I wish I could say I knew the career of documentarian Albert Maysles a lot better than I do. His formative work, Grey Gardens, ranks among one of my favorite films in any genre, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything else from the prolific director, who went on to produce quality work for four more decades after Grey Gardens‘ release. His penultimate film, Iris, is a strange time to connect again with Maysles, not only because so much time passed since Grey Gardens, but also because the two works had a surprising amount of thematic overlap. Just as Grey Gardens documented the eccentric personality of Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, who made the art of dressing herself & being fabulous into a finely-tuned craft, Iris profiles the oddly similar, but much older Iris Apfel. Iris & Edie had wildly different social standings & levels of success & recognition, but their individual ways of turning self-presentation into an artform are remarkably in tune with one another.
Iris open with its subject getting dressed in front of a mirror & describing the process of creating an outfit as being akin to a musician improvising in jazz. Even if Maysles hadn’t been involved in this project it’d be near impossible not to think of Edie describing how she chooses “the best costume for the day” as soon as that opening scene. Both women have an eye for repurposing items of clothing for an unconventional effect. Iris just has the advantage of an ungodly financial backing that allows her to go as big & as bold as she likes. Wearing 3x her weight in oversized jewelry that clacks loudly every time she moves her frail little arms, Iris has an exceptional knack for layering accessories until they take on the effect of 3D sculpture. She has taken on many roles as a well-to-do professional: interior designer, textile historian, fashionista, etc. Most importantly, though, she’s a curator. She has an eye for transforming sillier, machine-made pieces by pairing them with the handmade craft of top shelf designer-wear. Her style overall is this flashy glam-punk middle ground where trash meets high art & by the time she adds her signature, cartoonishly large glasses to her ensembles, it’s an aesthetic unmistakably her own.
I’ve heard a few Grey Gardens detractors disparage the film for taking advantage of its subjects in an exploitative, poverty porn sort of way. Iris has the exact opposite dynamic. Well to do long before she got her due as a curator & a stylist, Iris Apfel was many years a senior citizen by the time she started exhibiting her work in galleries & museums (including The Met in NYC, no less). She fully embraces the term “geriatric starlet”, but her mind is far from faded in her old age. She may contradict herself from time to time, like explaining that she would never criticize someone’s outfit in once scene & complaining that wearing all black isn’t “style” but rather “a uniform” in another, but for the most part she’s sharp as a whip. Just like Iris’ fashion sense, her life advice is a mix of antiquated truisms about “little black dresses” & everything coming back in style eventually and much more unconventional, iconoclastic attitudes that can be best boiled down to the quote “Whatever.” Like with Grey Gardens, Iris’ interactions with Maysles as a documentarian & a cameraman are just as much a part of the story as her rubbing elbows with Kanye West & Tavi Gevinson or Little Edie feeding her raccoons. This is far from the tragic fall from grace feeling you might pick up from Grey Gardens (although I’d argue that both films are largely celebratory in nature). It’s a miracle, for instance, that Iris & her goofball husband Carl are still alive & active at the tend of the film’s shoot. Iris is a celebration of a very peculiar life, which was the aspect I most enjoy about Grey Gardens as well. Now it’s time for me to do my homework & find out what Maysles was up to in the other forty or so films he directed.