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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2016)

12. The B-Side
Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

In 2017, Errol Morris would deliver something new that would easily become his most discussed work in years. After attempting, and failing, to get new narrative films off the ground for several years, Morris would change direction slightly. “Wormwood” is a true crime inspired docu-drama, a six part mini-series that was released to Netflix. Like many shows in our binge-watch era, “Wormwood” has become hotly discussed. But I'm not here to talk about that because, despite what anyone says, a TV show is a TV show and not a movie. Morris' latest excursion into long form story telling has largely overshadowed the actual new film he released this year. I'm talking about “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography.”

“The B-Side” has Morris turning his camera on fascinating characters talking about their lives. He leaves behind the political work of the War Trilogy and returns to one of his favorite subjects: Artists and their art. “The B-Side” is an extended interview with Elsa Dorfman. A Massachusetts-based photographer, Dorfman would become most famous for her series of portraits taken with a large-scale Polaroid Land 20x24, essentially a giant Polaroid camera. Dorfman reflects on her work first getting attention in the sixties and seventies, where she rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. She talks about her family, her work, and how technology has changed.

For his twelfth feature, Morris leaves behind one of his favorite techniques. “The B-Side” does not utilize the Interrotron, famous from most of his other documentaries. Instead, it's a far more casual interview. Dorfman stands in her studio, talking casually to Morris. The director is often heard asking questions and even appears on-screen a few times. This gives the audience a no-frills impression of who Dorfman is. This fits her portraits, which present her subjects standing in front of simple backgrounds, the edges of the set-up often visible in the photos.

Much of “The B-Side” is made up of lengthy interviews with Dorfman. Often the film will cut between the recent discussion and older archive footage of the photographer. In the modern day, Dorfman does not seem especially concerned with the artistic intent of her work. She talks a lot about her background. She mentions her Jewish heritage repeatedly. She tells stories about her husband and son, with a notable one being her husband's tendency to buy her black balloons on her birthday. Her accent makes her geographical background apparent. Beyond this, Dorfman also spends a lot of time talking about the technical aspect of her work.

The archive footage, meanwhile, presents a very different angle. In older interviews, Dorfman talks openly about what she hopes to accomplish with her work. She says she has no interest in capturing the deeper aspects of her subjects. She is only concerned with the surface. So she presents people as they are, standing before simple backgrounds with few exaggerations. And yet, despite her stated objective, Dorfman clearly captures something more intimate. Her stated preferences for what she calls the b-sides – the rejected portraits the family's leave behind – suggest that she is intent on putting something more than just the surface on film. She'll also comment on the happy accidents that have benefited her. Such as how a cord fell in a self-portrait or a particular flower being near-by at just the right time. This provides insight into the specifics of the artistic process.

Considering her long history in the business, Dorfman has also rubbed shoulders with many notable historic figures. She's more than happy to share these anecdotes. She talks about meeting Bob Dylan. How the bouncers at the club he was playing at would confiscate any cameras people attempted to bring in. After meeting her, and realizing who she was, Dylan allowed Dorfman to take his photo. Especially of note is Dorfman's long friendship with Allen Ginsberg. Elsa met Ginsberg, and many other Beat luminaries, while working as a secretary at famous publisher Grove Press. Dorfman would photograph Ginsberg many times over the years. One especially amusing story involves Ginsberg's willingness – and apparent insistence – in appearing nude in several of these portraits.

The film doesn't just capture a specific place in time through Dorfman's friendships with notable figures. It also shows how technology has changed over the years. The photographer's earliest work was done with traditional dark rooms. When the instant Polaroid came out, she considered it a revolutionary product. Dorfman loved the ability to instantly produce a photo. From there, she discovered the large-scale Polaroid, a giant version of the mass-produced model. Of course, the conversation eventually circles around to Polaroid's bankruptcy and dissolution. By clinging to an bygone piece of technology, “The B-Side” shows how much things have changed and gives the benefit of a doubt to obsolete processes.

Near the end, “The B-Side” starts to get a little more philosophical about the nature of photographs. Ginsberg's death comes up. Dorfman reflects on a photo's ability to capture a moment in time. This puts all of her work in a greater context. Because of the outright ordinariness of most of her portraits, Elsa gets at something greater. She freezes the everyday attributes, the little things we don't even think about, in one image. It puts all of life in a greater context This is what good photography is suppose to do.

The presentation of “The B-Side” shows Morris incorporating a continued visual dynamism into his documentaries. Morris peps up the interview with archive footage. He frequently puts Dorfman's images upfront, making her work come alive with bouncy editing. One of my favorite shots in the film has Morris' camera panning out over a huge collection of Dorfman's portraits. (She estimates her total number of portraits somewhere in the thousands.) In order to give a sense of scope to the technology on display, Morris will also focus on the cameras themselves, depicting them in a series of close-ups. Tying it all together is Paul Leonard-Morgan's score which is light-hearted but provocative.

“The B-Side” feels like a minor work from Morris. I know he didn't intend it this way but “Wormwood” was destined to overshadow this. The movie doesn't say anything super important about the world or the artistic process. It's also another short film from the director, only running a little over seventy minutes. However, I said the same thing about “Tabloid” the first time I watched it, which has since become probably my favorite Errol Morris movie. So maybe history will be kinder to “The B-Side,” a very pleasant movie that gives us insight into the life and career of an interesting artistic voice. [Grade: B]

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