“I hope I was able to talk about the film in some way,” Errol Morris joked after our hour-long exchange.
Much like his pioneering, interview-heavy investigative documentary style, Morris steered our conversation from the micro to the macro: What started as a discussion of The B-Side, his film on his longtime friend, the prolific portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, ended with Morris posing a flurry of ponderous questions about the nature of Truth and Time… both with a capital T.
Morris’ kinship with Dorfman is the crux of The B-Side—a film whose intimate glimpse into the life and work of the under-appreciated, Polaroid-wielding artist holds a mirror to Morris’ own creative identity, which he’s thus far defined by way of his own cinematic portraits of often eccentric, always fascinating subjects. Yet, in its own quiet and tender way, The B-Side stretches beyond its celebration of Dorfman’s work, (the film takes its name from her preferred method of shooting two pictures of her clients, the rejected one of which would become known as her “B-side”) and into what Morris describes as he and Dorfman’s shared obsession with “stopping time” in their respective mediums.
Speaking with MovieMaker, Morris opined on what makes The B-Side (and the rest of his filmography) “meta,” the true meanings of the terms “truth” and “post-truth,” the unique tools in his moviemaking arsenal, the inescapable overlap between journalism and documentary, and more.
Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): While watching The B-Side, it struck me that there is a parallel that the film establishes between both you and Elsa as people whose work emphasizes the relationship between subject and artist. Did making this film feel more meta for you than other films you’ve made for that reason?
Errol Morris (EM): Maybe this is revealing too much—probably yes—, but all my films seem to be meta to me in one way or another.
MM: Why is that?
EM: Because I think that my films both have themes and reflect on those themes at the same time. So I suppose the simplest answer is yes. I identify with Elsa in so many different ways. I kind of see myself as a “B-side” artist, a little like her. Not in those exact same ways, because how could that be? But there’s a resonance of Elsa’s situation I think is much worse than mine. I don’t feel she’s really gotten her due. Maybe she’s gotten her due now, which would be great. I have done very well and people have been very kind to me. So even making comparisons may be wrong.
MM: If any comparison between you and Elsa is wrong, what would be the folly in making it?
EM: It’s really wrong in one respect: What you said was right, but I don’t want to say that my work has been overlooked or neglected, because I don’t think that’s quite right. But I think it is right to say that Elsa’s work has been overlooked and neglected. And I like doing my level-headed best to repair that. But do I see ourselves as kindred spirits. Do I see her work somehow encompassing the relationship between her subjects and her camera and herself? I see myself in [her in] many ways. So the answer is yes.
MM: You once said that you never meet with subjects before filming, and that “That’s the best way to ruin an interview. It needs to be spontaneous…you can’t go into an interview already knowing where you’re headed.” Yet, The B-Side explores a subject you’ve known personally for decades, and you even went so far recently as to say that the film was “enhanced by knowing Elsa.” So, what changed your thinking here?
EM: Well, Elsa’s so interesting and so spontaneous. I know I’ve said things like that over the years, that I don’t like to meet people before interviewing them—and that is more or less true. What I don’t like most of all is having a list of questions that I’m gonna ask people with expected answers. I like not knowing where I’m heading and that certainly was true with the Elsa film. I knew Elsa very well, but this doesn’t mean I had a list of questions for her. She took it in directions that were unexpected, said things I never heard before. And then we did a lot of crawling through all the material she has accumulated over the years: finding old interviews and films, photographs, a rich collection of material. So I knew her, but maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did. I have to say, I’m constantly surprised by her in the interviews.
MM: What surprised you most?
EM: A long list of photographs I’ve never seen before. Elsa showing a photograph of her mother and father holding a photograph of themselves, a much younger couple, talking about their deaths. She’s a poet among other things and [I was surprised by] her expression, nailing down the now, this dream of photography, of stopping time—which, of course, [photography] does and doesn’t [do]. It stops time in a deeper, more general sense, [so] I would see the whole movie as a surprise to me. And this is someone I know pretty well. So, go figure, maybe the movie was a way of learning more about Elsa. Can I ever see that material of her as a young girl on roller skates? No. Have I heard that tape of Allen Ginsburg essentially telling Elsa to Harvey that he was dying? No. Have I seen that material with Edwin Land? No. A lot of this material is really new to me. You could say, “Well, maybe I didn’t know her that well,” and maybe I didn’t. But I’ve loved Elsa for a long time, so this was an exploration, an investigation, if you like, into the story of Elsa.
MM: The word “investigation” brings to mind the journalism inherent in non-fiction moviemaking. You’ve said that “There’s a journalistic component to documentary, but that it’s properly considered as ‘journalism plus something more than journalism.’”
EM: Probably the best example of that [in my work] is The Thin Blue Line. The Thin Blue Line is an investigation. I’m quite clearly investigating a murder, a cop killing, and a man who is sentenced to death for that cop killing. I don’t know—and I most certainly didn’t know at the beginning of that film—what the truth might be. It involved a search. And it always involves a search, a quest. But what kind of a search is it if you deny that there is a possibility of such a thing? It’s nothing. The obligation of a journalist—and I suppose, to a certain extent, a documentary filmmaker is a journalist—is to try to tell the truth. Or, even beyond to tell the truth, it’s to acknowledge that part of their job is to discover the underlying reality of things.
MM: So, what, then, is the “beyond”—the “something more than journalism” that fuels your investigation in The B-Side?
EM: There is a scene in the film, which may be my favorite scene, where [Elsa]’s holding up a photograph of her parents, and she’s talking about the deaths of both her mother and her father. We see Elsa looking at her own photographs, and it’s almost as if we’re sharing those memories—that moment in which the photograph was taken. Maybe that in itself is imaginary, but nonetheless, it’s powerful. It’s not about photographs telling the truth or not telling the truth. I’ve never felt that photography is about truth-telling. I’m publishing a book that comes out at the end of the year on truth. The truth isn’t something that involves visual images. It’s something that involves language. I don’t really understand what it means to say a picture is “true” or “false.” But I do know what it means to say that a picture evokes the past, and almost makes the past present. That I do understand.
MM: Since you mention truth… I do not want to talk about Donald Trump, but I am interested in your thoughts on what many are now discussing: the idea of “post-truth.” My sense is that post-truth isn’t anything new; it’s not like lying to prop up a narrative was invented by the Trump administration. But what are your thoughts on post-truth, and what, if any, are the responsibilities of a documentary moviemaker working amidst this so-called post-truth era?
EM: I think it’s the responsibility of all of us—not just filmmakers, documentary filmmakers or otherwise. Truth is truth. There’s nothing that Trump and his cohorts have done that has changed that in any way. People can deny the truth. They can try to circumvent the truth to an end, run around truth. But the truth is the truth. And in the end, what is great about human beings—that is, if anything is great about them—is that we invented this idea of truth. We understand that there’s a difference between our beliefs and what’s really out there in the world. The whole process of human progress is sorting out fact from fiction, truth from falsity. What’s most frightening about this era is that we have people in power that are ridiculously mediocre. I mean, it’s almost unfathomable. Maybe it is unfathomable. But they have done nothing to negate the idea of truth. All they’ve done is make themselves look like fools.
MM: So, would you say that moviemakers ought to shed light on that fact—that the truth, as you say, cannot be negated by anyone?
EM: I have always felt keenly that the job [of filmmaking] is an investigation, even before I became a filmmaker. What kind of a world do we live in? What are our responsibilities as citizens? What is really going on in the world? Even the attack on science, which really does depends what the idea of truth is… Where are we without truth? Nowadays, journalists, instead of investigating things, spend most of their time defending things that they’ve said. Not that they shouldn’t, or that they shouldn’t have to defend things that they say. But the whole focus has now shifted.