A point often made with regard to documentaries is that choosing the right subject matter is half the battle. In making a film about the New York-based businesswoman, interior designer and style icon Iris Apfel, the late Albert Maysles certainly chose the subject of his penultimate film wisely, as Iris is a flamboyant, fascinating individual and spending time in her company is an entertaining way of passing an hour or so.
Along with his brother David, Maysles was (or should I say ‘is’, with Iris in cinemas and co-directed final feature In Transit yet to be generally released) one of the leading proponents of direct cinema, a style of documentary filmmaking originating in North American in the late 1950s that concentrates on showing reality through impartial observation, the theory being that you are more likely to learn certain truths about your subject that way. Often employing lightweight, hand-held cameras to record someone’s daily business, Maylses’ documentaries are filmed in a familiar, consistent fashion, whether the subjects’ lives are ordinary (as per the classic Salesman, in which the lives of four door-to-door bible sellers are examined) or extraordinary (for example the brilliant Gimme Shelter, which follows the Rolling Stones on the US tour that ended with the notorious Altamont show).
Few would describe Iris (or her life) as ordinary: her style is both eye-catching and instantly recognisable – big glasses, brightly-coloured fabrics, lots of accessories, occasionally clashing patterns, a mix of the expensive and inexpensive – and we see here that she is fêted by many within the fashion industry, whether they be internationally-famous designers or aspiring students. The Park Avenue apartment she shares with droll husband Carl, whose hundredth birthday party makes it into the film, is equally attention-grabbing: it’s filled to the brim with knick-knacks / toys / other ephemera and it is treated as another subject by Maysles, who carefully catalogues the teddy bears and furniture while following Iris around. Yet beyond all the fashion events and lurid possessions what we see is occasionally ordinary: Iris and Carl discussing who owns the last yoghurt in the fridge, for example, or the many shopping trips that Iris takes; she looks far more comfortable browsing stalls in flea markets or haggling in a Harlem clothes shop, for example, than she does when attending meet-n’-greets or other parties within the fashion world.
Maysles’ approach to the rag trade is non-judgmental, though as a responsibility-free viewer it’s easy to form an opinion about what you see (of course it’ll be partly based on your own preconceptions, and thus I found myself mostly intrigued by the rampant air-kissing and false-sounding flattery, as it served to reinforce my own prejudices). There’s no deliberate attempt to make anyone here look fake or dim-witted, but it’s telling to see Iris explain that it takes a lot of time and effort to put her look together only for window dressers miss the point by choosing to focus on her glasses alone when they dress mannequins. Iris manages to bite her lip and, at 93, is probably used to being reduced or summed-up in such a trite way. Anyway, the respect she appears to receive from designers seems far more genuine than the platitudes given by several fashionistas in this documentary, even if it’s impossible to say for certain whether that’s really the truth. It certainly looks that way, though.
In following Iris around for a few weeks (months?) the film is light on background detail, though there are plenty of old photographs of the couple’s trips abroad and even some charming 16mm home movie footage made by Carl. Anyone expecting a thorough examination of this lady’s early life or even the years in which she ran a successful interior design business will be disappointed, although there are some interesting tidbits (the Apfels furnished the White House while the Kennedys lived there, and Carl hints that Jackie was a problem customer, which provides a neat link to Maysles’ most celebrated film, Grey Gardens). Mostly it’s just pleasant reminiscing coupled with carefully-rehearsed advice in soundbite form, much of which serves as a way of re-enforcing the outward projection of a persona. Iris is a warm portrait of a sharp, eccentric New Yorker, but if you pay attention there are plenty of smart observations and a suggestion that constantly playing up to an expected public face is, eventually, utterly exhausting. At just 80 minutes it does, however, feel a little slight.
Directed by: Albert Maysles.
Starring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel.
Camera: Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams, Nick Canfield, Chris Dapkins.
Editing: Paul Lovelace.
Running Time: 80 minutes.