The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Errol Morris’s documentary about one of his dear friends, the Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, is one of his sweeter films.

The B-Side PosterIt feels surprising, but Errol Morris has never made a feature film about an artist before. Elsa Dorfman may not even consider herself an “artist,” so it’s possible he still hasn’t. But in “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Morris is bonding and relating to Dorfman in a way he usually doesn’t with his subjects. It’s made for one of his sweeter, if more fleeting, films.

Morris’s interviews in his documentaries are always square to the camera, with the speaker looking you dead in the eye. His confrontational position always leaves some ambiguity as to whether Morris admires these people or wants to gawk at them. Not so in “The B-Side,” where Dorfman is often shot askew as she hunches over a work table and looks fondly at boxes and drawers full of her old photographs. Occasionally Morris’s camera gets inches from Dorfman’s face, but he looks fondly on her frumpy black hair, thick glasses and congenial face of a kind Jewish mother.

Dorfman came to mild success in the ‘60s with photos of Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries of the Beat scene and New York literature circles. But her lifelong passion was “large scale portrait photography.” Dorfman got her hands on a massive Polaroid camera, one of just a few ever made. The camera is a bulky contraption the size of a refrigerator, and it’s capable of taking life-size portraits just like the instant Polaroid’s your mom snapped before your prom. Continue reading “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography”

The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld comes across as a real character in Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known.”

Errol Morris must have been ecstatic at the opportunity to interview Donald Rumsfeld for his latest film “The Unknown Known.”

The man, despite his politics and his unique perspective on his actions and the history he helped lead this country through, is a one-of-a-kind showman, infectious in front of interviewers and cameras. He discusses national policy of the gravest of circumstances with paradoxical double speak, and he seems to end each turn of phrase with a disarmingly knowing smirk.

And yet Morris must also have been surprised to talk with Rumsfeld simply because in some ways, he’s been at the root of Morris’s work for the last decade. After “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” Rumsfeld can finally give Morris not the answers he’s looking for but the perspective straight from the horse’s mouth.

In some ways, “The Unknown Known” is Morris repeating the style and the work he did in “The Fog of War,” jumping down the same rabbit hole with a different Secretary of Defense. And yet in another, this is Morris doing what he does best, composing an incisive and tense documentary capable of near damning revelations and understandings of perspectives. Continue reading “The Unknown Known”

Rapid Response: Gates of Heaven

Errol Morris’s debute documentary “Gates of Heaven” remains a beguiling and fascinating movie.

I may have just watched one of the most controversial, intensely debated and best movies ever made without even knowing it. That is the enigma of Errol Morris, who’s legendary mystique started with this film in 1978, “Gates of Heaven.”

The film is a documentary about a man who starts a pet cemetery, fails, has over 450 pets displaced to yet another cemetery, and then about the people who work there and take their job very seriously.

It is a damned peculiar documentary. It is not a documentary that advocates political or social change or provides a thorough historical document of people’s lives. It tells a story of these people who live in California and does not offer any commentary or internal narration as to what it thinks about them.

The same is true of Morris’s great new film “Tabloid,” in which we can’t quite believe it all to be true, yet Morris never tells what to believe nor give us any reason to doubt any of it. But watching “Tabloid,” there’s no question that watching much of it is intended to be outrageous and shockingly hilarious, even if he does wholeheartedly sympathize with the woman who raped a Mormon (don’t ask).

“Gates of Heaven” is much more subtle. The film’s ironic, sardonic twists are not necessarily intended for comic relief. But Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of the film, one in which he refers to the time he called “Gates of Heaven” one of the 10 best movies ever made, gives me the sense that I am not alone in this feeling. “The film they made has become an underground legend, a litmus test for audiences, who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking,” he writes. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Gates of Heaven”


“Tabloid” is a documentary about Joyce McKinney and The Manacled Mormon. You do not often hear stories about manacled Mormons. I can say with certainty I have never written the words “manacled Mormon” together. Errol Morris has made a film so absurd, so laughably unbelievable and so utterly mind-blowing it becomes better than most fiction. It’s a riot.

The thrill of “Tabloid” comes from being obsessed with its story and its characters. McKinney, a beauty queen from Wyoming in the ‘70s, became “obsessed” with Kirk Anderson. She says she fell in love and thought he was intensely attractive. Other people who knew him describe Anderson as a 6’4’’, 300 lb. missionary with a bad Mormon haircut.

From these “quaint” beginnings, we hear the story from McKinney and a handful of associates, friends and British tabloid editors who reported the Manacled Mormon story as it took place.

Let it be said that McKinney’s view doesn’t exactly match up with what everyone else is saying. Continue reading “Tabloid”