Talking Movies: Albert Maysles’ documentary ‘Iris’ captures 93-year-old style icon

Albert Maysels’ Iris

FilmScene — Saturday, May 30 through June 4

The documentary Iris is the final film by late filmmaker Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David made two of the most well-known and acclaimed documentaries of the 1970s, Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1974). The subject of the new film is, like the Beales of the latter film, an eccentric, aging woman. Unlike the secluded and borderline-delusional Beales, however, Iris Apfel likes being “in the world and of the world,” as she herself asserts.

The 93 year-old Apfel has been working in interior design and fashion for seven decades, but it was only in recent years that she became an “octogenarian starlet” (her own tongue-in-cheek term), when the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibit on her personal collection of clothing and accessories. Since then, Apfel has been hailed as an important artist, and she and her colorful outfits have appeared in touring exhibitions and on magazine covers.

It might be inferred that Maysles, who died at the age of 88 in March of this year, found in Apfel a kindred spirit. His approach to documentary filmmaking — in contrast to her sense of style — is rather pared down, and we don’t tend to hear that much from him either as narrator or interviewer. But we do see and hear him a couple times in Iris (once after the credits), and in both instances we get a glimpse of warmth and mutual respect between these two aging icons.

Apfel has carved for herself a niche in a world that typically values standards of youth and beauty that she no longer has.

In its portrait of the daily life of a 93-year-old art icon, the film is interested in creativity and age. Despite facing all the challenges of aging — including, around the time the film was being shot, a fall and a broken hip — Apfel still makes regular excursions to street markets and to stores in Harlem. There, she adds to her unique and multifarious collection of bracelets, necklaces and fabrics, expertly haggling with vendors.

Maysles introduces Apfel with little backstory, showing her assembling a pair of different outfits, and briefly outlining her importance in the fashion world. It is only 15 minutes into this 80-minute movie that we learn she has been happily married since the mid-1940s. Her husband Carl, 100 years old at the time the film was shot, has been her partner in the variety of business ventures she’s undertaken throughout her life. By delaying his introduction somewhat, the film manages to give us a touching portrait of their happy partnership, while still emphasizing the extent of Apfel’s long-standing creative and personal independence — rather than tying her too closely to her marriage.

Apfel and Carl have led a life close to the epicenter of 20th Century history. Carl, discussing their role in designing numerous interiors for different White Houses, begins a story, “We had a problem with Jackie …” before Iris shushes him. Apfel later asserts, probably apocryphally, that she was the first woman in New York to wear trousers after World War II, forcing a department store to order her a pair of boys’ blue jeans.

Such historical detail makes up only isolated fragments of the film, which is mostly focused on the way in which Apfel has carved for herself a niche in a world that typically values standards of youth and beauty that she no longer has (or, she insists, never had). While her story is fascinating, the film also depends to a fair degree on our finding the world of fashion compelling and Apfel is idiosyncratic enough to hold our attention. Because of this and because it (admirably) withholds from finding melodrama in the life of its subject and topics, the film may drag a bit for some viewers in its final quarter. But her story, of course, also has some larger implications that extend well beyond fashion.

The film depends to a fair degree on our finding the world of fashion compelling.

Perhaps the most interesting, if somewhat subdued, topic of Iris is the definition of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Apfel is hailed as an artist, and made major contributions to the worlds of interior design and fashion beginning in the ‘40s and ‘50s when she and her husband ran a fabric company that revived centuries-old designs. Now, she has become well-known for her ability to assemble striking but stylish outfits; art and creativity here become a matter of assembling, wading one’s way through dense urban markets and homogenized consumer products to create something distinctive.

When Apfel thus says that she likes to “be of” and “live in” the world, it’s both an artist’s statement and a philosophical treatise: For her, living in the world means maintaining one’s energy and creativity despite the enervating effects of both age and culture. It is an admirable ethos, one that might have spoken to Maysles. Documentary, too, is an art of assembly, a way of finding the vitality hidden in everyday life. It is perhaps here that the two elderly artists of ascetic “direct cinema” and of flamboyant fashion found common ground.

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