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One of the more irksome trends over the last few years (or even decades) of cinema has been the increasing co-opting of the documentary style as more of a platform for political perspectives. Films like The Cove, Dirty Wars, and even Citizenfour aren’t judged by the inventiveness of their imagery, or even the rhythms of their editing, but rather on the righteousness of the subject matter, the “crucial” nature of their political message. The end result of all of this is that filmmaking becomes more of an educational tool than a bonafide art form, judged more on the factual accuracy and surface-level anger than for their filmic creativity. The amount of documentaries that tap into the filmmaker’s distinct visual perspective and style in a given year are increasingly minuscule. 2014’s best documentaries – National Gallery, The Last of The Unjust, Life Itself, Actress, and The Missing Picture – were all denoted more by how they were cut, the involvement of the director in the process, and the placement of the camera, not whether or not the film was particularly “important.”
To plenty of people, Iris Apfel is very important, but not in life-or-death terms; the stakes of her importance are relatively low, seeing as she’s made her living as a fashion icon and an interior designer. Her legacy in the fashion world is very simply unparalleled, but that’s not exactly what the late Albert Maysles is after in Iris, his loving, exquisite portrait of the elderly icon and one of the rarest birds of New York City’s socialite crowds. As the film opens, she explains how she put together the exuberant outfit she’s wearing, a burst of bold colors and various textures, and stresses her love for accessories – bracelets, most prominently. And as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Maysles takes Apfel’s philosophy of fashion style as reflective of film style as well, and sees a kindred spirit in the famed clothes horse.
From there, Maysles begins to track Apfel’s active working life, as a teacher, curator, collector, and consultant, the schedule for which would be exhausting to any twenty-something and keeps her phone perpetually ringing off the hook. With students from a Texas fashion college, she talks about finding inspiration everywhere – an acolyte speaks of getting an idea from the view of fields from an airplane – but speaking directly to Maysles, she talks about the very real work and knowledge needed to survive in the workplace. It’s not just enough to love fashion and designers, she argues, mentioning how one must also know about costs, international cultures, and how fabrics react in different climates, amongst other factors. Apfel may speak and look as if she just naturally puts her outfits together, but as she speaks, one realizes that there’s a lifetime of experience and intellect going into her flamboyant choices in wears.
One of the more giddily enjoyable sequences in the film is when Iris takes her adoring (and adored) husband, Carl, on a shopping trip to a set of bargain-bin clothing stands on a sunny morning, concluding with Carl purchasing a studded hat. This is in stark contrast to scenes of her working on fifth-avenue window displays or working on a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of wardrobes put together from her seemingly endless collection of clothing. Maysles is careful to capture Apfel’s appetite as both vast and unpretentious, high-end and cheap-as-fuck, and its especially interesting when she expresses her thoughts on budgeting and bargaining. At one point, she discusses how to barter with Maysles, pointing out that to not bargain with certain vendors would burden their day because they imagine they could have gotten more money for the clothing or accessories. It says quite a lot about both her business acumen and her empathy for people that, in more than one or two ways, are her colleagues, people who collect, curate, stock, and sell the duds that she purchase and which inspire her keen sense of wardrobe.
It’s almost impossible for any filmmaker to ignore the legacy of a subject, but Maysles’s genius is in charting her life in Iris and Carl’s own fleet words, rendering her very public history as a fashion maven in enveloping, intimate terms. Iris says that one of her main reasons for marrying Carl is that “he could cook Chinese food,” and she shushes her husband when he suggests that working with the White House was a pain in the ass. As much as Iris works as a warm, wonderful act of cinematic portraiture, it’s also a glowing vision of a lasting marriage, one where the concept of “family’ isn’t stressed as the key to a fulfilling life. Apfel admits plainly that they didn’t have children because they wanted to travel and work, but doesn’t disparage those who made the choice to have offspring. It’s this wisdom from a long life, and the ways in which Iris expresses it in her dress, that Maysles clings to, seeing his own process of creation in every one of her thoughtful decisions.
The film ends with Carl’s 100th birthday, and one can hear contemplations of death when Iris discusses the health problems that have become more frequent for her and Carl in recent years. It’s a bit haunting to hear now, considering that Maysles passed away this past March, but the tone of these discussions is never completely grim, rather pragmatic and cautious. It’s a way of thinking and living that appeals to both Apfel and Maysles, and one can feel both of their personalities vibrantly in each frame of this short, sensational film. The director’s artistry is felt in the pace and editorial tempo of the film, but his presence is felt constantly when Iris speaks to him, which gives Iris the overall tone of two old, brilliant friends, speaking frankly without any sense that everyone’s listening in.
Iris is currently available to stream on Netflix.