The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn’t use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera’s just off to the side. The score is delicate rather than a relentless churn by or in the style of Philip Glass. What we’re watching isn’t a confession or confrontation. It’s a leisurely conversation with one of Morris’ friends, photographer Elsa Dorfman.
Dorfman’s portraits have the feel of a benign Interrotron. She works with large-format Polaroid photos, typically 20″ x 24″. The images, like Dorfman’s personality, are quaint and warm. Morris adjusts his style to fit the subject. On more than one occasion, Dorfman describes herself as just a nice Jewish girl. She’s accurate to a degree, but there’s much more to Elsa than just being a nice Jewish girl.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
Director: Errol Morris
Release Date: June 30, 2017 (limited)
“Nice” is such a loaded word. It’s often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It’s telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She’s so humble and self-effacing on camera. It’s the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris’ adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn’t be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron.
Dorfman initially seems more like a friend’s mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman hung around the New York lit scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It’s there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She’s wistful when she looks at Ginsberg’s portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn’t feel like prying. It’s not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman’s earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman’s portraiture and personality.
The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it’s at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there’s more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there’s an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman’s personality as her chosen medium.
Polaroids are a “nice” format. There’s a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal–cooler than a disposable film camera–but they’re impractical by today’s standards. What’s more, they’re intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there’s an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material.
When the meaning of the film’s title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman’s shared gains new and endearing meaning. There’s something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who’s been doing this since the 1970s. There’s something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There’s something so delightful about The B-Side. It’s not Morris’ best film in terms of scope or depth, but it’s also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris’ most generous movie, and it’s generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.