Iris (2015) Tribute

March 3rd, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Albert Maysles | Documentary with Iris Apfel | US 2014, 78 min

Legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles  creates an imaginative portrait of the interior and fashion designer Iris Apfel who has since died – but always seemed much younger at heart than her students.

Maysles, who directed such classics as Gimme Shelter (1970), Grey Gardens (1975) – both co-directed by his brother David – and When We Were Kings (1996) lets the camera do the talking, catching Apfel often in un-guarded moments.

Iris Apfel comes across as a very shrewd business-woman and playful child who made her hobby – arranging clothes and accessories she finds abroad or in bargain stores – into a very successful profession. With her huge glasses, and glittering rings, necklaces and armbands, she is seen permanently re-inventing herself and in love with creating looks while being very much aware of the shortcomings of her trade in particular, and society as a whole.

Fully away that craftsmanship was fast disappearing, Apfel and her husband Carl (who celebrated his hundredth birthday during the shooting), founded the “Old World Weavers” company, so that the skills of weaving in 18th and 19th century would not be lost. Carl also shot 16mm films of their twice yearly trips around the world, where they would collect their materials in bazars and flea markets.

Today’s students can only marvel at their visiting professor but it is clear that it is Apfel, and not the students, who is the revolutionary here. Because Iris always made a clear difference between her identity and her presentations: “It is more important to be happy, than to be well-dressed”. During the years, she helped many White House residents to re-vamp their living quarters, sometimes, as with Jackie Kennedy, there were inevitably some disagreements, but Iris was not starstruck by any celebrity: “We should not talk too much about them”, making clear that she was not impressed by either status or money.

In spite of this, she had an eye for the latter (“I need some Shekels”), and when she empties three huge storage places, where the treasure from her many journeys is stored, it look like she could fill a huge department store with the contents.

But her work ethic was un-diminished til the end. Having grown up during the depression in middle-class Queens, she became a workaholic: “If you are lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows”. But she never lost her wits or sense of reality, calling on the efforts of the fashion-scholar Harold Koda to “make me into an octogenarian starlet”.

Unlike in Grey Gardens, when the fashion designer Edie Bouvier Beale was the subject of Albert and David Maysles portrait, the interaction between the director and Apfel are very close, both sharing not only the same age (which Apfel makes very light of, even a hip replacement not slowing her down much), they also share the same taste, preferring childlike imagination to ordinary prettiness. IRIS is a truly original creation, and a fitting farewell tribute to one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time. AS



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