The B-Side plays October 9, 10, 12 and 16 as part of the spotlight on documentary within the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
Earlier this year, Errol Morris popped up as a talking head in An Art That Nature Makes, Molly Bernstein’s documentary about Rosamond Purcell, a photographer who specializes in conjuring art out of natural artifacts, detritus, and other such found objects. Perhaps the warm enthusiasm he exuded in discussing Purcell’s canvases on camera was merely a prelude, however, for Morris’s latest film, The B-Side, which is about a much different kind of photographer: Elsa Dorfman, whose sunny vision is as far from Purcell’s as one can imagine.
The now-retired Dorfman’s specialty was portraits—in particular, large-format portraits captured by the massive 20 x 24 Polaroid camera she still owns. Though she began her fairly late-blooming career capturing artistic luminaries like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell when she moved to New York after college in the 1960s, it’s only after she moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and discovered the immediacy of Polaroid photography that she found her groove as a portraitist.
Spending much of the film’s 76 minutes in her personal archive as she rifles through her prints and discusses the origin of many of them for Morris’s camera, Dorfman exudes a charmingly unpretentious, ingratiating manner that makes the director’s obvious affection for her understandable. Whether you ultimately respond to The B-Side with enthusiasm of your own, however, will depend on whether you find Dorfman’s optimistic perspective either inspiring or limiting. “I’m not really interested in capturing their souls,” Dorfman unapologetically admits at one point. Later, she elaborates by saying that she’s more fascinated in capturing a person’s surface than in going beyond it with her camera. To some extent, The B-Side could be seen as a feature-length argument for the legitimacy of Dorfman’s brand of untroubled art, as opposed to, say, the more angst-ridden canvases of Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus.
That’s not to say that The B-Side doesn’t have hints of darkness all its own. Some of the film’s melancholy derives from the fact that Polaroid’s decision to go out of business and discontinue their line of instant cameras in large part led to her decision to retire. That sense of mortality, however, extends to some of the people she photographed. When Morris asks Dorfman while they both look at her photographs of Allen Ginsberg in the hospital just before his death if the pictures bring him back in some way, Dorfman says that “of course,” albeit with a hint of regret in her voice. Clearly, however, the sunny-side-up aspect of her personality will not be suppressed.
Whatever you end up thinking of Dorfman and her portraits, The B-Side offers an intriguing swerve in Morris’s ongoing obsession with scrutinizing the truth behind images. If, in films like Standard Operating Procedure and his political documentaries The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, Morris tried to find the truth behind photographs and public personas, here he finds something of personal fascination with an artist who believes that the images her subjects desire to adopt for her camera have a truth all their own. Considering how genial his interaction with Dorfman is throughout The B-Side, perhaps, just this once at least, Morris is inclined to agree.