The Silver Screen | Iris Apfel

As part of our Silver Screen Series, we highlight the themes of aging being explored in the art form of film. This month, we headed out to the debut of “Iris”.  

You can hear Iris Apfel coming before you ever see her. As her documentary film begins, stacks of bangles and necklaces announce her presence before the screen fades into images/content of her getting ready in her playful and eclectic home. Her home, by the way, is stuffed full along with other homes with one of the largest collections of couture clothing and costume jewelry. Along with her signature enormous round glasses, Iris has many names she is known by; she is an artist, an interior designer, a textile designer who served the White House, the “rare bird of fashion”. If you ask her these days, she would refer to herself humorously as a “geriatric starlet”. This year Iris Apfel will turn 94.

Iris is not the only artist pushing 90 in this film. In fact the 87-year old documentarian, Albert Mayseles, is the one who insisted on turning his camera toward Iris to capture that indescribable something about how she dresses and how she lives in the world that draws millions toward her. This was in fact his final film as he passed away shortly after its release. The iconic New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, who also had a recent documentary film, is visible in the background of many scenes. At the age of 86, he is still taking snapshots of the rare bird and other New Yorkers using fashion as a form of self-expression.

What all of these characters hold in common is both a compulsive impulse to work and the conviction that work should be a kind of obsessive play. Each in their own way is able to manifest a world where their creativity drives their success irrespective of what the world thinks of them. They are an engaged, driven, curious, creative tribe. What struck me the most was that none of them acted their age, but instead had a child-like agelessness about them. But, what is acting the age of a 90 year old look like? Has society come to expect frailty, isolation, loss of faculties, the ceasing for work? Instead, here were individuals who had never fallen out of love with their passions.  They had humor and didn’t take themselves seriously. They had a deep need to get out of bed, to do the activities that made them feel like themselves, to place themselves and participate in their own story. We should all be so lucky.  

While the film portrays her life as perpetually humming, beneath the wild colors, the string of interviews, the staging store windows, and Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits, there is the undertow of aging. Iris lives with her husband, entering his second century of living. In many ways, the film is a love story that depicts their life adventure, their affection and concern for one another. The supporting characters of the film are a pair of caregivers depicted as preparing meals, managing the household, taking calls, and providing care for her husband. Iris lovingly refers to them as “the chiefs of the house”. Having recently undergone hip surgery after a fall in the night, Iris walks with a cane or is pushed in a wheelchair for longer trips. Many scenes depict her giving away costumes, jewelry, and furniture to museums and collectors. There is a forward momentum to her life as well as the narrative of letting go.

To some, this film may seem to be a frivolous indulgence in bizarre fashion. And yet, it is really about this grand experiment with longevity. If you skip the film, at least don’t skip their tacit questions: What does it look like to ‘act our age’?  What support will we, as an aging society, rely on to continue to be ourselves and engage in life? Iris is showing us a way to be visible and have voice, not so much in the clothing she wears, but in the way she insists on being herself regardless of what others think, what trials come, or her age. Perhaps this is one of the great gifts of aging- to at last feel comfortable in your own skin, to at last ask freely for help. She sums it up best when asked to describe her life philosophy in three words: “Just One Trip.”  


Click here to view a trailer to the film “Iris”   

Published on May 15, 2015.