In Iris, world premiering at the New York Film Festival, director Albert Maysles warmly reveals that Iris Apfel is a lot more than her trademark large owlish glasses. The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute touted her fashion collection and idiosyncratic style sense in a 2005 traveling exhibit, “Rara Avis,” when she was 84. Previously, she appeared as a colorful guest in other fashion documentaries (Bill Cunningham New York).
Maysles follows Apfel, now in her nineties, for a year-plus, going beyond the front rows at couture runways: She hawks her popular lines for Home Shopping Network and MAC Cosmetics, and is photographed by Bruce Weber for Vogue. Her style consultations for thrilled, diverse customers at Loehmann’s, the discount clothing store, bring her back to her roots in Brooklyn. That’s where the store’s founding doyenne spotted the teenager roaming the aisles and gave her lasting advice, “Young lady, you’ll never be pretty. But you have style.”
While her biography is peeped at through a family photo album, Maysles’s legendary cinema verité technique is most effective at watching her shop, from designers’ studios to poking through street fair dollar bins and haggling at stalls in Harlem—she persists in working after surgery (and in a wheelchair). She selects from her mind-bogglingly extensive closets (with separate rooms for furs) at her Park Avenue and Palm Beach apartments for dazzling montages that demonstrate her amazing eye in creatively modifying and repurposing outfits with arms full of bangles, her own designed shoes, and even more vibrant accessories.
Her years as a prominent interior designer are quickly glimpsed through a few shelter magazine pages (her work isn’t really seen), which led her to build up (and later sell) the successful textile manufacturing company Old World Weavers that revived historic patterns with traditional techniques. She’s particularly proud of special assignments for museum restorations and for the White House, seen in a clip of Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1962 televised tour.
Apfel’s twice-a-year business buying trips to Europe were with her devoted older husband, Carl (he took the home movie clips from their travels). Much of the film fondly looks at their continuing affection and mutual support over their 65-year marriage after a whirlwind courtship, and he chuckles at still calling her his “child bride,” even as he grows weaker and celebrates his 100th birthday. (She’s almost as concerned for the octogenarian Maysles, offering him refreshments and insisting he join her in front of the camera after the credits.)
Much love is sent to the nonagenarian from many designers and editors, as well as a nephew, amidst a bit too much visual emphasis on her late-in-life celebrity status. Most impressive is how the determined Iris continues her serious connoisseurship legacy as a mentor and garment district guide with the University of Texas. She teaches the appreciation for quality textile manufacturing to new generations and even the curator of the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, MA (where she continues to make donations from her collection), on the significance of the quality of antique materials and stitching. Each carefully unwrapped rare item releases a flood of memories from the time of purchase and the events where she wore them.
Iris is more like Megumi Sasaki’s inspiring portraits of devoted art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel in Herb & Dorothy 50×50 than the too many, narrowly fawning documentaries on fashionistas. It will doubtlessly be more widely seen, so more can benefit from her advice for staying youthful: “Keep busy and creative!”
In the festival’s renamed “Projections” section, Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air marvelously illuminates how an “experimental” or “avant-garde” approach creatively adds to a documentary subject. It was stranger-than-fiction in 2003 when the New York Police Department learned that a 500-pound tiger and a seven-foot alligator were living in a Harlem public housing apartment. British artist Phillip Warnell goes beyond the news and Animal Planet coverage to explore all points of view.
The geographical context is first established by incredulous police radio reports in the night, and then the human dimension as Warnell drives Antoine Yates around the old neighborhood to talk about the two pets Yates raised over five years, named Ming the tiger and Al the alligator. He points out where he would buy them food as they grew and their appetites kept increasing (and friendly bites became more dangerous). As Antoine reminisces of the paradise he found up on the roof playing with his roommates, we dizzyingly tour their beautiful 360-degree skyline view, 21 stories up, at different times of the day.
Amidst that talk, and a cool score, much of the film creeps up on you from the animals’ perspective of the urban jungle. As two of the complex’s 3,000 residents, they lived in a large, multibedroom high-rise apartment, as seen through cameras installed in a wonderfully reconstructed mock-up (actually within the grounds of a zoo), as they pace and slither down hallways and roam from room to room. The restless tiger circling and jumping from bed to sunny windows (where neighbors glimpsed him to feed an urban myth) to food counter is as fun to watch as any Internet cat video, while the alligator slowly heading to the bathtub adds the dimension of its contrasting sense of time. Antoine has no regrets, but he, too, had to serve time in a restricted space, in jail (besides losing his lease).