"I don't go out to catch people," the great documentarian Albert Maysles once told a class at UCLA. "I go out to find them."
Maysles, who died in March at age 88, found an enormous variety of individuals during his half-century as a filmmaker, from actorMarlon Brando to LaLee Wallace, an impoverished great-grandmother living in rural Mississippi.
It's a fluke of theatrical scheduling that two of Maysles' films, the brand-new "Iris" and a restoration of his 1975 classic "Grey Gardens," debut in theaters Friday, and looking at them back to back sheds light on both his methods and the nature of his results.
"Grey Gardens," a cinéma vérité snapshot of mother and daughter Big and Little Edie Beale, reclusive eccentrics and the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jackie Kennedy, is one of the most celebrated and influential of Maysles' films. It inspired a Broadway show and an HBO drama and had a considerable impact on the world of fashion. Seen today, however, it frankly feels more exploitative than involving.
"Iris" is also concerned with fashion, but Maysles' portrait of Iris Apfel, a 93-year-old self-described "geriatric starlet," is surprisingly memorable, graced with an unforced but unmistakable charm.
With both films (co-directors of the first included brother David, who died in 1987) Albert Maysles is behind the camera and visibly interacting with his subjects, even being flirted with by the Beales, who call the brothers their "gentleman callers."
Maysles' passion for shooting (Jean-Luc Godard called him "the best American cameraman") takes you effortlessly into his subject's lives. He hangs out for so long, people get used to his presence, and that makes all the difference. When one of the Beales asks him, "Are you taking pictures?," he immediately answers "Always."
On the surface, Iris Apfel looks just as kooky as the Beales, but refreshingly this turns out not to be the case. Yes, with her trademark huge round glasses and her genius for costume jewelry ("My mother worshipped at the alter of accessories," she says at one point), the theatrical Apfel could qualify as the world's oldest fashionista. But when she talks, you want to listen.
That's because Apfel not only has a lively sense of humor and a great spirit, she also is a remarkably sane and sensible individual. When she remembers her conversations with the legendary woman who founded Loehmann's ("She told me, 'You have something better than beauty, you have style'") or ruminates about the current state of fashion ("I like individuality, it's so lost these days, it's all so homogenized, I hate it") she effortlessly holds your attention. Iris is a complete individual, having her moment and relishing it.
It is also enormously entertaining to follow Iris, as Maysles assiduously does, through her tireless shopping trips around New York, watching her use a Ziploc bag as a purse and haggling ("I can't help it, I'm cheap") whenever she has the chance.
"It's the process I like as much as wearing it, getting dressed for the party is more fun than going there," she says, adding later, "I get more of a kick out of something that costs $4 and change than when my husband takes me to Harry Winston."
That husband, Carl Apfel, whom Iris says she married "when dinosaurs walked the Earth," is shown celebrating his 100th birthday, and the poignancy and worry both share about the inevitable effects of aging are unexpected and moving.
In theory, you could say the same thing about "Grey Gardens," and in the decades since its release many people have. But rather than enlarging our understanding, this film plays inescapably voyeuristically, the unacknowledged ancestor of forays into reality TV.
Intentionally claustrophobic, "Grey Gardens" is shot entirely in the environs of the 28-room East Hampton mansion — complete with eight cats and no running water — that gives the film its name.
Before we meet the Beales, we see newspapers detailing their plight: "Jackie's Aunt Told To Clean Up Mansion" reads one, "Mother and Daughter Ordered To Clean House Or Get Out" another explains.
Though you can't tell it by the awful mess that remains, Big and Little Edie apparently had cleaned up somewhat before the Maysleses showed up to film. Once society page beauties and still totally at ease, they spend their time eating ice cream, listening to celebrated positive thinker Dr. Norman Vincent Peale on the radio and sniping at each other about what might have been in their lives.
These women care about each other, and both (especially eccentric dresser Little Edie) are born exhibitionists, happy to tell all in front of the camera. But not even the Beales' eager complicity as they rehash the past and exhume old resentments can make a thing of beauty out of their endless litany of bickering. By all means celebrate Albert Maysles by seeing "Iris," but leave "Grey Gardens" alone.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse, Pasadena, Cinefamily, Los Angeles, Westpark, Irvine.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles