Directed by: Albert Maysles.
Featuring Iris & Carl Apfel.
When documentary filmmaking pioneer Albert Maysles died earlier this year – at the age of 88 – there were many fine pieces written about the man and his legacy. He was one of the pioneer of the direct cinema in documentaries –where he simply shoots with his camera letting the people he is documenting take them wherever it goes, without really planning what they wanted to shoot. He remains best known for a trio of masterful documentaries – Salesman (1968) about a door-to-door bible salesman, Gimme Shelter (1970) about the disastrous and legendary Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where a member of the Hell’s Angels, who the Stones had hired for security, killed a man, and Grey Gardens (1975) about a couple of eccentric relatives of first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis – all of which he co-directed with his brother David (alongside others). But Maysles never stopped making films – when he died, he had 49 directing credits including features, TV docs, and shorts. His legacy as one of the best and most important documentary filmmakers is secure.
Iris is the second last film that Maysles completed before he died – and while I don’t know that many will claim it is one of his best documentaries, it is a very good one, and one in which Maysles style and subject seem perfect suited to each other. Maysles turns the camera on Iris Apfel, who ran a company with her husband Carl for years, which painstakingly recreated fabrics from the past. They did work with everyone – from the White House to many museums, because there work was so good. Iris is now 93 – and Carl is 100 – and they don’t run the company anymore, although to say Iris is retired would also not really be accurate, and she always seems to be on the move – another photo shoot, another museum exhibit, etc. She is now a “style icon”, beloved in New York and other circles for people who care about those types of things, and still largely unknown outside of them. But once you see Iris – you will never forget her. She laments the homogenization of fashion, says most of the trendy people aren’t so much wearing fashion, rather they are dressing in a uniform. Iris doesn’t do that – from her trademark glasses – huge and circle – and her hairstyle, she dresses in a mixture of things, of both high and low fashion – expensive clothes next to jewelry and accessories she could get at the flea market or the dollar store. She isn’t just doing it for shock value either – whatever look she comes up, looks good on her. It may not work for anyone else – but she really isn’t interested in that. She wants to be one of a kind and interesting – telling Maysles that she knows she was never beautiful, so she had to be interesting, and saying that all the beautiful women she knows had nothing once that beauty faded. That’s certainly not true of Iris.
All of this stuff is amusing to be sure – but it’s the part of the movie that deals with Iris and Carl’s long marriage that becomes quietly moving – especially since most of it is good natured bickering or arguing about seemingly trivial things like yogurt. They’ve been together a long time now, and still get along and like each other. They’re under no delusions about being young – and neither is Maysles, which is what makes him the right person to make the film. None of them are done yet – but it’s only a matter of time.
At just over 80 minutes, Iris is a good little documentary – it isn’t the masterpiece that some of Maysles’ films are, but it’s a fine film just the same – and a fitting goodbye from one of the greats.