Michael Shannon, bounding down the sidewalk, was a topic of recurrent discussion on Day 4 of TIFF. There’d been multiple Sasquatch-ish sightings on consecutive days and the conversations about them contained a certain wonderment—not at the existence of a person featured in a very prominent film at the festival (more on Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals elsewhere), but at the sheer exuberance of a man skipping rather than plodding through space, dressed in comfortable, colorful clothes. What we thought we were seeing was Michael Shannon, “in the wild,” being… happy?
Though geared up for a grueling menu of miserablism, I was actually confounded by the unexpected pictures of righteous happiness that emerged on screen. Errol Morris’s The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography doesn’t take long before it hits on one of Morris’s pet issues: the “evidence” question about photography. “Do you think the camera tells the truth?” he asks large-scale Polaroid specialist Dorfman. “Absolutely not!” she answers. “That’s what I love about it. It’s not real at all.” One thing Dorfman excels at is making her subjects comfortable so that they can bring to the machine their “happiness,” however transitory.
Influenced by her times and her friends, particularly Allen Ginsberg, she photographed the “everyday” with a stylized joy; not “capturing” any “spirits,” but celebrating the surface and the projection onto the paper. Her father dies; her mother loses her memory and follows him; a sadness surrounds, but can’t conquer because Dorfman is armed with mindfulness, a respect for what “is” as opposed to what could be. And one thing that “is” is something that is no longer: Polaroid, sold and reconfigured, stopped making the cameras Dorfman had used.
Morris, in conversation with the audience afterward, listed topics he felt the film touched on, in addition to the fleeting nature of film and photography, including “time and memory,” but felt the film was best represented by Yeats, when he speaks of the cycle of downfall and rebirth ("All things fall and are built again"). Dorfman, while tenderly paging through her vast archives of delicate and in some cases disintegrating portraits, speaks equally of art and of friendship (notably with Ginsberg, Jonathan Richman, literary greats, the best of celebrities, Polaroid enthusiasts, and the many families of Cambridge, MA, including Morris’s, that she photographed). It’s clear that she knows what fades and what lasts. “Maybe all that’s left in the end,” Morris concluded, live to the audience, “ is love and friendship. The rest is truly evanescent.”
It’s perhaps the cardinal sin of festival reporting to compare back-to-back film experiences, but Andrea Arnold’s American Honey unfolding before me in IMAX size shortly after I left the Morris screening meant the resonance of those words lasted the entire film and into the next morning. (Spoiler alert: Read no further if you want to experience Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize-winner completely naively, which I recommend.) From its opening moment, when a succulent whole chicken wrapped in factory-fresh plastic gets thrown to a smiling boy—with the seconds-later reveal that it’s emerged from a dumpster-dive—the film builds its story around the contradictions a resilient spirit holds. Our cinematic education in what happens to penniless teenagers who live freely, party heartily, escape their troubled parents, and skirt the law means viewers have a cloud of suspicion and fear hanging over us as we watch them fist-fight for laughs, fire up, toy with guns, and belt out E-40 refrains while speeding down American highways. But Arnold throws the cautionary tale to the wind, and it's our fear that's transitory. Please enjoy the soundtrack and know that her iconic images of true abandon and pleasure are meant to last.