Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died in March, was probably best known as part of the team that made the landmark "Salesman," "Gimme Shelter" and the quasi-gothic tragic-comedy "Grey Gardens." That he was also a renowned cinematographer follows logically: He always knew what to shoot and when, and how to get people to relax. But he was never a fly-on-the-wall kind of guy.
In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of "Iris," Maysles' on-the-run portrait of Iris Apfel, 93-year-old fashion maven and icon of style, is how aware the viewer is at all times that a film is being made. Maysles and his brother, David (who died in 1987), were pioneers of verite filmmaking, which now seems to imply an ultra-orthodox anonymity behind the camera. But Maysles obviously believed such policy was posing. There's no moment in "Iris" when one isn't aware of Maysles' presence. Given the frankness of its subject, that's perfectly apt.
Apfel, a woman who makes a statement whenever she gets dressed, was born in Queens, and its echoes can heard as she delivers her occasionally caustic, always knowing comments about fashion and taste. The subject of a smashingly successful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the mid-2000s, she -- and her collection of costume jewelry, textiles and far-flung ensembles -- were saluted by any number of institutions devoted to fashion, and the subsequent attention is something Apfel revels in. Maysles and his team follow her from TV appearance to magazine shoot to her home in Palm Beach; as her friends say, she loves the attention.
Underscored by the perfectly placed music of Steve Gunn, they occasionally engage their subject in tart conversation, or capture the fawning/patronizing comments showered upon her by her well-placed "fans." In a culture to which Apfel has made her own special contribution, old people are supposed to go gently into a kind of quiet invisibility. The subject of "Iris" has no such intention.