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With: Elsa Dorfman
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Errol Morris
MPAA Rating: R for some graphic nude images and brief language
Running Time: 76
Date: 07/20/2017

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Picture Perfect

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Errol Morris is a serious contender for the best living documentary filmmaker, largely because he's one of the few filmmakers that somehow manages to tell affecting non-fiction stories with his own personal touch. He received his largest influx of acclaim some time ago, with the films Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), Mr. Death (1999), and The Fog of War (2003). The films he has made since then have felt either a little too minor, or like not-entirely-successful attempts at important topics.

Morris's The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography may look like another of those minor efforts, especially clocking in at only 76 minutes. It doesn't tell a story of war or politics or nature or life. It simply tells the story of a portrait photographer, Elsa Dorfman. But to me, it manages to feel quietly moving and quietly profound in unexpected ways, and I think it is Morris's best film in a long time.

Dorfman almost fell accidentally into photography, and rather late in life. Hanging out in a New York bookstore, she photographed many famous figures. She became friends with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, photographing him many times over the years. One of her most famous shots features Ginsberg with Bob Dylan, noodling around with a guitar. She also photographed singer Jonathan Richman (and he, in turn, agreed to let one of his songs be used in this movie).

When Polaroid unveiled its large-scale portrait camera, she became one of its top practitioners. She took hundreds of poster-sized portraits, always taking two shots and allowing the subjects to choose which one they prefer. This left her with all the "B Sides" for her own files, each of which has its own specific beauty. Even the pictures with roller marks or flaws from the printer reveal an appealing personality.

Most of the running time of The B-Side is dedicated to Dorfman, now about 75, interviewed in her studio, pulling pictures out of file drawers and showing them to Morris. There are a few old clips of interviews to round things out. Judging by their interactions, Morris and Dorfman appear to be friends and are relaxed around one another. Dorman is entirely open with her answers, allowing herself to be moved by memories of certain photos of her own family.

Of course, as everyone knows, Polaroid eventually closed its doors, and its special brand of instant photography is now likely gone forever. Dorfman mourns its loss, but, over the course of the film, she also begins to become aware of the slow passing of time, the impermanence of things, noting how young people in photos once were, and how many are now gone. Dorfman insists in one scene that her photos do not necessarily capture the truth, but I think that Morris's film does just that.

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