PBS TV Review: Iris

Iris Apfel in "Iris," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Iris Apfel in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

On its face, fashion is a serious business … yet look who’s laughing now.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

It’s not just that the ninetysomething Iris Apfel is visually outrageous, charismatic and shrewdly funny – it’s that her rags-to-famous-rags story is a documentarian’s dream. Previously known to only to a select few in the industry, Iris suddenly became a worldwide hit at the age of 84 when, in 2005, the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art came calling. The museum needed an exhibition post-haste, and since Iris owned one of the best couture costume collections in the U.S., the Met asked if she would contribute some pieces. Soon thereafter, the museum featured a full exhibit entitled “Rara Avis (Rare Bird): Selections From the Iris Apfel Collection.” Subsequently, her life turned into a whirl of magazine cover shoots, TV interviews, an HSN line of jewelry, etc. And she never looked back (well, unless it was to view her outfit in a 3-way mirror).

Filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) initially met Iris through a third party. “From the moment I met her I knew there was a film there.” In a 2015 interview in Vogue about the documentary, Iris stated, “I had no idea what he had in mind—he doesn’t work with a script—and so it was all on blind faith. We just filmed on and off, mostly off, for four years. But when we were together, we took a lot of footage.”

Iris Apfel and director Albert Maysles in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Iris Apfel and director Albert Maysles in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Iris is primarily an observational documentary … and Iris is perfect to observe. This self-ascribed “geriatric starlet” is a natural-born storyteller, bright, confident and always entertaining. With her eyes peering out behind supersize spectacles, effecting the look of a dauntless owl, the petite woman freely speaks her mind. In her unmistakable Queens, NY accent, her words smacking of self-deprecatory wit, Iris regales with reminiscences, delicious quotes and frank opinion. When fashion designer Duro Olowu wheelchairs her through the claustrophobic shops north of 125th street, she says, “The population of Harlem has much more style than the people downtown — they always wear black. It’s not really a style … it’s a uniform.” Later, when a fashionista praises her on her predilection toward the big, the bold and the pizzazz, she says, “Color can raise the dead.”

The movie initially appears to be a simple bio/documentary about the Queens, NY native, born in 1921, who worked in interior design, hand-woven fabrics (designing exact reproductions from the 17th century on), and restored historic interiors, including the White House. Iris and her husband Carl eventually took their business around the world, in search of unique pieces for clients and themselves. But like the woman herself, this documentary is so much more. Iris examines self-determination, relentless individuality, devil-may-care creativity, late-in-life fame and mortality. And it’s also a touching romance.

The film introduces Iris as she gives a tour of a few outrageous outfits, breezily throwing out pithy reflections as verbal accompaniment. Maysles’s camera is a loyal sycophant, happy to follow her from her tchotchke-laden home, to her frequent walks around the streets of New York, to her interviews, shows and lectures in front of an often young, adoring fanbase.

Earlier years are reflected in snapshots, including those of Iris’s and Carl’s 1948 wedding. Iris’s assessment: “He was cool, he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese … I couldn’t do any better.” Carl wears multiple hats (stylish, of course) as her business partner, best friend and devoted husband. He calls her “my child bride,” and she gently responds with the moniker of “my pussycat.”

Carl and Iris Apfel in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Carl and Iris Apfel in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Given that the documentary had been sporadically shot over four years, it’s unsettling to witness Carl’s deteriorating health. From an ever-jovial mate, bursting into song, Carl shrinks into a frail old man, reliant on his wheelchair, often unable to catch his breath. In a telling moment, Maysles captures a close-up of the couple’s hands, one enfolding the other. Where holding hands was once a sweet, casual gesture, now these same, decidedly aging hands have to hold fast, for as long as they’re able.

Hence the underlying thrum to this piece, the pervasive sense that the future … simply isn’t. When Iris and Carl think the camera is no longer shooting, their smiles fade, their faces drop, revealing a depth of melancholy that’s almost too painful to watch. Though she cloaks her despair in humor, Iris is achingly aware of the clock — which makes her ferocity to live all the more poignant.

A sobering postscript: Approximately two months prior to the film’s official U.S. release, on March 5, 2015, Albert Maysles passed away at the age of 88. And on August 1, 2015, 3 days before his 101st birthday, Carl Apfel died of congestive heart failure.

Per Iris, reporting that she’s “still vertical” as she nears her 95th year: “What’s wrong with being 72 or 82 or 92? If God is good enough to give you those years, flaunt them. The alternative to old is not very pleasant.”

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Rating on a scale of 5 Material Girls: 4

Release date: August 1, 2016 on POV PBS
A Film by: Albert Maysles
Featuring: Iris Apfel, Carl Apfel, Billy Apfel, Bruce Weber
Running Time: 78 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer for Iris:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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