Iris (2014)

Director: Albert Maysles
Cinematographers: Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker III, Sean Price Williams.

Not all documentaries must be intense, heart pounding reportages of injustices or discouraging looks at the horrors that afflict the earth. Those documentaries are extremely important and have their place, they provoke conversations, and even bring change and cause movements that cause ripples throughout the whole world. But sometimes it’s nice to see lighter and maybe more uplifting films, especially when they are about interesting or remarkable lives that might otherwise be ignored by a large audience outside of niche demographics (as if watching a documentary were this thing that huge groups of people do in the first place, but oh well, I must digress). Director Albert Maysles in his newest documentary sets his lens on a figure larger than life: Iris Apfel. This film reminded me a lot of the very well made Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary of the New York Times photographer, both films depicting an aging member of a New York City era that in a few years time will no longer exist, an institution and a reminder of the city the Big Apple once was, before becoming the Disney-esque tourist mecca of the last couple of decades.

I was unfamiliar with Iris Apfel prior to watching this documentary, watching it because the film had been received some acclaim and was considered by some critics as one of the best of the year. From watching the film I gathered that people interested in fashion and the retail industry may be much more familiar with this very particular and captivating figure, but because the fashion industry has never really interested me much, I ignored her existence. I am glad to report, though, that one must not have to care at all about couture to appreciate this cute film, because Iris’ personality is the real star here, her role as a fashion icon and muse is mostly secondary.

Iris Apfel is an over the top, larger than life figure who dresses the part. The opening scenes of the film are a private fashion show consisting of Iris trying on some of her outrageous clothing combinations and then adding accessory upon accessory. Clearly this was a woman who strongly disagreed with Coco Chanel’s advice on taking something off prior to leaving the home, Apfel would encourage people to add something else. Her motto, repeated throughout the documentary, is that life is short and risks being bland, she refuses to wear a uniform like the all black fashions she sees strolling around 5th Avenue, and figures that she is going to be as much of an individual and with as much whimsy as humanly possible.

Along for the ride is Iris’ husband Carl who is as patient as he is supportive and is a lovely counterpart to his wife’s boisterous persona. Sadly Carl passed away earlier this year, but his death occurred after the documentary was released, so the sadness associated with his missing doesn’t affect the very bubbly tone of the film. What we do see is Carl turning 100 years old and the lovely turnout to celebrate this feat of survival. The documentary, though, focuses the majority of its attention on Iris, her style, her past as an interior designer, the accumulation of clothes and nicknacks from around the world, the media attention on her persona and looks, and especially on the impact she has had, both stylistically, and as a businesswoman. Iris and her husband had co-created a fabrics company and Iris’ personal style and collection have been prominently featured in shops, magazines, museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Iris doesn’t mince words, says what she thinks, laughs a lot, and keeps busy, all while inching herself everyday closer to her own full century of life (she is 94). Hopefully she will just keep on trucking, because the world needs more people like Iris Apfel.

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