The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Movies Reviews Errol Morris
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Errol Morris has no truck with the sentimental. Since his 1988 breakthrough The Thin Blue Line, in which he meticulously laid out the case for why a wrongly convicted man should be set free, this Oscar-winning documentarian has profiled politicians, Holocaust deniers, tabloid figures and other assorted oddballs, often with a critical eye. Compassion has rarely figured into the equation, but that doesn’t make Morris a misanthrope. To be sure, the man behind The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, Tabloid and The Unknown Known has grave concerns about people’s willingness to rationalize away their worst tendencies, but there has always remained a deep humanity in his work—an anger or sadness that we can’t transcend our failings to occasionally be better than we are. Morris hopes for the best, but he’s here to chronicle all the ways that we disappoint as a species.

If his new film, The B-Side, is a relatively minor work by his standards, then its bittersweet, faintly lilting tone is here to remind viewers of the big heart that’s always been there in his oeuvre. Perhaps not since 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has Morris been so openly tickled by his subject, and that feeling spills over to the audience, who will find in Elsa Dorfman an artist who speaks to several universal themes almost as asides. Running just over 75 minutes, The B-Side is exactly the right length and never overstates its case or strains for significance. It’s a modest movie about a modest woman.

Dorfman, who turned 80 in April, is a photographer who didn’t pick up a camera until her late 20s, in part because, in the absence of a husband or children, she wanted to have something in her life that made her valuable in society’s eyes. (She’d go on to marry lawyer Harvey Silverglate and have a son.) Befriending midcentury figures like Allen Ginsberg, Dorfman quickly developed into a sharp black-and-white photographer, capturing intimate moments of major figures like Bob Dylan. Morris highlights this era of her work in The B-Side, and it’s suitably impressive, but it was Dorfman’s decision in 1980 to turn to oversized portraits by utilizing the Polaroid Land 20×24 camera that made her name. These long, vertical photos allowed for head-to-toe images of her subjects, which were frequently ordinary people who wanted to be shot with their loved ones or significant others by the kindly Dorfman.

The seeds of The B-Side’s warm tone were perhaps planted by Morris with his 2015 series of ESPN shorts, It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports, which whimsically observed some strange corners of the sports world, peaking with The Subterranean Stadium, a look at a group of friends and family who still obsessively play electronic football. But with The B-Side, the affection is magnified by the fact that Dorfman and Morris have been friends for years. The director isn’t trying to unmask her—tellingly, he doesn’t even wield his patented Interrotron camera, opting for a more casual interviewing approach.

As always with his films, The B-Side allows its central figure to speak for herself so that we get a sense of who this person is simply by spending some time around her. As such, the Dorfman who emerges is adorable company. With her endearingly thick Massachusetts accent—it’s a constant treat to hear her talk about her husband Hawwwwrvey—she tells stories, reminisces about her life as an accidental feminist pioneer, and shows Morris her so-called B-sides. When clients would pay to have her take their picture, she’d be sure to do two shots, letting them pick the one they want and then keeping the other. Sometimes, the B-side photo is actually better—more intriguing, more revealing, more interestingly composed—and it starts a subconscious dialogue in the film about how we judge art.

It’s but one of several low-key themes swirling through The B-Side, each of them probed with just the right amount of gentle persistence. Slowly, we come to understand that Dorfman was hardly an overnight sensation—she did her thing, only really being acknowledged in her later years—and there’s something quietly rewarding about a portrait of an artist who seems perfectly happy investing in her work rather than seeking some greater glory. That said, her oversized Polaroid photos are expensive, and so she’s had to make a living by offering her services to clients. The B-Side weaves this into a matter-of-fact examination of how art and commerce often have to coexist, Morris never making her into a martyr. Clearly, he’s got too much respect for his friend to treat her as a talking point.

The subtlety extends to Morris’ deft look at Polaroid’s financial collapse, which threatened Dorfman’s livelihood. It’s common for filmmakers to lament the transition from celluloid to digital—or to rend their garments over the vulnerability of decaying old film prints—but The B-Side attacks these matters from a fresh, somewhat resigned perspective. On camera, Dorfman worries about the yellowing that’s creeping into some of her prints, but she also considers the people she’s photographed who are no longer alive. Gazing at shots of Ginsberg, she wonders if the power of a photo is most potent after the subject is gone, leaving behind a ghostly reminder of who that person was. The impermanence of everything is at the core of The B-Side, but Morris never lets his film get mawkish about it. Certainly, there’s much wistfulness here, but the restraint shown makes the melancholy that much more forceful.

Near the end of the film, Dorfman proudly declares that she shows only the surface of her subjects in her portraits. Let others reveal the depths of people’s complicated souls—to her way of thinking, life is hard enough, so why not just enjoy a pretty picture? This way of thinking seems antithetical to Morris’ career, which has consisted of digging into the nooks and crannies of imperfect people to arrive at some penetrating truth about their makeup. It would be inaccurate to say The B-Side only scratches the surface of Dorfman, but this lovely portrait takes pains to adopt her mindset, finding the beauty that pervades an artist’s life. As a result, Morris is offering his own kind B-side—not better than the main work, but a delightful alternative take.

Grade: B+

Director: Errol Morris
Starring: Elsa Dorfman
Release Date: June 30, 2017

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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