Errol Morris is best known as an influential and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (“The Fog of War”), but he’s also a master of the short form who commands big bucks shooting commercials and episodic television. Then there’s the New York Times op-docs and essays, his many deep dives into photography and the bestsellers such as “Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography” and “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.” However, none of this prepared me for his latest gem of a film,”The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” a gentle exploration of a woman who’s also one of Morris’ best friends.
Dorfman started out photographing the Beats in the early ’60s and became friends with poet Allen Ginsberg, who she shot many times over the decades. But she’s not well known outside of Cambridge, and has never had a gallery show. “Dorfman” played to enthusiastic crowds at Telluride and Toronto and screens October 9 at the New York Film Festival. And it’s still looking for a buyer.
Here’s what I didn’t expect:
1. It’s not about a Big Important Subject.
Nor is it an in-depth reported piece with earth-shattering revelations (“The Fog of War”), a luminary’s portrait (“The Unknown Known,” “A Brief History of Time”) or an exploration of eccentric obsessives (“Gates of Heaven,” “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”). But it might change its subject’s life, simply by making her more famous.
2. It’s not an objective documentary.
This is a straight-on look at someone Morris knows really well. Dorfman is his friend of 25 years, a Cambridge portrait photographer who has shot various members of his family 30-40 times. Dorfman and her husband, Harvey, are probably Morris’ best friends; they’re godparents for Morris’ son, Hamilton. While Morris admitted at a Toronto Q & A that his love of photography preceded Dorfman, “it was enhanced by knowing her.”
In Telluride, the likable, brainy, and no-nonsense Dorfman was astonished that audiences treated her like a rock star. “It’s always bothered me that I felt her photography was so fabulous and she was so fabulous but she was unknown to a larger public,” said Morris. “And this was my attempt to remedy that.”
3. Morris does not use the Interrotron.
Morris has never shot a film in this particular way. “We started out of nowhere,” he said, “and we shot for three or four days. We edited it into a 40-minute cut [which was accepted by Telluride], we kept shooting and adding on. Elsa kept turning up stuff in her archive.”
So rather than shoot his subject with his trademark Interrotron, which allows the interviewee to look right into the camera while talking to their interlocutor, Morris sits down more informally with Dorfman in her various studios and gets her to talk about her pictures. She goes through her archives and file drawers and pulls out her mostly large-scale 20×24 Polaroid portraits, the ones her customers did not take home — the B-sides.
4. By going personal, Morris gets profound.
By exploring a fellow artist and recognizing the power of photography to hold something in a moment, Morris reaches deep. When Dorfman looks at a picture of her long-deceased friend Ginsberg, the poet comes back to life.
Morris is in his sixties, Dorfman in her seventies. As we look at pictures of her when she was young, as well as the ones she took of others, we recognize the inevitable passage of time. The film is about “time and memory, the ephemeral and transient nature of life, not just of art but of people,” said Morris. “And what remains in the end is love and friendship. It’s a very powerful message. I think of Elsa as a person who has taught me that. She keeps going.”
“Elsa has always said that that these pictures become more and more valuable over time,” said Morris, “and she’s absolutely right. These pictures are some of my most valued possessions, pictures of my mother and stepfather who are dead. There is something different about these 20×24 Polaroids than a normal snapshot, it’s almost as if the person is really there, standing next to you. While you can take photographs on hundreds of different media, there is something about this process that was magical and unique.”
He added, “One of my hopes was that by bringing attention to how imperiled large-format Polaroid photography is, perhaps there would be away to continue it, to manufacturer these cameras and the film you put in them. I hope I can do some good for a change.”