Errol Morris’ Documentary about Documentation: The B Side
I’ve been a fan of Errol Morris ever since his 2003 Academy Award Winning feature, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which is, essentially, as the title suggests, a feature−long interview with McNamara. Having had a background in journalism, Morris is perhaps one of the greatest interviewers in cinema history. Famously, the reaction to the movie, which is about a contentious and nation−dividing event in American history, the Vietnam War, left individuals on both sides of the divide disappointed. Some people thought that Morris was too easy on McNamara, who has been widely seen as the primary hawk as U.S. Secretary of defense during the Vietnam period, and therefore primarily responsible for the war itself. Others thought that Morris was too hard on him, juxtaposing shocking images of the war with McNamara’s calm confidence, which could be perceived as a kind of smugness, in the interview. But what emerges in the film is a complex portrait of the man, rife with new insights and revelations about a period in history about which so many of us had preconceived notions as to how these events unfolded. However, in learning about McNamara’s history, and listening to recorded conversations he had in the White House with three different presidents, we are treated to a complex confluence of events that lead to the tragedy, in which this man was caught up and involved. Whatever snap judgments we had been tempted to form prior to the viewing of the film are tempered in favor of a thicker view of things. Morris achieves this effect by adopting the posture of the listener, and allowing his subjects to confess, and reveal perhaps more about themselves, their true character and their humanity than either they or the audience may have anticipated prior to the process.
Morris’ latest film, The B side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, provides us with a softer, more playful subject, but at the end of the day, is no less profound in nature. As with so many of his other films, Morris allows us to get to know Elsa slowly, as the film is organized around a long series of interviews in Elsa’s photography studio. During the conversations with Morris, Elsa tells us about her early interest in photography, and self−portraiture, using a variety of medium to large format cameras, and her venture into the portraiture of those close to her, such as her husband and children, and professional friendships, like that of the famous poet Alan Ginsburg. During this time (the 1960’s and 70’s), the Polaroid camera company came out with a large format, 20×24 inch instant camera, in which Elsa promptly fell in love. The camera functioned like a bellowed view camera, inverting the image onto a large ground glass upon which the picture could be composed, and then on shutter release, exposing a full size positive print of the image that would instantly develop after exposure, just like the old polaroid prints we all knew and loved back in the day. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the instant photography process is that, in making a positive print, there is no mechanism for duplication. One exposure produces one print, and that’s all there ever will be. The joy of the instant mingles with the uniqueness of the moment, and we are reminded ever more of our temporality. Elsa herself, under Morris’ editing, slowly teases out this theme throughout the film.
She does this primarily through reminiscing, while showing various photos to the camera, and commenting about the passage of time. At one point she ponders the idea that we can get attached to how things are in a given moment, such as, how she and her husband and all her friends were, in the photos she shows to us, “so young,” and yet how so many of the people in the photos are no longer with us: she herself has aged, and even the photos themselves lack the vibrant color they once had. Later, in looking at a full size portrait of Alan Ginsburg, Morris asks if the photos have the effect of bringing him back to life in some sense, and Elsa replies that perhaps these photographs acquire their greatest emotional and sentimental value after the subject has passed on. She may not have known at the time what a given portrait meant, but posthumously, the subjects acquire a fuller and more impactful impression as the context surrounding the work includes the fact that there is no real life, flesh and blood correspondent to the paper image. As such, they so often invoke a profound sense of intense awareness of the passage of time. We cannot help but be aware of the fact that Ginsburg, so real and life-size in the photo, grew old and left this world, and time marches on in a relentless fashion, in spite of all our hopes and desires to take hold of the beautiful moments in life, to contain them or possess them. In addition to all this, Elsa tells us, her photographic archive itself may never find a permanent home once she retires. She has yet to find a home for all these images outside of her studio, which she will have to give up once she stops working. The reason she has to stop? Polaroid has long since gone out of business, and no one makes the film for these large format cameras anymore. This is yet another example of how time, the great equalizer, consumes all things. Errol Morris, the filmmaker, is himself a documentarian, and in documenting Elsa, the film seems to occupy a tension, between the desire to stop or freeze the moment, and the awareness of the temporality of all things in this world.
But that desire to document, to save an image, a piece of writing, a story or a memento seems to be so human, so much a part of how we make sense of our lives, that this act of documentation is anything but futile. Indeed, it builds upon our understanding of the world, putting the moment−to−moment experiences of daily life, consisting of immediate reactions to experiences, states of pleasure or pain, into a narrative, with an arc or a progression that allows us to appreciate the beauty in all those past moments. Elsa’s portraits are so often happy people (at one point she shows a series of pictures taken on successive birthdays, documenting the annual gift from her husband: a bouquet of large, black balloons), and she has a knack for capturing the unique and endearing quirks of hers subjects. Thus we can perhaps take a view of time that is more forgiving, more gracious to that which we cannot control. Every moment and every breath, after all, is a gift, which we are so often wont to forget, and take for granted with a self−sabotaging sense of entitlement. By the end of the film, even after a reflection on the temporality of our experience, the relentless march of the law of entropy, and dimming of the light of life that once shone so bright, I found myself grateful for all the moments in my own life for which Elsa’s photographs reminded me. Perhaps the key to happiness according to Elsa is to learn how to accept the gifts, while letting go of what we cannot stop, and believing that the light she seeks to capture, while fading at times, always comes back in new ways, ways that we least expect.