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The Uncivil Servant: Albert Maysles’ Last Film

Mitchell Abidor
April 25, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

maysles-brosALBERT MAYSLES, the documentary filmmaker who directed, along with his brother David (who died in 1987), three classic films, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens, died in March of this year at age 88, just before the release of his final film, Iris. His earlier films, aside from their pure cinematic genius, said something profound about America. Salesman, about a door-to-door bible salesman, was also about the nexus between cash and religion, and the desperation just beneath the surface of American life. Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, at which an out-of-control audience member was killed by the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security for the concert, revealed the ugliness beneath the surface of the hippie moment. Grey Gardens was about the decay of the American aristocracy. Iris, a portrait of the fashionista Iris Apfel, is a film that says far too eloquently — and doubtless unintentionally — that America has reached a state of near-absolute hollowness. It’s a homage to a woman famous for wearing eccentric clothing and much costume jewelry. It’s a film about... nothing.

iris_posterWe are, I suppose, meant to be enchanted by this eccentric and lively 90-year-old and her centenarian husband, and by her vestimentary free spirit, which allows her to combine whatever strikes her fancy with whatever else strike her fancy. But sitting through the film I kept waiting for something to be revealed, something that would take us beneath and beyond the beads. But as with Gertrude Stein’s Pittsburgh, in Iris there is no there there. Her reflections on life are hackneyed, her shlepping around of her husband and choosing absurd clothing for him is nearly offensive, and the constant fawning over her, as if turning a pair of pants into a jacket is a major accomplishment, is embarrassing to watch. This is, after all, a woman who makes appearances on the Home Shopping Network and at makeover sessions at the now defunct Loehmann’s.

Who is this woman? Where is she from? Does she have a thought outside her closet? Maysles tells us nothing. We see instead two infantile senior citizens, their home stuffed with childish tchotchkes more pathetic than moving.

Albert Maysles possessed real genius, and perhaps he thought that with Iris he would be able to express something positive about old age, about the ability to remain alive and vibrant and to care about your appearance long after most have given up. And yes, there is that in Iris. But someone whose pearls of wisdom include “to everything there is a season” is not the person to tell us that there is life after 90. She is instead a demonstration that emptiness and shallowness are not just the province of the young. This is not a monument to Albert Maysles career. It is, at best, a footnote.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender; a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès; and Voices of the Paris Commune.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.