Geriatric Starlet: my review of Iris

A- documentary

  • Directed by Albert Maysles

You know you’ve seen a really good documentary if it’s about something you couldn’t care less about, but you still enjoyed it. Few things in life bore me like fashion, but there’s nothing boring about Albert Maysles’ last complete film, Iris.

Iris Apfel, a fixture and a maverick in the New York fashion scene, is in her 90s. She dresses herself in loud, bright, and often absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great.

Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in Harlem specialty stores, shows off the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday. She’s almost always smiling.

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I hate to use the expression "free spirit;" it’s such a cliché. But it’s an appropriate cliché here. Apfel talks as she dresses—blunt and funny. She points out that it’s “better to be happy than to be well-dressed.” She dismisses the expensive but conformist clothes found among lower Manhattan executives with “That’s not fashion. It’s a uniform.”

But for all its joy, this is a film about mortality. Apfel now walks with a cane, and sometimes is pushed in a wheelchair. She complains about pains, and a loss of energy. When asked what keeps her up at night, she answers that she worries about her health.

I strongly suspect that Maysles identified with Apfel as a kindred spirit. He was approaching 90 himself as he followed his subject around New York, carrying his own camera as he recorded what Apfel was up to. He too must have been feeling the aches and pains of growing old, ignoring them as much as possible so he could keep on working and having fun.

Iris Apfel is still working, but Albert Maysles never made it to 90. I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for capping a long career.

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