Time Passes

Towards the end of Errol Morris's new film The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography there is a shot that for me encapsulates one of the film's central themes.

Dorfman, a spritely 80-something, is the great pioneer of large format Polaroid photography, specializing in portraits of both the famous and the ordinary, solo, in groups, en famille. The prints are huge, 20 inches wide and 24 inches high, about the size of a one-sheet, I think. To store them, Dorfman has them laid out flat in suitably large file drawers, sorted chronologically. In the shot in question, Morris's camera slowly rises up one of these file cabinets, the dates on the drawers moving forward in time and his inexorable camera movement reminds us that the passage of time is inescapable. All we can do is watch.  Suddenly, a drawer opens and we see framed in it the dancing eyes of Dorfman.

Towards the end of the film, the photographer smiles sweetly at Morris and says, "Maybe that's when these photos have their ultimate meaning, when the person [in the photo] dies." The observation is offered casually but it underlines the meaning of that earlier shot. Time passes slowly, ineluctably. We can document that passage and while it doesn't alter the approach of death, it provides some kind of comfort. As Dorfman says of a portrait of her parents, "Now they look young."

The passage of time and the deteriorations that accompany it are at the heart of The B-Side, which is surely one of Morris's most effective, deeply felt and moving films to date. Not only are many of the subjects of Dorfman's photography dead -- Allen Ginsburg, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, her parents -- but the very medium in which she excelled, the large-format Polaroid, has almost ceased to exist as well. Morris -- and Dorfman herself -- document these passages adroitly. She is a charmer, a self-described "lucky little Jewish girl who got out [of the suburbs and entombment in a conventional marriage] by the skin of my teeth." Her artistry is on full parade in the film and she and Morris make a lively collaborative team. (In New York City, the film is playing at the Angelika Film Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)


The passing of time has a somewhat different meaning in Jacques Becker's last film, Le Trou ("The Hole," 1960), currently playing at Film Forum in a starkly beautiful 4K restoration that captures perfectly the detail and nuance of Ghislain Cloquet's black-and-white cinematography. Le Trou is one of the best prison-break films ever made, a taut work in which long takes and  a careful manipulation of diegetic sound combine to fray the viewers' nerves while riveting their attention.

This is how the time goes by: Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel, Jean Keraudy, and Philippe Leroy in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou. Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal.

The plot is simple enough. Five men facing long sentences decide to tunnel out of the high-security prison in which they are held. The film's action consists of the methodical planning and execution of this plan, counterposed with the growing intimacy of their relationship as experienced by the new guy in the cell, Gaspard (Mark Michel, a sort of Gerard Phillipe manque). As the plan comes closer to fruition, the tensions among the men are ratcheted up and Becker's deadpan, detached mise-en-scene makes those fractures resonate ever more loudly (albeit in strained whispers). One might jokingly say that the result is the best Jean-Pierre Melville film that Melville never made, but in truth, as great as Melville is, he couldn't match the ferocious unsentimentality of Le Trou. This film is like a handful of dry ice, so cold it burns you. Absolutely essential viewing, people!