Errol Morris, perhaps the US’ greatest living documentarian, is at his best when he’s challenging – challenging his subjects, challenging his audience, challenging himself, challenging artistic form and convention, challenging people’s comfortable prejudices and assumptions, sometimes even challenging the basis of truth and knowledge itself. In his latest film, The B-Side, he paints an intimate and affectionate portrait of a portraiture, a pioneer, and a friend. It’s sweet and it’s touching, but it’s not exactly challenging; and, syllogistically, you wouldn’t expect The B-Side to be Errol Morris at it’s best. And…it’s not.
It’s not a bad film. The film is almost entirely set around a series of interview with his subject, photographer Elsa Dorfman, in her studio, which is distinct for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because of the kind of photography she specialized in for most of her career – Polaroid photographs, and specifically 20 x 24 Polaroid portraits, taken by a camera as large as a linebacker using film that no longer exists. Morris weaves in her photographs as he explores Dorfman’s past, her associations with notable Americans, her loving portraits of everyday folk, and her philosophy on photography, portraiture, and life. It’s all very nice. Not exactly compelling, but nice.
Morris seems torn throughout the picture as to what exactly he’s trying to capture. It shows in his portrayal of Dorfman as a sheer person; her full color never blossoms, astonishing given that she’s the central subject of a filmmaker whose key strength is bringing out the humanity in larger-than-life personalities and finding the larger-than-life personalities inside everyday eccentricity. This sometimes dances close to the line of mockery, requiring a finesse, grace, and precision to keep the portrayal honest, fair, and humane. The ability to do that consistently in a variety of contexts is one of those things that makes Morris so great; and the rare times he doesn’t quite succeed, like in 2010’s Tabloid, the results can be awkward. Like, litigation awkward.
But it’s easy to imagine that just friendship and affection could set the contours for Morris here, as well as perhaps stagecraft. Famously averse to having anyone but his subjects narrate his films, throughout there are edits that make clear that Morris is splicing and reassembling Dorfman’s patter into the words he needs to power the film’s forward momentum. This is a shame since the kind of elliptical, tangent-seeking rambling that is particularly the penchant of elderly Northeastern Jews can be as endearing as it is frustrating, oscillating between surprisingly informative and completely useless, at once spellbinding and baffling. That’s the Dorfman we don’t really see.
We do see Dorfman the photographer and Dorfman the pioneer both as craftsman and craftswoman. And we see a tantalizing selection of her life’s work, compelling and engaging images. For people who love photography, nostalgia, and/or Allen Ginsberg, there’s a lot here to sink your teeth into. For the rest of us, The B-Side is only moderately illuminating, a film that’s too invested in its subject to see objectively what’s really interesting about it.