Thursday, June 29, 2017

“The B-Side”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “The B-Side”.


Retired portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman reflects on her long career


For decades, Elsa Dorfman made a career as a photographer specializing in portraits.  Before her retirement, Dorfman was considered a pioneer because she was one of the few female professional photographers.  What further set her apart from others was the fact that she was using a relatively new camera at the time:  The Polaroid Land Camera, which was considered revolutionary at the time because it generated instant photographs without having to be processed through the traditional development process.  While the cameras were sold in the retail market and turned out to be a big hit with consumers, the company also manufactured specialty cameras as well.

One such specialty camera was a model which was capable of producing 20” x 24” photographs.  Dorfman was able to get one of these cameras despite the fact that they were in limited supply; using this for her portrait photography caused her career to take off.  Since there were few people at the time who could market portrait photographs to the general public of this size, she was considered one-of-a-kind.  As this set her apart from most other photographers, she was in high demand for her portraits -- by both the public and celebrities alike.   

Years later, Polaroid started making cameras that could produce even larger photographs; these were 80” x 40” in size and came out of an enormous printer.  These cameras were intended for use by professionals who were seeking “life-size” pictures as well as photos that could be mounted on a wall in a gallery.  Dorfman used this device to take shots of celebrities, especially her close friend, the controversial poet Allen Ginsberg.  But eventually, technological advances became such that film was no longer used in cameras and Polaroid found itself out of business.  It was not long thereafter that Dorfman decided it was time for her to retire.     


There is no doubt that “The B-Side” contains a certain sweetness to both the documentary and its subject.  However, that alone does not necessarily make a good documentary.  One of the most common problems in documentaries is what’s known as The Talking Heads Syndrome; this is where the documentary consists solely (or primarily) of interviews with people about the subject of the documentary.  In the case of “The B-Side”, it’s much worse than that – there is only one talking head, that of Dorfman herself.  The fact that this filmmaker, a veteran documentarian, fell into what would be considered “rookie mistakes” is a bit startling. 

Another problem is with the subject herself.  Unless you are a photography buff, you may not be familiar with Dorfman’s work.  What we are given to understand from this documentary is that her photographs are not remarkable so much because of her subjects themselves but more because of the technology she used, which was cutting edge at the time.  This is interesting only up to a certain point (getting former Polaroid employees to expound on the cameras themselves might have been useful to include in the documentary).  Dorfman herself admits that while she did photograph famous people (Bob Dylan and Ginsberg), she was never looking to capture the inner person, just their external shell. 

Curiously, when Dorfman shows off her photography, she often holds up the pictures in a way that completely obscures her face while she talks about the photo; it is almost as if to say, “My work is more important than I am”.  While making the subject appear humble and serve to further ingratiate her to the viewing audience, it isn’t necessarily good filmmaking; this could have been shot in a more elegant (professional) manner.  Why the director made this choice is unclear.  What is perhaps a saving grace of “The B-Side” is its length; its running time is barely over an hour. 

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016) on IMDb

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