Our Al
by Jeff Reichert

Dir. Albert Maysles, U.S., Magnolia Pictures

If the Maysles’ now legendary 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter were released today, how would it be received? Would 21st century audiences and critics, grown accustomed to nonfiction filmmaking obsessed with dotting i’s and crossing t’s, soak up the film’s hazy ambiguities? Or would they ask that the film do more, and pick at all its lingering questions: Who was the man who was stabbed? Who was the Hell’s Angel who stabbed him? What were their lives like? What happened after? Was there a trial? (And, finally, where’s the petition to stop rock violence?) One can imagine the dictates of contemporary mainstream documentary filmmaking forcing a very different kind of Gimme Shelter from the same material, one that downplays the original’s unhurried documenting of place, interrogation of the celebrity icon, and clear-eyed capturing of that moment when the dream of the sixties inexorably gave away to the blankly hungover seventies, in favor of something more mundane. A film of “this then this then this” reportage and interviews. Perhaps, for good measure, a soupçon of Rashomon-style mystery that’s gradually chiseled down to make way for the establishment of a comforting master narrative. Facts have value in nonfiction filmmaking, but it’s surprising how often they obscure the truth of things.

It’s now 45 years since Gimme Shelter, and the recently departed Albert Maysles has a new documentary called Iris. In it, we can see the influence of the intervening years on his practice—we can see it in the inclusion of a flashy graphic montage; in talking heads interviews with impressively titled folks sounding off on the singularity of the subject’s artistic practice; in an overall architecture that allows for the doling out of biographical and chronological information neatly. These are all elements that would have been verboten in the wild olden days when the Drew Associates gang was roving around with their handheld cameras. While it doesn’t descend to the banality of other fashion-concerned documentaries like The September Issue, Iris displays a different kind of filmmaking than we have come to expect from Al Maysles, who here takes his first solo credit as a director since a short made in 1961. It’s even a step away from later, less discussed works like Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (1996), LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), or The Gates (2007), all of which exhibit various evolutions from the legacy films Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens (1976), each of which, in its own way, tussled with the now hallowed purism attributed to Direct Cinema.

Iris, a genial portrait of nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, “tells” us almost as much about its subject as it “shows” (to use a crude distinction often operative in documentary that implicitly places higher value on the latter). We are told much from Iris herself, both in interview and in situ addressing Al’s camera with a warm familiarity. We also hear from her circle: husband Carl, various curators, designers, journalists—even a nebbishy nephew worried his aunt works too hard pops up on-screen every now and again. We learn about Iris’s professional life, which kicked into gear after marrying Carl in 1948 and founding with him the textile importing firm Old World Weavers two years later. This led to a slew of interior design projects over the course of the company’s 40-plus year lifespan, including work in the White House for nine different presidents. Her outsized personal style, a riotous blend of fabrics, colors, patterns, and assorted bric-a-brac, took center stage in 2005 when a planned Metropolitan Museum of Art fashion show fell through and Iris pulled from her personal collection to save the day. Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel, toured the U.S. and catapulted Iris into the public eye. She jokes in the film about being a ninety-year-old “It Girl,” and between a teaching gig with UT Austin, constant interviews, public appearances, photo shoots, design consulting, and selling her own line of accessories, Ms. Apfels seems constantly on the move.

Iris benefits much from Maylses having chosen Iris Apfels as his subject. This may seem obvious, but Maysles’s movie could have taken many different routes—perhaps a more process-oriented film about building the initial 2005 exhibition or the launch of her clothing line (like The Gates), or a more time-delimited piece, following Iris over a proscribed period (like What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A or Gimme Shelter). But by choosing simply “Iris” and all the person that Iris Apfels entails, Maysles has afforded himself the freedom to ramble through her life and work, to jump around in time, to pull in ideas about style, fashion, individuality, aging, and mortality. These last two may well have been the true covert subject for the 88 year-old Maysles. This approach leaves Iris lumpy, full of weirdly shaped odds and ends, moments that speak to the outsized qualities of Iris’s character without necessary pointing back to some larger narrative arc. It also makes Iris a quite human, very Maysles film at heart.

In the wake of Al Maysles’s recent passing, it was common to note something along the lines of how “his camera was always in the right place.” Surely Maysles himself didn’t think his camera was always in the right place, or his films would likely run to Claude Lanzmann–esque lengths. Where this idea, of having a “camera always in the right place,” is most valuable lies in the work it suggests around the actual moment a shot is made. Thus, great documentary filmmakers don’t just arrive at a scene, collect the goods, and go—rather they hang around, make themselves available and open, so that if, say, Paul McCartney and George Harrison try highly unsuccessfully to close a suitcase at the end of their first blockbuster U.S. trip, that moment can be captured by a camera and shared in What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. Always being in the right place in documentary only happens when continuity of physical presence is paired with an active, curious eye, something Albert Maysles has evinced ever since his first short, 1957’s Psychiatry in Russia, broke from its staid newsy mold to watch the daughter of one of the psychiatrists frolicking in a sun-dappled playground.

Maysles’s camera is certainly in the right place any time it watches Iris and Carl, still clearly in love after decades, as they negotiate their overstuffed home, go shopping, travel, bicker. It’s also in the right place when it follows Iris as she peruses an African clothing store in Hell’s Kitchen and negotiates with the storeowner for some gaudy bracelets. Carl’s 100th birthday party—absolutely. And it’s definitely in the right place filming a sequence where Iris is called to help dress a series of mannequins destined for a Fifth Avenue window display. It’s here that we can corroborate the contention made by everyone around Iris that what she has done with style—her rampant collaging and recombining of elements—constitutes a singular kind of art. She’s the Joseph Cornell of costume jewelry. The only times where Iris falters are in those bits that feel intuitively foreign to Maysles’s filmmaking: that gaudy, quite terrible bit of animation; the stilted, formal talking heads interviews. The concern suggested by these tactics is that context is key and king for today’s audiences.

Defining auteurism in nonfiction filmmaking isn’t always an easy task, especially where the employment of cinéma vérité is concerned. This is partially a problem of criticism—a widely accepted and understood taxonomy of documentary technique hasn’t developed concurrent to the proliferation of documentary films. It’s also a problem of taking the idea of auteurism, created in relation to narrative cinema and often based on examining the kinds of shots chosen and deployed by directors with some regularity (Welles’s love of the low angle, Preminger’s long shots in ’Scope, Denis’s fluidity of focal length) and transposing it to nonfiction filmmaking; the unpredictability of in-the-field documentary shooting makes it more difficult to discern the same kind of intentionality around the frame, and it’s often been considered enough to note the existence of cinéma vérité and stop there. But if we consider what we’re looking most often at when we see a Maysles film, perhaps we can discern different markers of auteurism.

Thus, study of the Maysles’ body of work beyond the canonical three films most often cited reveals a physical and emotional closeness to the subject (usually indomitable, famous, or both), an easy rapport with regular talkback to the camera, often the revelation of the camera itself or the sound recordist, and an interest in images that provide a particular sense of the thing at hand rather than help construct a buttoned-up narrative (see how 2009’s Gimme Shelter companion short Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! documents the Stones at Madison Square Garden in only the most sidelong and poetic of ways). The debate around whether or not a subject “forgets” the presence of the camera has always missed the point. What matters is the particular alchemy that arises between a person who wishes to film and those offering themselves up to be filmed. The record of that relationship becomes the documentary itself. This is why people in Errol Morris films seem to behave differently from people in Werner Herzog films or in Albert Maysles films. From Paul McCartney to Edie Beale to Mick Jagger to Larry Holmes to Christo to LaLee Wallace to Iris Apfel, a Maysles protagonist seems to be under the watchful eye of a benevolent friend. The demeanor of the person in front of the lens can tell you a lot about the person behind it.

Is it churlish to contend that a breezy film from a master featuring a true charmer of a subject runs a little long at 78 minutes? Perhaps, but if Iris had swapped its interviews and blandly contextual material for more time hanging out with Ms. Apfels and watching her create, it’d probably work at twice the length. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Maysles choosing to make a movie like Iris, which is very much a documentary of the early 21st century; criticizing Iris for not being Salesman smacks of the implicit chiding Steve James’s Life Itself got for not being The Interrupters. What Iris does have in its favor is the meeting of two irrepressible spirits; both collectors—she of jewelry, clothing, fabric, assorted other tchotchkes, he of images and stories—and both bricoleurs who take their findings and assemble them into combinations that might be otherwise unexpected. Iris is an unpredictably predictable film from a filmmaker who’s often taken us to the unexplored side. Maysles does this here in moments—the film’s best—and because they’re among the last captured by his camera, they’re especially poignant.