Directed by Albert Maysles
Opens April 29
With and without his brother David, the late, great filmmaker Albert Maysles returned again and again to artists of all shapes and sizes. While it can be misleading or facile to identify a documentarian with what he shoots, it’s hard to miss a degree of identification going on between portraitist and subject, from Gimme Shelter and its explicitly reflexive editing scene to Maysles’s multiple biographical sketches of musicians and other artists through the 1980s and 90s. He kept circling the creative process in terms of accumulation, negotiation, receptivity—all qualities crucial to his practice of Direct Cinema—and even the bittersweet Salesman with its art of the spiel must have felt familiar to a cameraman in motion who would very often be the new person in a strange room.
The link, and bond, between director and subject grows poignant with Iris, which together with the Amtrak travels of In Transit—Maysles’s official final credited work, screening in the Tribeca Film Festival—reads as a valedictory farewell journey to a rich life and towering career. A fashion innovator and storied interior decorator, 93-year-old Iris Apfel hasn’t ceased her mockingbird activity of assembling outfits from cross-cultural costume and fabric, the rattle of her signature chunky accessories audible even before the film’s first image hits the screen. Giant glasses—a counterpart to Maysles’s own signature frames—suggest someone who doesn’t want to miss a thing (rather than the eccentric-socialite look that uninformed observers might assume). But after headlining a last-minute Met show in 2005 despite retiring over a decade earlier, Apfel has entered a phase of tributes, teaching, taking stock: The “sage” has spoken, she jokes at one event covered by the 87-year-old director, who late in life himself only took on more new adventures with the founding of the Maysles Documentary Cinema.
Beside the public appearances and events, Iris shows Apfel at her crazily cluttered Park Avenue home—every room as absurdly busy and colorful with detail as a magazine shoot; it’s an ecosystem as much as the Hamptons house of Grey Gardens, though this rampant organic growth is a tad more curated. As befits a roving marketeer and expert bargainer, Iris is a maven at snap judgments, nearly as ear-catching as her outfits are arresting, even if you want to see even more of her in action putting together each assemblage rather than listen to her narrate them. Likewise, there’s a little of the praise chorus endemic to fashion documentaries (among others), while the use of montage varies between vivid, glamorous tours of Iris’s travels with her husband and business partner Carl, and more conventional sequences (not helped by bouncy catwalk music, kept almost apologetically muted in the mix).
Iris’s greatest concern at the time of the doc isn’t what she’ll wear next, but her 100-year-old husband’s health, though Maysles and his editor take care not to let this be the drama. But those intimations of mortality are present in the film’s very portrait of Iris, repeatedly seen selecting clothes to let go and donate to the Peabody Museum or to sell off from her vast Long Island storage loft. The racks upon racks, in rooms upon rooms that suggest an apartment going on forever off screen, only evoke all that remains in Iris that won’t be passed along, the impossibility of summarizing a person’s cornucopia of experience. The camera dwells at one point upon a closed box of clothes, the perspective like that on a toe-to-head look at a coffin. “You don’t own anything. You just rent,” Iris quotes a friend.
In the heyday of Direct Cinema, the strength of cinema at portraying the passage of time was newly felt as the electricity of the fleeting instant—the moment, the attention to the wavelet in the news that betrays the movement’s origins in television newsmagazines. What Maysles, compassionate but steadfast, has also been able to recognize are the other life streams at work as time goes by. Besides the work of Frederick Wiseman, a countering force to the prevalence of big, outlying names such as JFK or the Rolling Stones has been Maysles and his ability to show the strain and the grace of it all. That is an awareness and a wisdom that never goes out of style, and with the film’s final shot, Maysles sits down, for one mightily well-deserved rest.