Not so long ago I was struck by the differences in the lives of two women whose bio-pics I had the opportunity to view. First, the wildly-successful British pop artiste Amy Winehouse, and subsequently the New York-based fashion icon Iris Apfel.
Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, was released for viewing in 2015 and recounts the story of Amy Winehouse with an eye to her tragic death aged 27 from alcohol poisoning, on 23 July 2011. It has been said that Kapadia’s engagement with the life of Winehouse focuses on her battle with substance and alcohol abuse. However, owing to the deft manner in which Kapadia has dealt with Winehouse’s life story the film is quickly transformed into a larger comment about the times we live in. The film deals with the problems attendant on substance abuse, broken families, as well as the media circus that grows around promising performance artists.
Crafted from over a hundred interviews, as well as access to home videos of Winehouse’s friends and family, some dating back to when she was still a girl, Kapadia’s film tells a tragic story. The film suggests that Winehouse’s addiction problems were aggravated through her almost violent passion for Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who would eventually be married to her for a period of two years, and who has claimed to have introduced her to crack cocaine and heroin. However, the documentary suggests that the underlying reason for her susceptibility to both Fielder-Civil as well as substance and alcohol abuse was her family life when she was a girl.
The film is a document of the implications of dysfunctional families of our times. Amy’s descent into addition is said to be the result of the death of her grandmother to whom she was very close. The proximity to the grandmother, however, was in part the result of her father having abandoned the family even while she was a little girl. The film makes it clear that Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse could have played a central role in preventing Amy’s slide into addiction had he only agreed to her friends’ urgings that she check into rehab, a situation captured in the lyrics of her song Rehab: “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, 'No, no, no.'… I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine...” Watching the film, one gets the sense that Daddy was back in the picture only after Amy started turning into a star, busy making money from the life of a woman who desperately wanted the attention and love of a father who had been absent in her early years.
Witnessing the kind of media-attention that Winehouse received after she achieved fame, especially in the US, one wonders how any person, but especially a person without emotional support structures can deal with this kind of assault in privacy and person. Is any individual, leave alone a deeply insecure one, able to deal with the bank of hundreds of cameras exploding when one enters or leaves a room? Where, and how, does one learn to deal with the kind of stress, and misplaced sense of invincibility, attendant on such attention?
The answer is perhaps provided by the words of jazz-artist Tony Bennet, who was the last artist with whom Winehouse collaborated; "Life teaches you really how to live it, if you live long enough". The tragedy is that Winehouse didn’t live long enough.
Iris, the documentary on Iris Apfel by Albert Maysles is a film about someone who has lived long enough and seems to be dealing with fame rather well. The film, released for distribution in 2015, quite literally follows the 93-year-old Apfel about her daily life, and records her musings on life, marriage, and spectacular success. The last came to her rather late in life when in 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, almost as a last ditch effort to save a project curated Rara Avis, an exhibition that focused on her clothes and accessories. This is not to suggest that Apfel was a nobody prior to this exhibit; on the contrary, Apfel had already achieved more than a modest modicum of success through her work as an interior decorator and her textile initiative with her husband Carl Arpfel. When one compares their biographies, it is this long durée of her career, and the moment in which she achieves wild success that marks the difference between Winehouse and Apfel.
Another difference between the lives of Winehouse and Apfel that is striking when viewed through the lens of the films on their lives is their relationship with their spouses. While Amy had a problematic relationship with her husband, and a tumultuous family life, Apfel’s relationship with her husband Carl, who turned hundred in the course of the filming of the documentary, seems to have been a nurturing partnership that continues to sustain both of them.
What is most striking about Apfel, however, is that while it is obvious that she absolutely revels in her role as diva and celebrity, she also does not seem to take herself too seriously. She is frank about her lack of good looks, conscious that the beauty industry cannot fix the passage of time, and conscious also of the years of work before she became the focus of the camera bank. Success that comes late in life, may not be such a bad thing after all!
(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everyday on 27 Sept 2015)