DIRECTED by: RICKY D’AMBROSE // USA // 60 minutes
Viewers acquainted with the work of writer/director Ricky D’Ambrose will find themselves in familiar territory with his first toe-dip into feature-length filmmaking with Notes on an Appearance. It has all of the tried-and-true aspects that have come to define a D’Ambrose picture – namely minimalism through formal rigor – and in some ways, it even plays as a reworking or an expansion of his short film, Spiral Jetty, from last year.
So, with that being said, if you are the type of person who has enjoyed any of D’Ambrose’s previous efforts then the likelihood of enjoying Notes on an Appearance should be quite high. Conversely, if you are not a fan of the director’s work, I doubt that his debut feature will do much in challenging your stance. Furthermore for those ‘on the fence,’ this may be the definitive film since it is relatively the same as his others while being stretched out into a sixty-minute runtime.
What is interesting, regarding the extended runtime, is that D’Ambrose refrains from utilizing these spaces as a means to enhance the narrative by adding significance-laden dialogue and/or interaction. Instead, he takes these opportunities to insert pockets of space, seemingly insignificant respites of immaterial actions, in order to round out his characters with relatable banalities such as errand running. Technically speaking, it is nothing more than filler but it is filler with a purpose.
These moments spent running errands or underlining paperback passages in a cafe come in the life of David (Bingham Bryant), the young man whose brief appearance then abrupt disappearance is at the center of the film. He is in NYC looking for work and staying with a friend, Todd (Keith Poulson), who happens to be working on archiving and organizing the works of the (fictional) political theorist, Stephen Taubes. Todd’s archival work and David’s journal entries and notes are the basis of the film’s exploration, along with Karin’s (Todd’s girlfriend played by Madeleine James) occupation in translation.
The specifics of their respective endeavors are presented quite simply. David’s day-to-day doings focus on the details, his time spent in a coffee shop reading Benedict de Spinoza is framed by the particulars, camera fixated on the dishware, the tabletop, the sugars and such with the only audio being the ambient chatter of the other patrons. The contents of Todd’s Taubes-related catalog, mostly consisting of newspaper clippings and magazine articles, are offered up in slideshow, black ink on grey/white filling the frame; text as still life image.
Regarding David’s disappearance, his journal entries of these trivial events and their mundane details are transformed by the change of circumstance, each entry now has the capacity to serve as a clue or an inconsequential detail depending on its’ reader. The moments, as they happened, are also retrospectively altered, in that, they exist as an event or a non-event, either full of significance or devoid of, simultaneously.
It is all a matter of perspective and interpretation, much like Todd’s work with Taubes’ legacy or Karin’s translations; all or part of your actions and thoughts succumb to a filtering and/or processing through someone else; and, depending on when and/or how, the accuracy of their interpretation cannot truly be known nor are they privy to private doubts or unspoken thoughts that could influence their framing. All you are left with are the pieces to parse in order to construct something resembling truth.
It is as if D’Ambrose is doing much the same with the individual scenes in Notes on an Appearance. They exist as a compendium to a larger production, small yet precise sequences that inform a bigger picture collected and offered for the viewer to analyze. In doing so, he has constructed a sort of sterilized realism through a strict curation of these components and it is up to the viewer to ultimately decide if they are events of importance or not; significant or insignificant. Which is true of all film but here, especially, considering the gaps D’Ambrose has deliberately created and applied.
In the process, D’Ambrose questions the idea of the “individual.” When all of your actions, verbal or otherwise, are beholden to the processing and interpretation of another, potentially misconstrued or misrepresented, can one truly be an individual? And, furthermore, since all actions possess that potential does not every action, willingly or unwillingly, become a collaboration?