directed by Errol Morris
by Walter Chaw Towards the end of Errol Morris's fitfully-fascinating portrait of legendary large-format Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, Dorfman, looking at one of the dozens of snapshots she's taken of the late Alan Ginsberg, says that maybe the true life of a photo isn't revealed until the subject has died. It's the emotional fulcrum of this brief piece, as the now-79-year-old Dorfman looks back on a lifetime of pictures taken while she went from being a single "New York Jew" without direction to a hob-nobber among the Greenwich Village crowd. Ensconced at Morris's bequest in her studio's backroom, she's dwarfed by a cluttered drafting table on the one side and rows and stacks of archived portraits on the other. As she opens each cabinet, Morris captures the delight and surprise of her rediscovering the "discards" of her customers (they pick one to keep; the other she dubs "the B-side" and ferrets away), reading the detailed captions she's left on them.
More at home with Morris's short-lived but rewarding documentary series "First Person", The B-Side feels long even at its slender 76-minute runtime as it struggles to pinpoint exactly what it is that's absorbing about an absorbing topic. The choices are Dorfman's championing of a quirky and dead technology (the large Polaroid 20x24 Instamatic camera, which is the size of a hefty appliance and requires a very specific type of film that Polaroid discontinued when it went bankrupt); Dorfman's close friendship with Ginsberg during the most creative time of his life through to his death; and Dorfman's philosophy of art: to capture only the surfaces, soul be damned, thus creating a kind of outsider portraiture as distinct as Ginsberg's poetry or R. Crumb's art. Morris tantalizingly brushes on each as a possible subject, landing on none. The film is guilty not of making bad decisions, but of not making any decisions. When Morris used to make movies like this, the result was Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven--masterpieces, both, of existential reverie. This one is more like a rambling conversation between fascinating people that never really gains any traction. It's diverting, that's all.
That said, there's delight in seeing the photographs and interest, however fleet, in their disintegration when a few portraits are removed from her home to be tested and perhaps preserved differently, then forgotten entirely. It's haunting to see pictures of a hale Ginsberg while answering-machine messages play on the soundtrack, first from Ginsberg telling Dorfman that his cancer is back and spreading, then from someone else informing her that Ginsberg has entered into a final coma so she should spare a thought for her dying friend. There are unbelievable moments, in other words, but just like Werner Herzog's last few documentaries, especially his Death Row series, Morris appears to be comfortable now with not finding the throughline in his pictures, content to let loose to such an extent that full threads get away. There's a thin line between vérité and not knowing where to put the camera. Morris is still on the right side of it, but he's slipping.