Albert Maysles 2014 80m
Iris, Albert Maysles’ documentary about the fashion icon and interior designer Iris Apfel, is as joyous as the 94-year-old self-declared “geriatric starlet” herself. The film, much like Richard Press’ Bill Cunningham New York (2010) and Megumi Sazaki’s Herb & Dorothy (2008), documents its subject’s endless curiosity and curiosities alongside an unyielding passion for her work that only grows with age. In Iris, Maysles tracks Apfel into her home and wardrobe, which are as concerned with fashion and design as they are intellectual pursuits.
The film opens in Apfel’s home as she shares signature pieces from her closet – ensemble by ensemble, she explains what she’s wearing, where it’s from, and how she altered it. Through the doting care and playfulness with which she discovers and curates her clothing, Apfel shares her lifelong cultural inquiry and appreciation. Maysles provides insight into Iris’ years of travel with her tenderly supportive husband and business partner, Carl Apfel. Carl’s 35mm footage of their journeys abroad is shown to the audience. Maysles tells us that his subjects, like himself, are artists with an attuned eye for narrative: Carl composing behind a lens and Iris masquerading as her own canvas.
In the spirit of maintaining a creative vision, the Apfels collaborated with a friend’s father, a weaver, to reproduce classic style fabrics by now-obsolete traditional methods. From its humble beginnings, Iris’ entrepreneurial textile design company, “Old World Weavers,” took off, creating fabrics that now adorn the White House. After she sold her company, Apfel continued her unrestrained, artistic pursuit in fashion.
Apfel relishes the process of curating her assemblages. “I like to improvise,” she asserts, “I always think I like to do things as though I’m playing jazz.” Apfel finds harmony in seemingly disparate pieces. Her sense of style isn’t confused with status; in fact, she refutes such pretensions. Her jewelry collection alone—which includes a spectrum of bracelets and bangles from craft stores and flea markets to couture costume jewelry—is apparently the most extensive selection in the United States. In an interview, Dries Van Noten aptly identifies Apfel’s own, particular style insofar as she “combines everything – what is nice, what is ugly, what is cheap, what is chic.” Her all-inclusive, embracing style of different cultures and sources valorizes craft just as much as haute couture. With an unprecedented confidence in her own eye, she demonstrates her improvisational blend with her trademark oversized black rim glasses and a layered cornucopia of multi-colored necklaces and bangles.
Though Maysles documents Apfel over a number of years, the pacing of the film feels tied to the nuances and normalcy of the day-to-day, like Apfel’s outdated flip phone ringing off the (so to speak) hook. Beyond the spheres of self-representation or presentation, Iris, the personage, and Iris, the film, have substance. Apfel shares her coming to terms with and reclamation of an interest in unconventional beauty. When recalling her obsession with accessories from an early age, Apfel recounts how the founder of Loehmann’s in Brooklyn would watch her keenly, “like she was observing a tennis match, and she would look at what everybody in the shop was doing… One day she called me over and said, ‘Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: you have style.’” Taking this to heart, Apfel locates worth in her artistry and character, embracing her distinction as a source of power. She optimizes the art of her style with charisma, living life fully and to the beat of her own drum.
Most striking, perhaps, is the intimacy between the director and Apfel as they connect over a shared vitality for life that defies preconceived notions of age. Iris addresses “Albert” directly, offering him a seat at the end of the film. He then rests, joining her on screen with a camera in hand. In this pause, the two of them seem to reconcile their creative robustness with the physical restrictions of age, recognizing the reality of needing to slow down, even just for a moment. In Iris, the last complete work of Maysles (who died this past March at 89), the filmmaker appears humbly on screen. His choice of such a delightful and vivacious subject to sit adjacent to is as much a self-reflection on his own life of commitment as that of his screen heroine’s.