Iris (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

Iris 75That’s what a good documentary will do: make you interested in something you weren’t previously interested in at all.

Iris 500

It wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that Albert Maysles is the single best and/or most important documentarian to have ever lived. With that in mind, prolific as he is, any new film from him should be treated as an event. But then of course in early March he passed away, making his new release, Iris, one of his last finished films, so it’s doubly important to cherish the opportunity to see a new Maysles.

Albert, along with his brother David (deceased as of 1987) and working with a crew of other incredibly talented documentarians (Charlotte Zwerin, Muffie Meyer, etc.), are behind such classics as 1968’s Salesman, 1970’s Gimme Shelter (probably the greatest music doc ever), and 1975’s Grey Gardens, in addition to countless others, such as the series of films he made about the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (1977’s Running Fence and 2007’s The Gates are particular favorites of mine), and even stuff like work on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series or a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue DVD. With knowledge of the disparity of past subjects, it perhaps doesn’t seem strange that the subject of Iris is the now-93-year-old Iris Apfel, a well-known figure on the New York (and world) fashion scene. Further, she seems an appropriate choice, being an interesting character and of an age similar to Albert’s, who was 88 when he died.

And for as sad as it is that this will be one of the last films from the Maysles brothers, it does have the benefit of being about a nonagenarian couple (Iris’s husband, Carl, is 100 years old by the time the film ends, actually; I don’t even know the word for that) of which neither has died by the end of the film, and are indeed both quite physically and mentally able. Try to find me another documentary about a person this old that does not end with their death.

Iris herself walks with a cane most of the time, but I think that might be in part to prop herself up under the weight of her copious, heavy-looking accessories, often of loud colors, and her enormous glasses, which look like something Harry Potter might wear if his eyes were four times the size of regular human eyes. Most of Iris’ slight 80-minute runtime just follows Iris on her day-to-day ventures (the Maysles are key figures in the cinéma vérité movement, after all), which often has her shopping, doing appearances, or, in a device of the film, being contrasted against younger members of the fashion world (Tavi Gevinson interviews her at one point, and Iris mentors classes of fashion students).

By the end of the film I still found myself wondering how Iris decides what she’s going to wear on any given day (her closet is like Tony Takitani’s wife’s in the Haruki Murakami story of the same name, if the fictional Mrs. Takitani had lived many decades longer), but details like this are quickly forgotten in light of the quotability and insight Iris has for the industry she’s been so involved in for just shy of a century. It seems like every five minutes of the movie produces some seemingly-definitive quote on the subject, especially in the context of coming from a ninetysomething woman: “I like individuality…There’s so much sameness these days. Everything is homogenized,” “If you hang around long enough, everything comes back,” etc. One has to think that Albert deserves some credit for this, though, in his interviewing skills and his editing, given that in recent months I’ve read multiple interviews with Ms. Apfel and have never found her half as interesting as I do here. But that’s what a good documentary will do: make you interested in something you weren’t previously interested in at all. Albert Maysles is one of the true masters of this feat, and will be sorely missed. | Pete Timmermann

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