Errol Morris has interviewed politicians, wrongfully convicted prisoners, tabloid beauty queens, Mr. Met and a man who researches mole rats. But for his latest documentary, Morris got his first chance to make a more personal story and interview a close friend.
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” which opens Friday, profiles Elsa Dorfman, who’s best known for taking giant, life-size Polaroid portraits with a camera the size of a refrigerator. Morris first met Dorfman when, over 25 years ago, Dorfman photographed Morris’s then 4-year-old son. Since then, they’ve become “kindred spirits,” as Morris puts it, with Dorfman even photographing Robert S. McNamara for the poster of Morris’s Oscar winning documentary “The Fog of War.”
In speaking with TheWrap, Morris opened up about the film, about Donald Trump, and how Dorfman’s philosophies on art and truth in photography mirror his own.
Have you ever made another documentary about an artist before?
She’s more of a kindred spirit to what I do. At least I like to think so. But is it so different? There are things that are different about the film. Elsa is a close friend. It’s not interviewing someone I do not know well. Quite the contrary. Interviewing someone who does something not all too dissimilar from what I do, that’s also true. But it’s still making a movie. And the themes that emerge, I’m not sure I put them there. I maybe elicit some of them, but the process of making a movie is trying to bring out themes that are already there that interest you. God knows there are a lot of themes in Elsa’s life and her work that deeply interest me.
Some of the things she says in the movie are very close to your own philosophies. Were you surprised to hear these ideas you’ve spoken about yourself?
When Elsa says that photographic images don’t tell the truth, that’s something I am deeply sympathetic with. Did I tell her to say it? No! It just happened.
It’s allowing people to present themselves to the camera that really interests me. In “Gates of Heaven” when I was manipulating so many different things, it’s still allowing people to stand in front of the camera and express themselves in a way that’s unconstrained. I’m not giving them dialogue to speak. They’re telling me in their own words about themselves. They’re dressed not in some costume but in the clothes that they wear. They’re presenting themselves. This is who I am, this is what I think.
There’s a strong element of self-presentation in Elsa’s work. People coming into her studios, it’s work for hire. People are paying Elsa to take a photograph, and she’s recording it. Is that exactly like what I do? Maybe not, but if you were doing the Venn diagram, is there an overlap, there clearly is.
Whenever Elsa displays her photos, she requests that the Polaroid frames not be cropped out. What do you make of that?
In part it’s as simple as the fact that she likes them. She feels that it’s part of the picture. It’s not trying to disguise the process of which the photograph was made but to include it. It’s a kind of forthright and direct approach to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s an acknowledgement that a Polaroid is really different from other photographs. The love of seeing the rollers, the evidence of that chemical process that’s involved. And it becomes part of the signature of the photograph as well, including her writing at the bottom of it, all of which I love.
Having your picture taken by her, you come to realize it’s more than someone taking your picture and you leave. It’s far more interesting and complex that’s being brought into Elsa’s world, talking to Elsa, being there while the photograph is developing in front of your own eyes. It’s about sharing something as much as anything.
I can tell you speak of her very warmly. It shows in the movie, and what I liked about it is that it’s a lighter story.
Well I love Elsa. And I wouldn’t say it’s a lighter story. That would I would respectfully disagree with, and I’ve read it repeatedly. It’s about mortality, death, impermanence, loss, memory, the implacable nature of time. Yeah, I don’t see it as light entertainment. I always think they’re spelling it as “Lite.”
What was the decision to not film using the Interrotron?
It has to do with my Netflix series as well, but to do something different. Been there, done that. Wouldn’t it be interesting to do something without the Interrotron? Part of it is not just the privacy of my relationship with Elsa. But it’s also about Elsa in her environment, in her garage with the flat files, Elsa in her house, Elsa in color services with the Ginsberg photographs. It calls for a different way of lensing all of it, a different way of putting it together.
Just the other day you tweeted a word about the President I had to look up: “tergiversation.” What does that mean about Trump?
He’s lying. It’s endlessly fascinating. Here you have a guy who lies so much, so unremittingly. Does he even know that he’s lying? I don’t think he does. I think he’s simply out of touch with himself and the world around him, which is really scary in the President of the United States. You can say whatever you want to say about Trump, about his policies, if that’s what you want to even call them. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to be much of a policy beyond trying to destroy everything that Barack Obama has done. But it’s the fact that he doesn’t make any kind of sense, he doesn’t seem to be all together there. That’s genuinely frightening.
I always felt that George W. Bush, maybe I didn’t like his policies, but he understood on some level the difference between irrationality and a rationality. Maybe he didn’t have a really good grasp of it, but he had some grasp. Donald Trump has no grasp of it. Really none.
Is there anyone within his cabinet that you find interesting in the same way you did with Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld?
Hmmm, these people don’t really interest me. Am I appalled or horrified or frightened? Yes. Interested? I don’t really think so. I’d like them to go away, quickly. Vanish. Poof. Bye bye. It’s interesting to think of how horrible each and every one of them might be. Some of them surprise me as not being as horrible as I thought. Others seem to be just as horrible as I might’ve imagined my worst fears about them. But the country is being run by loonies.
What can you tell me about your Netflix series “Wormwood?”
It’s not a documentary series, it’s got a lot of drama in it. It’s a strange thing, I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. They tell me they don’t want me talking about it. I don’t know how much trouble I want to get in with Netflix.