the festival circuit and was released in New York last month. In a way I nearly feel I have already seen it. That is because of a detailed interview with two of the film’s subjects, New York Times obituary writers Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox. They were quizzed by Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air upon the film’s Gotham debut.

It is a great topic for a doc because a lot of us are, morbidly or otherwise, drawn to obituaries. As Weber says in the interview, “There is a contingent out there that loves obituaries, that turns to the obituary page first.” I may not turn to the obits first, but it is definitely one of the very first sections I consult.

In a way I am something of an obit writer myself. It was one of my jobs at a couple of the weekly newspapers that employed me in my ill-spent youth. On a small local newspaper, the obit job largely consisted of re-writing obituaries provided by mortuaries so that they conformed to the newspaper’s style guidelines. In the case of the death of a prominent citizen, though, it required actual research and reporting. That experience had the knock-on effect of me being the one called on to write obituaries for a number of people personally close to me, including both of my parents.

My newspaper days are long behind me, but I am still an obituarist of sorts thanks to this web site. For just about 17 years I have written more than a 1,000 elegies—some a few lines, others a full page or more—of deceased participants in the film world and the popular culture generally. These are never really proper obituaries. I call them tributes because they are completely personal on my part. It is something that has always given me satisfaction, and I regret these days I do not have time to do more of it.

The Fresh Air interview was fascinating—as I expect the documentary also is—because of the insights it gives into the pressures of not only writing to a deadline but having to get a load of facts correct in a short amount of time while trying to be sensitive to grieving friends and family members. Weber and Fox convey the sense of responsibility in summing up a person’s entire life for posterity. A nice moment comes in an audio clip of Times morgue manager Jeff Roth describing how he put his hands on a photo of Pete Seeger at the age of two for the revered folk singer’s obit. The film and interview also discuss the standard news practice of writing “pre-obituaries” for people still alive—just to be ready.

It probably should not be surprising that the obituaries most vividly remembered by obit writers are not necessarily those of the most renowned or celebrated. There is an ingrained fondness for “the fascinating but obscure deaths.” Weber’s oeuvre includes Margaret Vinci Heldt, the inventor of the beehive hairdo. Fox recalls fondly the obit she wrote for Ruth Siems, a Midwest home economist who “had the good grace to die right before Thanksgiving.” She was the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing.

-S.L., 20 May 2017

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