The new film, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, finds documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in a lower-key mode than normal. The Oscar-winning director behind The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, and The Unknown Known has made his name with highly stylized visuals that create a sense of intellectual detachment for viewers, so they have space to contemplate and analyze the information they are being presented. This is typically counter-balanced by interview snippets, with the subject staring straight into the camera lens as they talk. This intense effect is created by the Interrotron, a video contraption Morris created so that his subjects can look him straight in the eyes while actually looking directly into the camera.
In The B-Side, Morris throws in a few of his signature visual flourishes, but he mostly takes it easy. He doesn’t even use the Interrotron, instead allowing his subject, 80-year-old Boston photographer Elsa Dorfman, to lean easily on a counter in her studio as she talks to him, looking slightly off the lens (you know, like in most documentaries). At one point, the phone rings and Elsa freezes; Morris gives her the OK to go answer it. This never happened with Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld!
The relatively brief film is structured around a long interview with Elsa, recorded shortly after she has decided to retire. Elsa found her medium of choice around 15 years into her career, with the advent of the massive Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. With only 5 or 6 of these cameras in existence, Elsa has always had to struggle to get consistent access to rent or use one. Even though now she is one of a few photographers whose work is synonymous with the large-format camera, she says she has always been “at the bottom of Polaroid’s list” and only got to do her work by “being a nag.” With Polaroid in financial disarray, the company discontinued the 20 x 24 film a decade ago, and Elsa’s stockpile is running out — thus hastening her retirement.
The film tracks Elsa’s development as an artist, beginning as a schoolteacher who was just handed a camera one day and told to give it a shot. She continued to take pictures of what was around her, gravitating toward portrait photography. She takes many shots of herself so that she can confidently ask her subjects not to do anything she isn’t willing to do herself. She sells prints of her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square, but we are left to infer that her husband, a lefty lawyer, is the family’s main breadwinner.
Thanks to some time spent at Grove Press in the ’50s, Elsa becomes lifelong friends with the beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, sometimes clothed, sometimes not, becomes one of Elsa’s most frequent portrait subjects. Other notables who passed in front of her camera include Bob Dylan and Jonathan Richman, the latter of whom contributes two songs to the film’s soundtrack.
Eventually, Elsa settles into a career taking 20 x 24 portrait photos of families, almost like an uber-talented, high-end mall photographer. Because of the rarity and expense of the film, she tends to only take two shots and then the families can pick one. The other one, the outtake, she refers to as “the B-side,” like the supporting song on a 7-inch single. And much like the many people who actually prefer some of those flip-side songs, Elsa has a fondness and preference for the anomalies and quirks in her collection of “B-side” photographs, rather than the more polished selections the families tend to make.
It’s not hard to see why Errol Morris wanted to make this film. Elsa is a soulful presence, a genuine character. Watching her go through boxes of old photographs, as though re-forming the puzzle pieces of her life, is intensely moving. She looks at photos of her parents, younger at that time than she is now, and she comments, “They never look young, but now they look young.” She wells up while looking at shots of Ginsberg, and comments, “Photos have their ultimate meaning when the person dies.”
As the film grows vaguely wistful in its later passages, it also loses a bit of focus. Morris hints at the probable and unfortunate mortality of Dorfman’s work, thanks to the difficulty in preserving it, but can’t otherwise find a totally satisfying thematic landing spot. The film is charming, touching, and memorable even without one, offering a more easy-going “B-side” alternative to the kind of intensely constructed docs for which Morris is best known.
The B-Side opens theatrically on Friday, June 30.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.