Iris Maysles

There’s a moment in Iris when the documentary’s subject, venerable fashionista Iris Apfel, is presented with a department-store carrier bag emblazoned with her own photo. The Iris on the bag has a very faint look of Joan Rivers, in the expression at least—that wide-eyed stare of “Now what?” amazement. But while the late comedian’s gaze of perpetual astonishment—not least at the excesses of red-carpet clotheshorses—had much to do with the long-term work-in-progress redrafting of her face, Iris’s comically alert expression is just a symptom of delight at the excesses of life.

It’s not artificially enhanced, at any rate. Apfel, now 93, declares that she has always hated the idea of cosmetic surgery: “Unless God gave you a nose like Pinocchio, why mess?” Nor was she ever that keen on conventional beauty, not least because she was never possessed of it herself. As she says at the end of the film, in one of the few moments at which she sounds even vaguely cantankerous, “I’m not a pretty person.” And if you’re not pretty, she goes on, “you become a lot more interesting. Anyway, I don’t happen to like pretty. Most of the world is not with me.”

The penultimate documentary from Albert Maysles, who died last month—his final film, In Transit, is playing in TribecaIris is a fond portrait of a personality who could easily be regarded as a freakshow. Better, though, to say that she’s an entertainer—the mistress of ceremonies, creative director and orchestrator, the Diaghilev, of her own resplendent solo circus. Apfel has a background in interior design and textiles; she and her husband, Carl, launched the company Old World Weavers, and helped furnish the White House (“We had a problem with Jackie…” Carl begins.—“Stop!” Iris firmly silences him, perhaps her only moment of discretion in the film).

Iris Maysles

Nowadays, however, Apfel is primarily that peculiar commodity, a “fashion icon” (a rag-trade function that, to most of us, is only more nebulous than “stylist” or “muse”). The reason she’s an icon is that she dresses crazily, following a mix-and-(non)match principle that makes her a one-woman walking souk. At the start of the film, she produces an eye-searingly clashing Ungaro floral top with striped Versace trousers; she appears before the camera a-clatter with about a hundredweight of amber necklaces. Later she’s a bright red cloud of something that could be fur, or feathers, or just a body-enveloping scarlet miasma, or she’s draped with a turquoise boa, or maybe bag, that’s at once a more exotic and more sophisticated answer to the notorious swan that once flopped round Björk’s shoulders at Cannes.

Then there’s her signature touch—huge black goggle glasses that have a hint of George Burns, a soupcon of Swifty Lazar, a parodic dash of your grandma’s bridge buddy, and a great deal of The Incredibles’ Edna Mode, who must surely have been part modeled on Iris. We see photos of Iris looking elegant as a bride in the 1940s—she and husband Carl, seen celebrating his 100th birthday, have been married for 66 years at the time of filming—but, as she points out, she was always a snappy dresser rather than a looker. In fact, her face, seen in pictures maturing over the years, always has a rough-and-ready, expansive energy—she’s a big-time smiler—making her living proof of her theory that character is the real beauty. What makes her interesting in Maysles’s study is not simply that she looks dazzlingly goofy, but that her visual euphoria is offset by a poised, dry, self-deprecating wit—she’s something between a Catskills stand-up and a 19th-century Parisian salonnière.

“Wit,” rather than “style” in the usual fashion sense, might be the true description of Apfel’s shtick. She can philosophize about what she does, but in a throwaway, no-nonsense fashion. “I like to improvise—try this, try that, as though I’m playing jazz” (in which case, her mode would be anything but black polo-neck Cool School). One of the curators, designers and pundits interviewed says that she’s an artist who uses clothes to create a vision—but I’d be tempted to say that it’s less a vision than a sound, a joyous cacophony. (In fact, if there’s any jazz artist she corresponds to, in the sense of her visuals matching his sound, it’s surely Sun Ra, without the cosmic mysticism).

Iris Maysles

Apfel isn’t unique among fashion eccentrics of a certain age, but she’s different. In the U.K., designer Sandra Rhodes and sculptor Andrew Logan created eye-searing rainbow styles for themselves in the Seventies, but pretty much stuck to them for decades, with only the colors themselves changing; while the late editors and oddballs Isabella Blow and Anna Piaggi boldly took the WTF principle to out-beyond-outré lengths. Apfel is different—she isn’t outlandish, just exuberant, and always looks as if she’s dressing for herself, to express rather than impress. And there’s a relaxed, casual wit about her, a distinct lack of grandeur; seen advising young women at a live event in Loehmann’s, she comes across as generous and good-natured. “The sage has spoken,” she quips, but she’s anything but a professional High Priestess.

Iris prides herself on the art of combination: she puts stuff together in wild juxtapositions, which makes you wonder—not just, how does she know what will go together interestingly, but how does she remember what she has in the first place? She owns a hell of a lot of stuff, and is seen acquiring more; and although she’s seen shopping for bargains in a Harlem store, clearly most of her collection is very expensive. The Apfels’ Park Avenue apartment is an Aladdin’s Cave—or less charitable, a junk store stacked to the rafters with ephemera, bric-a-brac, and silly kitsch, like an cocktail cabinet in the shape of a life-size ostrich, ridden by Kermit the Frog. But she seems to really enjoy, and know by heart, every item she owns; she’s no cold accumulator.

This raises a question that may not really interest Maysles. If you’re wealthy and can afford to play around with all this finery, then great. But how are you supposed to express your inner splendor if you’re limited to a thrift-store budget? I’d much rather have seen a Maysles study of some bright young fashion blogger—although I wonder whether many of them would have had the worldly brio of Mrs. A. There’s a nice scene, in fact, in which the “geriatric starlet,” as she cheerfully dubs herself, is doing an onstage Q&A with just such a person, stellar fashion ingénue Tavi Gevinson, now 19; the young tyro does seem to, well, take herself and her discovery of rags as identity a little bit seriously.

Maysles Iris

Maysles watchers may, of course, be reminded of another of the director’s studies of eccentric grandes dames—Grey Gardens, which he made with his brother David in 1975. Iris contrasts interestingly with “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale in that film, who seemed utterly adrift in the universe—but who had a very idiosyncratic, knowing theory of the way that pantyhose could and should be worn. It’s invidious to contrast Iris with the depth of insight, and painful intimacy, that Grey Gardens offered. With its chic rock soundtrack, busy cutting and by-the-book interviews, Iris feels like a glossy promotional number for its heroine. Iris has created herself as a routine, and that routine, in its enthusiastic confidence, seems to be indistinguishable from her true self, but she doesn’t seem to have to offer that much to the camera in terms of telling glimpses of gaps in her self-awareness. Such flashes in the film are perhaps the same ones you might get in any portrait of a flamboyant character who happens to be aging. Sometimes, in the back of her limo, Iris looks wan and tired; at one point, she offers a snappy but hackneyed one-liner about age: “When I get up in the morning, everything I have two of, one hurts.” The few defenses-down moments involve Carl, who seems to get deafer and wearier in the course of filming; her solicitousness towards him, and his wisecracking devotion to her, are very poignant.

Entertaining as it is, you wouldn’t know that Iris is the work of a documentarian who once declared, “I happily place my fate and faith in reality,” because Iris is more about a non-stop show than about reality revealed. Carl is one of the people who refer to Iris’s restlessness and seeming addiction to a frenzied pace of life, and the film’s subtext is the battle with mortality. “Color is so important—you can raise the dead,” Iris says—and presumably you can also scare off the Grim Reaper with some blazing reds and yellows.

Iris does get repetitive after a while—bolt after bolt of fancy fabric unrolled, more costume jewelry laid out, more stuff unearthed from the warehouse. But Apfel leads the dance, and what really dazzles is the force of her personality. The paradox is that she’d be just as interesting—maybe even more so—if she just turned up in a tracksuit top and comfortable golf pants. Perhaps Maysles got some footage of that, too.