Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Obit.’, ‘Bang! The Bert Berns Story’, ‘Risk’

‘Obit.’ profiles a day in the life of the New York Times’ obituary desk

As ghoulish as it may seem, I’ve always considered the obituary page one of the most fascinating sections of a newspaper. If you want to learn about the lives and times of the great, the not-so-great, or the forgotten — or simply remind yourself that, well, you’re not dead yet — it’s definitely the place to go.

Traditionally the end-of-the-line for print journalists edging towards retirement, the obituary desk has of late fallen on hard times. As print media continues to cut back in the new millennium, it seems like an obvious place for some quick and easy savings – after all, who needs dedicated eulogists when your student intern can simply crib 500 words from Wikipedia?

The New York Times, that’s who: maintaining one of the last remaining fully staffed obituary desks in the country, the Times still doesn’t consider death a luxury. Director Vanessa Gould’s Obit. (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 12) profiles a day in the life of the desk’s half dozen employees as they handcraft tasteful and accurate encomia for the recently deceased.

It will probably come as little surprise that these writers take their job very, very seriously. Fact-checking with survivors is paramount, as even the slightest of errors will — at best — be a source of embarrassment for all concerned.


A unique insight into this special and unusual craft, Obit. highlights the achievements of such (arguably marginal) late celebrities as John Fairfax (the first person to navigate the Atlantic solo in a row boat), Jack Kinsler (the NASA employee credited with ‘saving’ Skylab in 1973 with some fishing rods), and aviatrix Elinor Smith (at one point, the world’s youngest licensed pilot). Credit the Times writers for treating all their subjects with equal care, consideration, and respect, and admire their fortitude facing up to grim, relentless death every time they go to work.

‘Bang! The Bert Berns Story’

Bert Berns and Van Morrison in Bang! The Bert Berns Story

Music lovers – especially those who lean towards 1960’s rock and soul – are strongly urged to take a trip to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater for Bang! The Bert Berns Story, also opening on Friday. Based in part on local music scribe Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, the film tells the story of one of the most important songwriter-producers of pop music’s golden era.

From a childhood bout with life-threatening rheumatic fever to his final days recording Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, Bert Berns was always in a hurry. He knew time was limited and made the most of it, penning such classics as ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’, ‘Piece of My Heart’, ‘Hang on Sloopy’ and many others in a seven year burst of creativity. The film is a gem, and both Selvin and director Brett Berns will attend Friday’s 7 p.m. screening.

‘Risk’

Julian Assange in ‘Risk’ which continues its run at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood

Finally, director Laura Poitras’ new feature Risk continues its run at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. A worthy successor to her Academy Award winning Citizenfour, Risk offers an up-close-and-personal look at Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, exposing some of his less savory characteristics while acknowledging the important and groundbreaking journalism done by the organization. Even if you can’t stand the man, this is a significant film.