Set within the remote planet of Brooklyn intelligentsia, Ricky D’Ambrose’s hourlong Notes on an Appearance relays a narrative teeming with incident — death, disappearance — through an elusive yet methodical style. Establishing shots are few and far between. A scene might consist almost entirely of a tableau of physical objects; an early one features an overhead perspective on a table, hands motioning in and out of frame — setting down a water glass, pouring coffee — as idle café chatter fills the soundtrack. D’Ambrose implies the characters commuting via close-ups of the New York City subway map and the aural roar of a train tearing across the tracks. The movie’s first shot, of a polite postcard scribbled in blue pen, not only sets the story in motion but even condenses into a few jotted-off sentences a continent-crossing journey. We learn that David (Bingham Bryant) has plans to travel from Milan to Brooklyn, where he will hook up with graduate student Todd (Keith Poulson) and assist him in researching the work and estate of the anti-establishment political thinker Stephen Taubes (voiced by Stephen F. Cohen).
Such economical methods are all a creatively frugal solution to the challenge of an average 9-to-5 employee producing a debut feature. (D’Ambrose has explained in multiple interviews that he works as a personal assistant at the Nation. “The money I earn from my job can never go towards my movies,” he said in one.) But D’Ambrose’s means of expression in Notes on an Appearance — and in his shorts, including the thematically related Spiral Jetty (2017) — can also seem like a concerted rejoinder to more conventional storytelling wisdom, for reasons that have nothing to do with money. D’Ambrose wants to make a movie that evokes the daunting legacy of a disembodied political figure? OK, great — just get a fucking picture of an old guy (credited to the Facultad Libre de Rosario), insert it in close-up, then deliver rapid-fire reams of information about him. What would demand fifteen minutes and probably a glorified flashback-only cameo in the industry-standard, backstory-obsessed version of this movie takes D’Ambrose just a handful of beats, all thanks to blunt, arresting shots of fetishistically accurate reproductions of Taubes-centered media coverage.
Taubes, also echoed in the home movies he shot and tapings of the lectures he gave, is one of the animating absences of Notes; another is David, who not long into the movie suddenly disappears. D’Ambrose proves uncannily adept at conjuring zero-budget paranoia through the sheer accumulation of documents. Eventually, with the movie hopping from such haunted elements as David’s diary entries to wobbly footage of the Twin Towers to audio of Taubes, Notes simply plays like a plaintive reminiscence of things that no longer exist. D’Ambrose doesn’t engage in character psychology — he instructs his cast members, a who’s who of New York cinephilia, to recite their lines with minimal emoting — but he does suggest some emotional conclusions through this block-by-block organization of material. From intimations of widespread political anger (also a part of his 2013 short, Pilgrims), he moves us to gallery openings. From a Q&A on literary translation (complete with brutal audience questions like “Do we think of this as just another failure of late capitalism?”), he moves us to a scene of Karin (Madeleine James), one of the academics from the panel, chastising Todd for being so distraught by David’s disappearance. In the balance between the carnage and the bullshit, there arises something like a deep disillusionment.
Notes on an Appearance
Directed by Ricky D’Ambrose
Opens August 17, Film Society at Lincoln Center
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