Film Review: THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY (USA 2017) ***

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the b sideA look at the life and work of photographer Elsa Dorfman.

Director: Errol Morris
Star: Elsa Dorfman

Review by Gilbert Seah
 
The B-SIDE displays documentarian Errol Morris, known for his darker subjects like MR. DEATH and THE FOG OF WAR in lighter mode with Polaroid Artist, an always cheery Elsa Dorfman.

Elsa Dorfman, the subject of Errol Morris’s new documentary appears at the film’s start, in light mode, at her Cambridge, Massachusetts studio talking to the camera. The telephone rings at the midst of her talking and she asks whether she should answer the phone. She is given the ok and ends up speaking to both the person on the telephone and to the audience. The B-SIDE is a documentary about photographer portraitist Elsa Dorfman. Dorfman who used the large-size Polaroid 20”x24” camera for over 30 years to take thousands of portraits, including those of old friends like poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Jonathan Richman. Other famous people photographed include Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden. Now 80 (late 70s when the film was shot), she opens up her archives and memories.

The film takes its title from the music industry term “b-side.” When using the Polaroid camera, Dorman would take two photos, keeping the rejected one for herself. Sometimes the b-side can surprise.
Most of the screen time is devoted to her talking about her life and work as well as answering questions asked on camera by Morris. The film has a causal easy-going look, but the material is in no way compromised. Morris gets as much material into his documentary this way.

Unlike many documentaries, Morris does not include many talking heads. The only person doing the talking is Elsa Dorman herself.

Elsa is a person who giggles a lot on screen, like a schoolgirl. Though irritating at the beginning, her mannerisms slowly grows on you. Elsa eventually comes across as a pleasant and clever person who deserves to have her say, even of herself rather than having others talk about her.
Elsa is shown to be quite opinionated. She openly displays her disgust at the buyers of the Polaroid Company when it went bankrupt due to technology. She always considers herself as a nice Jewish girl.

Much can be told about her character and about her relationships from her sayings. She mentioned that her husband would pose for her regardless of how busy he is, even though he might only wish her a Happy Birthday at the end of the day. But this shows a lot – that Harvey and Elsa are truly in love as he would go out of the way to pose for her whew asked. She also mentioned a really bad day, the one on the telephone when her father died and mother said goodbye to him.

Music includes a song Broken Blue Bones, written and performed by Allan Ginsberg. Ginsberg, a close friend of Elsa, is featured in many of her photographs. Ginsberg, given more screen time comported to others, definitely had an impact on her, as a friend and fellow artist.

As Elsa Dorfman is not that famous outside her circle – Morris’ film will give her some well deserved exposure, pardon the pun!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSOazX_RiOI

 

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