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The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography


Featuring Elsa Dorfman.

Directed by Errol Morris.

Distributed by Neon. 76 minutes. Rated R.

Errol Morris is arguably the best documentarian of the last 30-40 years. He’s certainly one of the most diverse. In recent years, he is best known for doing long, detailed interview films with men who are extremely controversial, to the point that they have been called war criminals by some of their opponents – Robert McNamara in The Fog of War and Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known. Morris pretty much invented the true-crime documentary with the stunning 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, a movie that is greatly responsible for freeing an innocent man on death row. He was even brave enough to take on the film version of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

However, Morris has always had a lighter side, too, which turned the camera on normal, eccentric people. His brilliant debut Gates of Heaven was about people who used the services of a pet cemetery. Fast Cheap and Out of Control looks at a group of aging men with extremely offbeat career paths. Vernon, Florida is an unconventional look at the citizens of a small town in the Sunshine State.

The sweet, charming, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is another one of his more whimsical films. There is nothing particularly substantive or deep about The B-Side, though it does have a melancholy undercurrent about the death of film in a digital world. However, the movie is more like sitting down and listening as a nice little old grandma chats about her life for a while, granted one who had a very cool one with some extremely cutting-edge friends.

Still, it is just that lack of pretense which makes The B-Side so appealing. Dorfman is an amiable storyteller, and she has interesting little anecdotes about just about everyone who was anyone in the Greenwich Village beat scene: from Bob Dylan, to Anais Nin, to Joni Mitchell, to Jorge Luis Borges, to Allen Ginsberg – the last of whom was a good friend for most of her life.

Elsa Dorfman is a portrait photographer, one who changed a hobby into a life-long, mostly acclaimed career. In recent decades, Dorfman’s palette has been a specialized Polaroid camera – one of only five in the world – which takes poster-sized prints. The film came to be when Dorfman – a longtime friend of director Morris – was forced to retire when Polaroid film was discontinued, due to anemic sales in a world of digital cameras.

Morris just turns his lens on Dorfman, in her little New England studio, and lets her talk. Talks about her life, talks about art, talks about her successes, talks about her difficulties, talks about the difficulty of making money, talks about the steady march of time. All the while, we see dozens of Dorfman’s portraits, a life’s work of fascinating images of both the famous and the common people.

Dorfman is an upbeat, engaging conversationalist, so the short (76 minutes) film flies by. It is a sweet tribute to an individual and refreshingly humble artist whose art may be getting left behind.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: July 21, 2017.

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