One of the most influential documentary filmmakers that America ever had to offer, Albert Maysles is most notable for his work in the 1970s; from Gimme Shelter (1970) which followed the Rolling Stones, exposing the events of their shocking Altamont concert in 1969, to Grey Gardens (1975) which introduced the world to Big Edie and Little Edie, the “quirky” aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, living their lives in a Havishham-esque mansion in East Hampton, New York.
Prior to the sad passing of Maysles in March 2015, it is one of his last films – Iris (2014) – that highlights his exceptional talent, showcasing what made him such a significant name in the world of documentary filmmaking. Here, he follows the day-to-day life of style icon Iris Apfel; a name known better in the New York fashion scene than Vogue editor Anna Wintour herself.
Whether noticeable or not, the vast majority of independent documentaries hold a narrative that often questions ethical values. Seemingly charming throughout the duration, Advanced Style (2014) abruptly ends with the death of New York socialite and fashion icon Zelda Kaplan, whilst Paris Is Burning (1990) ends with the tragic murder of New York drag queen and sex worker Venus Xtravaganza. Having seen such films, it is easy for spectators to become cynical about the direction of the documentary that they are watching.
“Is what I’m watching a respectful, ethical film that solely aims to follow what is at the face value?”
For Iris, yes.
It is a breath of fresh air to see a documentary that so passionately cares about the subject at hand. We see Iris in industry – so beautifully modest as she is treasured by those around her – but, primarily, we see her partaking in day-to-day life. Feeling so remarkably natural, it becomes obvious that this documentary has been manipulated to a minimal extent. In brief moments, Iris and Maysles share warm interactions that demonstrates friendship and respect; something so bizarrely rare in such films. The significance of Iris’ career and legacy comes across so greatly subtle, far from forced and unwelcome.
Aesthetically, one may argue that Iris is “boring”, sharing the generic style of a documentary. Yet, what may not be realised is that such a style and technique was pioneered by Maysles in the early stages of his career. If we compare Iris to such a film as Grey Gardens, the mechanism and aesthetic become so distinct, hence Iris highlights Maysles’ exceptional talent as a documentary filmmaker. Ultimately, this so perfectly defines Iris as a diamond in the late life and career of the phenomenal Albert Maysles.
- Reviewed by Daniel Sheppard