I have no special penchant for documentaries, but I was persuaded by the critics to see Iris (2015) at the NFT (National Film Theatre). It was shown at the Studio screen, where, if short of stature, your viewing is obscured by rows of backs of heads unless you are seated in the front row where you are likely to acquire a stiff neck in no time. A quick assessment of these heads showed no female white hair and only a sprinkling of men’s more or less abundant head covering.
Personally I have no interest in fashion and I must admit that I struggled against dozing off during repetitive scenes of Iris choosing couture clothes that she adorned with costume jewellery fit for giants. She displayed these on her body in a flamboyant performance of style and assurance. Young women involved in the fashion industry admired her as did Maysles’s camera. The witty remarks referred to in the reviews were few. The most quoted ones were “It is better to be happy than well dressed” or “A woman is as old as she looks but a man is never old until he stops looking”.
It seems to me that what used to be the tyranny of fashion in my youth has given way to the tyranny of ‘style’. Two documentaries about old women and ‘style’ have obtained, in the last few months a limited but still general release in London: Advanced Syle (2014) and Iris (2014). It distresses me to notice that even in old age women are given attention when they function as clothes horses. At the same time Sue Bourne’s Fabulous Fashionistas (2013), where women are seen as full human beings was only shown on TV.
I must admit, however, that like a handful of critics, I saw under the ‘fashion icon’, the Apfel ‘brand’ an infinitely sad ageing woman. Towards the end of the film Apfel does reveal under the outrageous make up, the huge glasses and the false smile and mask, the futility of possessions. She stands in the middle of a warehouse full of her objects, a tragic look on her face. Young women are giving delicate care packing the expensive dresses she has accumulated over the years. “Does the decision (of what to give away) keep you awake at night?” She replies : ” No, much more serious things keep me awake”. Pressed to elucidate she murmurs: health and …. It seemed to me that in this instant, Iris grasps the futility of the mass of worldly artefacts collected over the lifetime by her and her husband. She is asked to smile for the camera and she smiles.
In this film we get only glimpses of her life as a career woman and her collaboration with her husband. Their loving relationship is only skimmed over. Her insistence that one cannot have children and a career has a tinge of regret.
What often strikes me is the difference between what a film shows and how it is perceived. How many of the reviewers that give Iris the 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes or 80% on Metascore point out the deeper strands in this film? How many of the young women at the NFT sensed the tragic tone of this documentary? Some of the reviewers who know the work of Maysles have detected under the larger than life, loud, creative woman in her 90s, a frail old loving woman often in pain * who knows how to hide her feelings…filmed by an old 88 years old documentary maker who died soon after.
Celebrity at work again since Iris only became famous after the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition success. The exhibition was called Rara Avis (rare bird) a name that I find a tad patronising and dare I say, ageist… ** The light shines over ‘style’ rather than the inner life of the woman.
This film would make a great subject for research in spectatorship, or a focus for a discussion on ageing, fame, consumerism.
*“Whatever I have two of, one of them hurts,”
**Stylish, creative old women are not rare – at least not in New York – see Ari Seth Cohen’s work- or London – see Sue Bourne’s. Yet another collection of photos of ‘elegant old women’ : Tirza Brott’s Pentimento “Sometimes she asked for their stories, but mostly she preferred to keep their pasts a fantasy”.