Errol Morris is Goliath, but he sees himself as David. This was true when he started his career in 1978 with the documentary Gates of Heaven, and it remains true today. To be fair, he warns me early in our interview that I’m talking to a consummate “complainer and whiner.” Kvetching is his default position, an art form in and of itself.
Elsa Dorfman, the subject of Morris’ latest—The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, opening today—is his antithesis. Jubilant and optimistic, the octogenarian photographer seems to glide through existence.
For more than half a century, Dorfman has refined her craft as a portraitist. Her images—typically made using an colossal Polaroid camera—are large in nature and fixated on their subjects to the exclusion of everything else. As captured in Morris’ doc, she was an instrumental player in introducing America to both the Beat generation and the Boston rock scene, snapping pictures of everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Steven Tyler. The B-Side is Morris’ love letter to the artist—a woman who’s enraptured by her art but not a prisoner to it.
At 69, Morris finds himself in a different position. When we sat down earlier this week, the New York-born, Cambridge-based filmmaker opened up about his fear of being a dumbass, his desire to work till death and why there are no good movies—only good scenes—in the history of cinema.
Elsa’s ethos on photography is that she’s “interested in surfaces, not souls.” Do you approach filmmaking similarly?
I think you hope to capture something about a person, and you don’t know really what it is. There’s a line I’ve always liked—funny, I haven’t used it in the context of this film at all—that’s from Virginia Woolf’s poetic novel, The Waves. She talks about “netting a fin in a waste of water”; that’s the recurrent phrase. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s more than surfaces, because you’re recording so much diverse material. In still photography it’s easy to think about the surface of things and somehow an underlying reality beneath that surface. I like Elsa’s honesty, her lack of pretension. When she says, “What you see is what you’re gonna get,” she means it. I don’t think that she’s interested in over-intellectualizing what she does. She’s unusual in that respect. I care very deeply about whether people see me as being smart or stupid. I’m not sure Elsa cares, certainly in the same way that I do, and maybe she doesn’t even care at all.
Why do you care?
I would prefer, and this is a specific request, not to be seen as a dumbass.
But you know you’re not a dumbass, so why in the hell would you need other people to tell you that?
Does one ever really know whether one is a dumbass or not? Okay, there are people out there to which I can easily say to myself, “Ah, those people are a lot dumber than I am.”
How about this: You and I have both interviewed Noam Chomsky. When you met Chomsky, did you ever get the impression that he questions whether he’s a dumbass or not?
[Laughs] No. I think there are certain people blessed, maybe because they’re so damn smart and they’ve been acknowledged as being smart for so long, and they’ve never really worried about their abilities to understand stuff. And I don’t think it has to do with how smart you really are. I don’t think Donald Trump worries about how smart he is, although he should. Chomsky is really an interesting case. He’s been very, very kind to me. He’s kind to a lot of people. Take someone like [logician and philosopher] Saul Kripke. He worries about how his work is going to be perceived, how people will interpret it. Maybe that’s a form of intellectual paranoia to worry about how you’ll be seen, how you’ll be interpreted. It’s an interesting question.
My point on this dumbass-ery talk is that you’ve made a lot of movies in your career, so it’s a question self-assurance. Do you feel more confident in your work in 2017?
I don’t think so, although I feel more anxious about working and I feel pretty much interested in writing. For years I felt I couldn’t write, and if you feel you can’t write, you can’t write. I also think that that was involved in a lot of paranoia. And then I started writing. I wanted to write a self-help book: From Writer’s Block to Graphomania in Two Easy Weeks.
It’s about being in a world that you feel is coming to an end but still being enveloped in the poetry of whatever you do.
The New York Times asked you to write about photography first.
I had originally written a series called “The Ashtray” for the New York Times, which was probably a five-part series. Then the University of Chicago came to me and asked me if I wanted to expand it as a book, and I said yes. It was about 15- or 16,000 words in the Times and I turned it into an 80,000-word book, which I rather like, although I worry about it. I’ve always admired people who can actually go through life without questioning their abilities. It must be a wonderful thing.
Why are you worried?
I worry about my realism and whether it really makes sense. I feel it’s an appropriate book for our time, particularly for the Trump administration, where people really question the whole idea of truths and perhaps even rationality itself. It’s a frightening age, because I’ve never experienced this, or maybe I’m just not observant enough. I’ve never seen this level of irrationalism on a national level and it scares me. I would have to say it deeply scares me.
I think there have always been small factions built on irrationalism; now it’s become dominant.
But when it’s emanating from really the seat of government…I have a series that’s coming out at the end of the year on Netflix, and it does involve these questions as well. When people tell me this film is unlike other films I’ve made I respectfully disagree, because I think there’s so many themes that I’ve worked on all my life.
It’s like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, about being in a world that you feel is coming to an end, and feeling that there’s no idea what’s going to happen next but still being enveloped in the poetry of whatever you do. There’s a Yeats poem that I very much like, “Lapis Lazuli,” written very near the end of Yeats’ life, where he talks about the impermanence of everything. “All things fall and are built again.” Fast, Cheap was made around the time that my mother and stepfather died, and Elsa has always been on my mind but most recently I worry about her health. I also worry about her feelings of sadness around the loss of this technology which has been the cornerstone of her life. I don’t like to see people retire; it frightens me. If I had a choice, I would like to see Elsa go on forever, even though I know that’s not going to happen. Someone I love and someone who is so unpretentiously smart, I could never have achieved that, not in my wildest dreams.
Because you’re pretentious?
Eh, I’ll let you decide.
You know you better than I know you.
I’m quite interested: Do we know more about ourselves than other people know about us? I don’t think it’s true. I learned stuff from making movies, I learned stuff from making this movie with Elsa, I learned stuff about photography, I learned stuff about Elsa. I got to see stuff that she didn’t even know was in her archives. The home movies of Elsa roller skating as a little girl. All of that stuff. And it’s a dream. Photography is a dream, and Elsa says it better than anybody. It’s the dream of nailing down the now, of somehow doing an end run around time. You sort of say to time, “You can’t completely fuck me over, because I will try to preserve something against the ravages of time.” And of course, this may be the ultimate self-deception. I’m sure it is. Nailing down the now is such a beautiful expression, and to say you can’t nail down the now because it’s fleeing in front of us…no one has come any closer to really describing the hope of photography. I do my art with difficulty, I complain unremittingly, unceasingly. Elsa just does it, and there’s an amazing dignity and power in that fact alone.
Why so much complaining?
Because I often tell people, it’s an art form and to do it right you have to practice.
In one interview you called yourself “an investigator at heart.” What have you been looking for?
I don’t think investigators ever know what they’re looking for, but they feel the need to look for something. I’d like to find something out.
After all these years, you’ve got to find something!
I know. Anything! When I made this film I really convinced myself of what a good photographer Elsa really is. How much I like her photographs, how much I like her. I think that’s finding out something.
We keep coming back to this: What do you think is the root of your artistic dissatisfaction?
There was a movie that was made about the pianist Sviatoslav Richter by the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, and Richter was this tortured animal. He’s also arguably the greatest pianist of the 20th century. At the very end he just slumps in his chair and says, “You have to understand, I just don’t like myself.” It’s an extraordinary moment. It reminds me of how I don’t really think there are good films but there certainly are good moments in films. And I’m a musician; maybe that’s part of it. Never being able to do something as well as you had hoped to be able to do it.
“There are no good films.”
Good themes, good moments in films, but no good films. Nary a one.
Casablanca has some really good scenes.
Is this why you made documentaries?
I think it’s because I have a writer’s block. I couldn’t get it together to write a script.
Don’t you think that’s because you thought there were no good movies? You weren’t going to convince yourself that you could reinvent the wheel.
Remember, there are good scenes. That’s something.
So you’ve never watched a movie and at the end of it thought, “This is really good.”
Yeah, I do it all the time and then I’ll think, “Eh, I don’t know.”
At 69, is happiness the objective?
It seems like an impossible objective, but it could be one. I think doing good work is the objective. A high bar.
Would you like to see yourself, like Elsa, continue working forever?
Yeah, I would. Plus I think I’ve been slow out of the gate. I feel like I’m just kind of getting it together. Belatedly, admittedly, but getting it together nonetheless.
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