Great documentaries can shatter stereotypes.
Take old people, for example. In recent geriatric comedies such as “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” they are regarded as cute, crotchety clichés, doddering about as if they were people like anyone else, wrinkled children pretending to be the grown-ups they once were. So powerful is this preconception that nonagenarian Iris Apfel, the subject of Albert Maysles’s penultimate documentary (he died in March, at 88), with her saucer-size Harry Potter glasses, gnome-like face, purple hair, and multi-layered, bird of paradise outfits, seems at first a figure of fun.
And so she is — she might be the most fun of any person you’ll see on film this year, with a wit, candor, and imagination that match in vibrancy her most outlandish assemblages.
Her profession is difficult to categorize. With her husband, Carl, a doughty if worrisomely fragile presence who celebrates his 100th birthday in the film, she operated a textile restoration company that served notable clients including several White House administrations. The Apfels retired in 1992, but since then Iris has pursued her true vocation, which is to shop for clothes and accessories with voracity and acumen and to reconstruct these items into mindboggling, sui generis ensembles.
She is a genius of found fashion, a bricoleur of odds and ends found in bins and bazaars, from Harlem storefronts to the houses of haute couture. Not until 2005, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute presented “Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection,” a smash hit show of Apfel originals that traveled to several venues, including the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, did the world outside of fashion learn of her work, and Apfel became, in her words, “a geriatric starlet.”
Maysles catches up with Apfel in the midst of this late-life success, and it’s no easy task to keep up with her. In between testimonials from such experts as designer Dries van Noten and photographer Bruce Weber, and montages of items from Apfel’s closets and warehouses, the film records her breakneck schedule. It includes appearances on “The Martha Stewart Show” and the Shopping Channel, modeling for the cover of Dazed magazine and teaching fashion students from the University of Texas how to shop for finds in Manhattan thrift shops.
It’s a study of the creative imagination, like that in “Gimme Shelter” (1970), without the narcissism, mania or, violence, and the inverse of the delusional grandeur in “Grey Gardens” (1975), both movies Maysles made with his brother, David. “Iris” doesn’t attain the greatness of either of those films. But this might be Maysles’s most beautifully visual film, doing justice to the startling and perfectly coordinated colors and textures of Apfel’s inspirations. It’s a fitting coda to Maysles’s career (his last film, “In Transit,” has yet to be released) and tribute to the exuberant spirit of his subject.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.