Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose’s no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D’Ambrose has made two shorts before, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.
Partly as a cost-saving measure and partly as an in-joke, most of the actors are fixtures of the NYC cinephilia scene, as Nick Pinkerton details. As Pinkerton suggests, the plot is a Robbe-Grillet-The-Erasers-esque mystery, in which David (Bingham Bryant) comes to the big city, gets a job as roommate Todd’s (Keith Poulson) research assistant, and then literally walks off into the distance, never to appear again. His partner, Madeleine (Tallie Medel), comes to help Todd search for him, to no avail.
If it sounds kinda boring, the style strives to make it as boring as possible. The actors are void of all affect; most shots are static, brightly lit mid-range ones of people talking (cinematography by Barton Cortright); and the score is basically all classical music. The most interesting thing that happens style-wise is the frequent use of insert shots, of David’s and Todd’s coffees at the local coffee shop as the soundtrack eavesdrops on fellow customers, and of various gorgeously authentic fake paper (!) documents to deliver exposition (D’Ambrose also did production design).
The information so delivered, however, is the emotional opposite of the style. Todd is an acolyte of the violent-radical political theorist Stephen Taubes (Stephen F. Cohen), and is drafting a “corrective” biography after Taubes’s recent death. He seems to be a member of a Taubes-inspired radical cell planning some kind of action, which going on the accounts in Taubes’s obituaries is bound to be violent. Other exciting events boringly portrayed include David’s disappearance of course, various people hooking up (such as Madeleine with the not-David Ethan (James N. Kienitz Wilkins)), and the discovery of a body that resembles David’s but apparently isn’t him. On the other hand, the Q&A session of a panel on literary translation (yawn) is depicted as a hellish ambush, complete with garish music cues.
The result is an odd twist on Brechtian alienation. Whereas Brecht wanted to bleach events of emotion to spur intellectual reflection, here the film’s general affectlessness serves to heighten emotion by discarding the usual filmic conventions of emotion: camera manipulation, pointed score, melodramatic (or even subtle) acting, quick editing. By emphasizing the banality of everyday life, even when events are extreme, D’Ambrose achieves the paradoxical feat of making an hour-long film that’s both slow and action-packed. Life is slow when you’re living it, but when you look back, things seem to have happened so quickly.
But a film that ends on a note of paradox would be unsatisfying. The key to bringing form and content together seems to lie in the intermittent camcorder footage, ostensibly made by Taubes, that David has to go through for Todd’s book. Most of this is downright boring stuff, shots of a beach, grass, streets, lined-up tourists—none of which even have a central character, let alone narrative. Could this footage have hammered into David’s consciousness the existential emptiness of his (and all) life? Or is he driven over the edge by seeing the World Trade Center captured from a reverential angle (and blessed by a glorious sun, no less) by a champion of political violence? Though the film offers no answers for David’s disappearance, or for many other things, a connection is hinted at in the final two scenes. After Todd, agreeing with the shockingly callous Karin (Madeleine James), finally decides to stop searching for David, he sits in his bedroom with his back to the camera and his shoulders heave with sobs, the film’s first overt expression of emotion, as the lighting darkens (it’s clearly not a fade to black). Then we cut to a beach, maybe the same one Taubes shot, maybe not. The cut seems to say that Taubes’s violent extremism is propelled by loss, and that the omnipresence of various kinds of deeply felt loss in the big city makes it a fertile ground for the very violent extremism of which the big city is a target. In essence, the city is ideologically suicidal.
From this perspective, the affectless style is a portrayal of loss-filled life in the city, making us viewers unwitting participants in a nascent Taubes-style radicalism. The lack of emotional outrage in the film is its expression of moral outrage. Not bad for a first feature.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.