Interview: Errol Morris on The B-Side, Elsa Dorfman, and Weirdness

Under the glass counter?

No, it’s just a table with framed photographs. And photographs do have a strange way of bringing the dead to life. Cause there they are. And it’s always a product of that physical photograph and of memory. Your memory of these people. It’s a strange phenomenon.

Does it ever happen to you that your intuition doesn’t necessarily work out?

And the project does not come together? Rarely.

Lucky you.

Yeah. Usually they do come together, eventually. I mean, there’ve been troubles along the way. But something emerges in the end. Even in the case of making a film about Donald Rumsfeld, who’s certainly what I would’ve call a problematic character.

Seems so!

I like almost all the people I’ve ever put on film. Rumsfeld may be an exception. He was so difficult. He’s the kind of person you’re supposed to be able to relate to, because he’s avuncular, charming, blah, blah, blah, blah. But there’s something about him, for me, that seems so horribly fake and manipulative. A person you couldn’t really ever touch, who you could never see. And in the end it’s hard to relate to someone like that. He’s so complex. Or maybe not? He’s so concerned with his image that there’s really nothing left but image. So it’s like you’re looking at some kind of façade. You know, a hollow man. A bullshit artist.

Were you happy with how you told that story?

It may be not the movie that I originally planned to make or the people would’ve liked for me to make. But it is a movie I rather like. You’re trying to capture something, particularly a movie about a real person. And part of the success is whether you’ve done a good job doing it. I think The B-Side does a good job of capturing what I love about Elsa.

Elsa’s style changes only slightly. Her trademark dresses are sort of another version of the same dress. But despite being little conservative in that department, she does have little eccentricities, like the objects she keeps near her. Do you also have things like that?

Yeah, I probably do. I have my own definition of art. It’s that you set up a series of arbitrary rules and then follow them slavishly. Elsa has a lot of that. People pay to come into her studio. She lights people more or less the same. They’re dressed informally. My favorite of her photographs usually involve very large ensembles of people with dogs or cats. She’s a really great animal photographer, among other things. And even with this simple premise, this constraint that she puts on it, a remarkable body of work has emerged. And maybe even more remarkable because of the constraints. It’s framed in a very specific kind of way. Call it style, I don’t know.

Because of her attachment to Polaroids, Elsa’s sort of been like a witness of a gone era. Is this an experience that you can in any way relate to with the transition from film to digital?

Film is different. And I’m not so wedded to one specific technology. Film obviously, well maybe not so obviously, has gone through a whole set of enormous changes in the last 30 years. Editing started off with double system, flatbeds, and, now…I don’t believe any of the people working for me in editing have ever handled film, it’s all about digital. Shooting is no longer on film and people have moved on. I mean, there have been losses, formats that I loved, like Super 8. It’s very hard to get Super 8 processed these days.

I wonder whether the experience of losing the tangibility, physicality of the medium, changed anything in the approach?

I’m sure it does, but I’m not sure what it is exactly. It’s certainly a lot easier to edit film than it was 20, 30 years ago. It’s a lot easier to work with multiple cameras. My Netflix series, Wormwood, was sometimes shot with 10 cameras on an interview. The B-Side was done with four. So, putting all of that together in the old days would’ve been a big deal. Now it’s pretty straightforward.

You’ve let go of your trademark Interrotron in The B-Side.

Yeah, and in these Netflix series I didn’t use it either. I’m still using it but not slavishly. It seems to me appropriate in some instances and not appropriate in others. Now, I like to think that I’m capable of doing other things. I don’t think the essence of my art is on that device. And I like making it clear.

It does give you a sense of presence of sorts, I’d assume? Is this what makes the experience different?

It’s different because it creates a connection between two people and the possibility of eye contact. There’s something very strange about it, but it works. I mean, I never thought, when I first had the idea, this could possibly work. People aren’t going to want to do this. Cause you’re basically looking at each other’s live video images, looking at screens. Except they’re two-way mirrors. So that you’re both looking at each other’s live image, but essentially the effect is of people looking at each other, as if I’m looking at you right now. It’s strange. There’s nothing quite like it.

Is this something people find difficult?

No. I thought they would.

Many people don’t look at each other when they talk.

I think it makes it easier. I know it does. I’ve used it, you know, literally hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of times.

Do you ever feel sort of disappointed, when the project is over and you have to part ways with your characters?

Yeah, sometimes. But I’ve been connected with a lot of people over the years that I filmed. I still see Stephen Hawking from time to time. McNamara is dead, but I saw him three years after the film was finished. And I hope Elsa’s gonna be with us for a while. She’s not disappearing.

Some of her observations are unlikely gems.

She has a way of actually coming up with metaphors. Her metaphysical metaphors are good as anything I’ve ever read or anything I’ve heard. You know, we have the cones and we have the ice cream, so why not put the ice cream on the cones? It’s fantastic.

When describing Polaroid’s history she basically explained the nature of disappearance.

You know, she’s great. She’s profound. Ridiculous and profound at the same time. I think that’s the best combination there is. For me, the highest.


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