Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Maysles Brothers Redux

Noted documentarian Albert Maysles passed away in March of this year.  The Vogue Theater had a retrospective of his work in May. I saw three films in that series.  In August, the Castro Theater showed a double bill of his work.

Iris; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles; (2014) - Official Website
Grey Gardens; documentary; directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Muffie Meyer; (1975)

The subject of Iris is Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who resides in New York City.  The film was made by an octogenarian (Maysles) about a nonagenerian (Apfel) and her centenarian husband.  Apfel's husband Carl Apfel passed away a few months ago at the age of 100.

I had never heard of Iris Apfel before this film.  Apfel & her husband ran an influential interior decorating consultancy.  Well known in NYC social circles for her singular sense of fashion and her legendarily large wardrobe, Apfel's profile was raised considerably when the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a last-minute substitute exhibit in 2005.  MOMA asked Apfel to allow them to exhibit some of her clothes and the exhibit was a smash.

On its surface, Iris is a biographical documentary on Apfel.  However, Maysles admiration for her sense of style, hard work & common sense are apparent.  The film celebrates Iris Apfel's life which is largely defined by her marriage to Carl Apfel.  Seemingly being led. by the nose by his wife, Carl Apfel must have been quite a man in his younger days.  There is a treasure trove of home movies and photos of their marriage because Carl was diligent in documenting their travels.  A partner in their interior decorating firm, Carl Apfel perfectly complimented his flamboyant wife and the two of them thrived (professionally & personally) because of it.  Make no mistake, the film makes clear that Iris is and was the alpha in the relationship.

Iris could have been made by a different (i.e. younger) filmmaker but because it was Maysles and now he and Carl Apfel have died, the film occasionally has an elegiac quality that may have been consciously designed by Maysles.  The viewer gets the sense that Maysles knew Iris would be his swan song and he chose a kindred spirit to close out his career.l

Ultimately, Iris (the film & the person) are life-affirming and not because of some philosophy which Apfel chooses to adhere to but rather because it is the most sensible course of action.

In its tone and subject matter, Grey Gardens could not be different than Iris.  Grey Gardens focuses on Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale.  Big Edie was Jacqueline Kennedy's paternal aunt and Little Edie was her first cousin.  Although not estranged, the Beales did not socialize with the former First Lady.  I believe Little Edie said she was not invited to her cousin's marriage to JFK.

The two women (both have subsequently died) lived in dilapidated beach mansion in East Hampton, New York.  The squalor was documented by various publications and the property was facing condemnation by local authorities.  Although not mentioned in the film, Kennedy & her younger sister provided funds for the upkeep of Grey Gardens as the estate was known.  I can only imagine what the property looked like before because the film makes it look extremely rundown.

The Maysles Brothers allow the women to share their own life stories in their own words.  As I recall, Big Edie claimed her brother (Jackie's father) cheated her out of her share of the family inheritance.  Her husband left her for another woman.  The state of Grey Gardens is a result of the financial deprivations Big Edie suffered after her divorce.

For her part, Little Edie had dreams of being a singing star.  She sings on film.  Her past includes an extramarital affair with Harry S. Truman's Secretary of the Interior.  In the 1950s Big Edie begged thirtysomething Little Edie to move from Manhattan back to Grey Gardens to care for her.  Little Edie claims she was on the cusp of stardom and seemingly resented her mother for the imposition.

By the time the Maysles Brothers show up, the two women are like Crawford & Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Isolated, dysfunctional, impoverished, resentful towards each other but tied together by maternal bonds, the women are comic and tragic.  Big Edie seems resigned to her lot in life and tries to make the best of the situation.  Her major complaint seems to be the aggravation her daughter causes her.  Little Edie seems delusional and still dreams of being a cabaret singer.

Their backstory and living conditions are too good to be true for skilled documentary filmmakers like the Maysles.  With little coaxing (or at least editing out the coaxing), the Maysles Brother get the Beale women to share their stories in conversational style.  For their part, the Beales show no self-consciousness of their living conditions.  It's just another day in the life of Big & Little Edie.

Gimme Shelter made me a fan of the Maysles' films but Iris & Grey Gardens cement it for me.  I'm going to take every opportunity to see more of their films.

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