Notes on “Notes on an Appearance”
With only one feature and a handful of shorts to his credit, Ricky D’Ambrose has already forged a unique cinematic identity. After restructuring his film school project, University People (2007), into a 30-minute film entitled “The Strangers” in 2011, he made three thematically connected shorts — an unparalleled triptych that scrutinizes the circadian routines of isolated individuals within a metropolitan landscape. In each of his projects, D’Ambrose builds upon the über-specific look and design that characterizes his aesthetic. He favors rigid, assiduously composed shots with sparse interiors, and frames his subjects between static items or in front of windows; it’s an unnatural, highly stylized way of looking at the world, specifically New York. It recalls an experimental, less twee Wes Anderson that fetishizes images over words. The transition from shorts to features can stifle some filmmakers, but with Notes on an Appearance (2018), which premiered at the Berlinale Forum and screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, D’Ambrose manages to sustain his singular look for an hour.
In last year’s edition of the meticulously curated New Directors/New Films lineup, the standout work was far and away D’Ambrose’s most recent short, “Spiral Jetty” (2017). It doubles down on the flourishes that define his work. It concerns an archivist (Bingham Bryant) who is hired to preserve the legacy of a deceased psychoanalyst by eliminating a potentially incriminating paper trail. D’Ambrose has a habit of implementing handwritten letters, postcards, and impeccably fabricated newspaper editorials to deliver exposition. The bevy of stationary — shot with fastidious precision flush with the camera — is stylishly arresting and assimilates naturally into D’Ambrose’s style of storytelling. (While visiting the set, Steve Macfarlane reported that he invests over two hours into single shots that feature just a line or two of dialogue.) The later work of Robert Bresson will make for undeniable comparison, but the way in which D’Ambrose implements a minimal use of laconic voiceover presents a one-of-a-kind vision that is entirely his own.
Whereas his early shorts observed an individual character rooted in a period of isolation, “Spiral Jetty” inaugurated a focal transition to anatomizing New York City academia. In his Kickstarter campaign for his debut feature, D’Ambrose discussed at length how the origin of its concept had initially arisen during his time in college. Initially entitled The Millennials, his first draft consisted of an extended, garrulous 200 pages, but over the course of the last decade, it mutated into a more quietly composed affair.
As an explicit tale of late capitalism, the film moves through a thinly connected web of individuals who are all simultaneously embittered by the practices of contemporary society. The narrative loosely revolves around the unsettling disappearance of David (Bingham Bryant) shortly after leaving his family’s Westchester estate for his tiny apartment in Brooklyn. David’s belongings have been left ostensibly untouched, and his roommate Todd (Keith Poulson) begins an investigation. A ghostly aura permeates the film.
D’Ambrose has little interest in traditional plotting. The film transitions between central characters, showing and juxtaposing their daily activities. This rigid alternation within its study showcases the dominance that one’s environment asserts, as social anxiety and feelings of obligation mutually vacillate throughout their headspace. The preponderance of their society communicates with a patronizing vernacular that is idiosyncratic to the nature within circles of academia.
In a similar fashion to Chantal Akerman, D’Ambrose invokes a multitude of city-specific elements to vividly depict the locale outside a series of establishing shots. “I found a way to replace dialogue with street sounds — sounds of cars, sounds of air conditioning units, sounds of footsteps, or just a voice over a still image,” remarked D’Ambrose in a conversation with Filmmaker Magazine. While partially employed as a method of pure fiscal conservation, the acoustic specificity manifests into a grand portrait of modern-day Brooklyn.
In this era of monopolized artistic expression, any filmmaker who manages to surmount the confines of financial restraint and create a film that stands out deserves attention. The ingenuity that Ricky D’Ambrose has demonstrated this quickly in his career is astounding, especially when factoring in his limited budget and its runtime. Notes on an Appearance does in one hour what most indie films fail to do in double that time: it succinctly establishes and maintains a unique identity with the bravado and confidence one would expect from a veteran of the medium.