Iris Dir. Albert Maysles

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: documentary, portrait, biography
Others: Grey Gardens, Salesman, The Cruise

We’re all gonna die. Yeah, some assholes will do everything within their means to prolong the inevitable, but the grim reaper is always waiting just ahead of them, scythe outstretched to clothesline them into oblivion. Why all the fuss? It’s not like life is fun after your sixth heart transplant or whatever, right? I don’t pretend to know what happens to you when you die (aside from the obvious), but I’ve long felt that it’s better to die well than to keep on living like a dick.

Even though she’s had every opportunity (via money, notoriety, etc.) to do so, it appears as though Iris Apfel has made it to a ripe 93 years without being this variety of dick, a feat doubly remarkable given that she’s involved in the world of high fashion (perhaps the most dickish, or at least douchey, of arts). A true functional eccentric like only NYC could produce, Apfel is unstoppable even at her advanced age, living a charmed life afforded her by her exquisite eye. She has traveled the world, done interior design for U.S. presidents, been privy to the inner lives of fashion’s leading lights; even in her ninth decade, she’s whip-smart and energetic, outrageous and funny, only toned down slightly by the inevitabilities of human biology. She walks (or, when necessary, is rolled by wheelchair) through the streets of New York, haggling with Harlem shopkeepers and setting up gallery exhibitions of her most ornate outfits, her countless accessories (from priceless vintage pieces to dimestore baubles) forever rattling around her slight frame. In other words, she’s a real character (the kind of person that mass media and thinly-veiled corporate fascism are working hard to eliminate by 2035, as she acknowledges herself: “”I like individuality… it’s so lost these days, it’s all so homogenized”). She also comes off as down-to-earth and self-deprecating: her life path was profoundly influenced at a young age, when the founder of Loehman’s department store stopped her in her tracks to tell her “You’re not pretty, you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter: you have something better, you have style.”

One would be hard put to call Apfel’s life boring or poorly lived, yet there’s a streak of melancholy running just under the surface in Iris, the late Albert Maysles’ eponymous portrait of this fashion icon. A great many of the scenes revolve around the fact that Apfel’s ride is almost over: Apfel’s husband celebrates a centenary in the film, and Iris speaks often about her final shuffle off this mortal coil. She does this in a manner that is blunt and resigned, but Maysles’s ever-watching eye stares deep into each dismissal, perhaps trying to suss out why someone so blasé about death would cling so tenaciously to life, wringing out every last drop in the process.

Maysles, of course, passed away recently himself. He too was a prolific ball of energy right up to the end, but he nonetheless seems awed by Apfel’s energy and good humor; when he occasionally interjects himself into the conversation, he sounds amused but tired. Was making this film Maysles’s way of facing his own mortality? That, or perhaps he was hoping some of Apfel’s spunk would rub off on him, and keep him going just a little longer?

It’s too late to ask Maysles personally, but that’s just as well: the guy left us without ever having all the answers, even after a long life of searching for them via documentary film. Maybe he figured out somewhere in his travels that ruminating on the questions, unpeeling the layers of existence, was one of the best parts of life, and the “answers” are mostly bullshit anyway. If that’s the case, then he really did a solid by leaving us with a film that offers plenty of questions and layers to sort through during our short time here.

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