A look at the list of my favorite films from 2014 reveals the presence of six extraordinary nonfiction films, and that’s just a taste of the seeming hundreds of docs released last year-- not all of them extraordinary, of course, but all of them indicative of a trend toward the making of the availability of more nonfiction filmmaking than it seems we’ve likely ever seen in this country. And speaking of availability, the six I listed—Ron Mann’s Altman, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s Milius, Orlando von Einsidel’s Virunga, Chaplain and Maclain Way’s The Battered Bastards of Baseball, Stephanie Spray and Pancho Velez’s Manakamana and Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known— were all pictures I caught courtesy of Netflix Streaming. (Virunga was actually produced under the company’s auspices.)
I have a special place in my cinematic heart for nonfiction, both bound between covers and on the screen, big or small. And it seems that in my old age documentary film is the one form that can hold me riveted no matter how tired I may think I am when I start watching. (I was exhausted when I impulsively switched on Manakamana, only wanting a taste and never expecting that I’d find its unblinking gaze energizing, and I ended up watching the entire thing.) There’s something about the knowledge, or at the least the presumption that what I’m seeing in a nonfiction film is in some way, shape or form in pursuit of the preservation of actual human experience, as opposed to its artful restaging in a fictional form, that heightens my senses, my expectations. And when a documentary is really good, when it finds a way to jigger and reshape the form to new and surprising ends, it can be genuinely transporting, a mainline epiphany of the subject’s wonder, confusion, anguish and/or beguilingly original perspective on life.
Of course, just like any other classification of movie available on that streaming service, there’s an incredible load of forgettable filler clogging up the bandwidth—not every movie telling the story of Hitler’s last days, or the Stonewall riots, or the secrets of Nostradamus, or the 10 gnarliest shark attacks of 2015 is going to be a winner. But if you’re willing to keep an eye open for the possibility of a good catch, it’s possible to hook some vital filmmaking by casting a line in the Netflix stream.
Just this past week I caught up with two absorbing documentaries, both of which, by no design of my own, just happen to spin portraits of creative women and the environments in which they and their art flourished and sometimes struggled. These movies stand a good chance of ending up on my list of the best of 2015; they honor their subjects by approaching them with clarity, honesty and a formal vitality that seeks an original cinematic voice to match that of the subject and challenge the preconceived notions of the viewer.
Kiss the Water (2014) examines the life and art of the eccentric, world-renowned fly-tier Megan Boyd, but director Eric Steel (who in 2006 made the gripping and horrifying documentary The Bridge, about the strange beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge and its attraction for suicide jumpers) feels his way into Boyd’s story intuitively, lyrically, with the deceptive lightness that feels almost ghostly. Steel’s unhurried way with the expected anecdotal interview segments help to set the table for Boyd’s upbringing and her obsessive lifestyle. After having moved to Scotland when she was three, Boyd began taking fly tying lessons at age 12 tying flies and got her first paying work at the craft when she was 15. At 20 she moved to a cottage in a small Scottish village and, dressed in her favored style of a man’s shirt and tie, a sport jacket and heavy boots, began a life of 14-hour days creating tiny works of art for the local fishermen to use in their pursuit of North Atlantic salmon.
But it’s the movie’s unusual combination of testimony, animation (much of it based on the sort of water-color painting style one could imagine adorning the walls of a fisherman’s home) and macro-focused observation of actual fly tying, based on the meticulous patterns of Boyd’s own design (and accompanied by spectral narration detailing each turn of thread and the significance of the placement of each feather) that catches the glint of obsessive beauty that one could easily imagine might have inspired Boyd’s internal journey toward perfecting this demanding, specific craft. It also allows Steel access to some of the movie’s other concerns, among them the contradiction of fashioning flies which may in the end be more effective in catching the eye of the fisherman than the fish (Boyd herself was concerned that she was devoted to a practice that encouraged the killing of fish, the thought of which she abhorred), as well as the strange and unknowable nature of the salmon’s own breeding and feeding habits-- the mysteries of why a fish might take one fly in its mouth while completely ignoring another and how an expert fly-tier could possibly design a fly that could consistently attract a salmon’s attention are evoked but go thankfully unanswered here.
All the while, the movie’s keeps its own attention, peripherally and centrally on its own essentially unknowable mystery—Megan Boyd herself, who died in 2001 and is never seen, in still or moving image, until the film’s final shot. In its atmospheric, ethereal approach to the motivation and apparatus of the creative impulse, and that of the solitary internal pleasures of angling, Kiss the Water at times feels like the movie that might have been made of Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, a blissful, haunted evocation of a life which itself feels as elusive and mystical as the ripples caused by a fly dancing and flitting across a stream on its way toward the fulfillment of its purpose.
Perhaps less stylistically arresting (in cinematic terms only, of course) is Iris, the film the great documentarian Albert Maysles completed just before his death, a fleet, insouciant and altogether charming portrait of style maven and fashion iconoclast Iris Apfel. Apfel, a nonagenarian maverick who cast off conventional notions of being “well-dressed” in favor of improvised and outrageous fashion combinations, many culled from flea markets and other low-end sources, favors her own personal, indefinable style, one without apparent parameters, which speaks to individual expression of taste and effect while simultaneously tweaking at the edges of absurdity and accepted notions of the impractical outer limits of high fashion.
For Apfel, it is in the pursuit of the individual pieces that will come together to form her view of the way fashion can function, as well as the assembly of all the detritus into a flamboyant yet coherent way of dressing, where the pleasure of fashion lies. It’s one of the movie’s purest joys to see the degree to which she not only thrives in this personalized magnificence, but how it genuinely does seem to express the inquisitive and colorful nature of her own personality, as well as her own resistance to the homogeneity of style in fashion. With her husband, Apfel founded a factory dedicated to reproducing fabrics and designs unique to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and enjoyed a career as an interior designer whose clients included several inhabitants of the White House, including Jackie Kennedy, with whom she apparently had disagreements, upon the nature of which neither Apfel nor Maysles seem too interested in elaborating.
Other than Apfel’s undeniable energy and infectious enthusiasm, what makes the movie illuminating and fun is the spryness his subject seems to inspire in Maysles himself, who seems to see Apfel as a sort of elderly kindred spirit, a true collaborator in tone and voice, and she has inspired him to make what turned out to be his final film one of his best, certainly in terms of sheer engagement with the audience. The perverse fascination of Grey Gardens, directed by Maysles and his brother David, would seem to be an obvious touchstone here, but with a significant difference—Iris has the luxury of having no delusions, as well as a surfeit of confidence about the way she moves about in the world, and a delightful rapport with younger fashionistas to whom she relates her philosophy of creative foraging and fashion collage. She thrives in the world, and Maysles thrives in following her about on her adventures.
In Grey Gardens, there was a major and troubling disconnect between how Edie Bouvier Beale, another fashionista who ended up losing her way, saw the world and the way the Maysles’ camera unflinchingly captured her actual surroundings. On the other hand, Iris Apfel, rather than being examined and refuted, is a camera subject who is fulfilled by the presence of Maysles’ gaze and all its attendant editorial and compositional choices. The confidence of this pioneering documentarian’s final film allows what we might reasonably suppose to be the essence of Iris’s bold eccentricity and her satisfactions, surrounded by warehouses full of a life made in collections of the world’s most unique, ridiculous and wonderfully kitschy accessories, as well as the undercurrent of sadness we can’t help but feel, from subject and filmmaker alike, at the prospect of such a long and vital life forced to consider its own end. In the final scene of Iris, Apfel throws a bash for her husband and business partner, Carl, on his 100th birthday*, a tribute to his longevity and an acknowledgement of mortality, and through the lenses of her gigantic eyeglasses it’s not hard to read Iris’s own sadness and ambivalence, as well as her satisfaction in considering a life well-lived and on her own terms. Albert Maysles’ Iris is that kind of party.
* Sadly, Carl Apfel died on August 1, 2015, just a few days before his 101st birthday.
* Sadly, Carl Apfel died on August 1, 2015, just a few days before his 101st birthday.