Mark Reviews Movies

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Errol Morris

MPAA Rating: R (for some graphic nude images and brief language)

Running Time: 1:16

Release Date: 6/30/17 (limited); 7/7/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 6, 2017

Documentarian Errol Morris might be at his best when he is confrontational—when there's a genuine sense of conflict between his subject and his own views. The subject can be a person, such as a pair of controversial Secretaries of Defense or a Holocaust denier, or a false perception, such as a shoddy police investigation that resulted in the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography finds Morris in complete agreement with his subject, a soon-to-be-retired photographer whose career is coming to an end with the death of the film she has used for her work.

More than that, the filmmaker seems to really like Elsa Dorfman. In fairness, it's hard not to like her. She came into her own during the counter-culture of the 1960s, photographing and becoming friends with such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, with whom she shared a close friendship until his death in 1997. Morris doesn't ask many questions, and he definitely doesn't ask any probing ones.

They call these sorts of questions "softballs" in the business, although, when Morris does ask something, it seems to be out of genuine curiosity—not just to get Dorfman to say what she wants to say. He even doesn't use his famous Interrotron, which—through the use of a two-way mirror and a video projector—allows the subject to be looking at Morris and the camera simultaneously. That technique might give the wrong impression. Instead, the camera is mostly positioned at a 45-degree angle from Dorfman and slightly elevated above her.

One could look at the film as an extended monologue of sorts, with Dorfman standing in her photography lab, recalling her career, her family, her friends, and the end of a business that has been a requirement for her art to be possible. At the time of filming, she was approaching 80 (She reached that milestone this year), but she possesses the kind of spirit that belies her age. Dorfman is almost all smiles and chuckles. She holds no ill will against Polaroid, the company that is ending its production of film, because it gave her a career. As for the people who bought the company for the name and stopped production of its most notable product, she's a bit harsher: "Idiots" is the word, I believe, she uses—definitely "idiotic."

The monologue takes us through Dorfman's life and her work, up until the point at which she has decided that her retirement from portrait photography is close approaching. She didn't pick up a camera until the age of 28. After living and working in New York City as a secretary at a publishing company that specialized in the Beat poetry of the time, she returned home to Cambridge to obtain a degree in education. She worked as an elementary school teacher and then for a firm that specialized in education, where the in-house photographer gave her a camera.

There was no hint in her life up until then that she would spend the rest of her life selling photos on the street (with a shopping cart that a local store happily let her borrow), publishing a book of her photography, and being one of the select people in the world to use one of the handful of Polaroid's 20-by-24-inch cameras. She was grateful in a few archival interviews that we see, and she's even more grateful now—running her own portrait photography business, as well as being married to Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil rights attorney, and a mother to their son. Both are the subjects of multiple photographs through the decades. Dorfman can't help but notice, as she takes Morris through her extensive files (all ordered in large drawers by date), how much they have changed.

That's the undercurrent of the film—the inexorable progress of change, which doesn't stop simply because someone reaches a certain age. It's also, as the narrative of Dorfman's life proceeds, primarily about death.

She recalls the deaths of her parents, holding up a photograph of herself holding a photo of her parents, who are, in turn, holding a picture of their wedding photo. Dorfman notes with a bit of amazement that she's older now than her mother was at the time of the photo. "They never seemed young," she observes, "but they seem young now." The news of Ginsberg's imminent death came via a pair of phone messages, which she still has—one from the man himself, mentioning that he's in the hospital with some bad news, and the other from a friend, saying that the poet had gone into a coma, that they were making him comfortable, and that it was time for them to let him go.

An example of Morris' softball questions comes as Dorfman is having two photos of her old friend restored—one of him in a suit and the other of him naked (It was his idea, since, as she puts it, Dorfman was a "nice Jewish girl"). He asks if seeing those photos brings Ginsberg back to her in a way, and of course, it does. As with most of his queries here, it's odd that Morris asks, firstly because it's such an obvious question and secondly because he almost doesn't need to ask. Dorfman is pretty open here about everything.

That helps the film, which is pretty much dictated by her stories and her attitude, tremendously. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography doesn't delve deep, but the film serves as a fine story of success and the end of an era, told by a woman who is as sincerely reflective as she is genuinely content.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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