Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:20
The subject of Albert Maysles’ documentary “Iris” may remind you (in a good way) of a New Yorker cartoon. Iris Apfel is a tiny, white-haired, nonagenarian fixture of New York’s fashion scene who favors enormous round glasses, kaleidoscopic outfits and junk jewelry, which she wears by the pound. She wants you to remember her, and you do.
In fashion matters, Apfel is an avowed enemy of conformity, and likens her process of selecting what to wear to the improvisations of a jazz performer. Working in a field that seems to attract unctuous sorts, she is, at age 93, blunt, funny, occasionally salty and quite adept at delivering zingers.
The filmmaker clearly delights in her company, and we sometimes catch glimpses of him or hear him speaking, a departure from the usual dictates of the “direct cinema” he long practiced.
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Maysles, who died in March at age 88, was one of America’s most renowned documentarians, often working with his brother, David. Perhaps their best-known works are their 1970s films “Gimme Shelter,” about the ill-fated Altamont concert, and “Grey Gardens,” a portrait of a mother-and-daughter pair of New York eccentrics that some critics felt drifted into exploitation.
In “Iris,” we visit the Park Avenue apartment Apfel shares with her husband, Carl, who turned 100 during the filming. The two made their mark by operating Old World Weavers, which caught the eye of high-end decorators by re-creating antique textiles. By 2005, her personal style was well known enough that it became the subject of a highly successful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nowadays she is a grande dame, dispensing her wisdom to younger members of the industry and remaining surprisingly busy. She’s an avid haggler, and the film takes us on a few of her many shopping sprees at everything from 99-cent stores to the likes of Bergdorf Goodman. She has a costume jewelry line she sells on TV.
There’s more here than just an amused portrait of an offbeat individual. It quietly sounds a somber note on the theme of old age, which must have been on the director’s mind — this is one of his very last films. Apfel makes no attempt to deny the pains and rigors of life in her ninth decade, and she is also touchingly solicitous about her husband’s increasing fragility.
Still, the chief virtue of “Iris” is its amiability — it’s a delight to spend time in Apfel’s company, and thanks to Albert Maysles, we can.
(At the Tivoli.)
| Walter Addiego
San Francisco Chronicle