Ricky D'Ambrose's feature debut is a highlight of this fall's Spotlight Cinema series. Info
One of the most daring selections in MMoCA's Spotlight Cinema series this fall is a cryptic 60-minute feature by NYC-based filmmaker Ricky D'Ambrose. Notes On An Appearance (2018) is the natural evolution of the singularly minimalist, micro-budget chamber drama style D'Ambrose honed in several of his short narrative films this decade (which screened in Madison last April), notably Spiral Jetty's scattered archival documents, photographs, analogue video footage, and other ephemera as cinematic puzzle pieces.
With Notes, D'Ambrose meticulously continues to develop his self-contained universe and academic backdrop with a cache of newspaper articles, diaries, postcards, subway maps, and tickets. Collectively, these elements contribute to the film's ongoing inquiries, both physical and philosophical, into the destinations and realities of its two vanishing faces—twentysomething research assistant David Hidell (Bingham Bryant) and the deceased author and revolutionary he is researching, Stephen Taubes (Stephen F. Cohen). In fact, the main narrative that unravels within the columns and margins of the aforementioned printed records possesses an idiosyncratic ambiguity, and in this respect, the act of watching Notes imitates the mental acuity involved in interpreting a foreign-language film.
Notes On An Appearance's linguistic themes distinctively reinforce its visual dimension, especially in DP Barton Cortright's constant, still-life-like stationary close-ups in deep focus. D'Ambrose juxtaposes this framing's clarity with the sketches of a Brooklyn-based, upper-class social circle. Despite the sophistication underpinning the characters' professions and creative aspirations, they remain ironically alienated and inscrutable. The film methodically harnesses this mood as a catalyst to its hushed violence and disturbing revelations on Taubes' anti-Semitism, which are perfectly suited to the formally quiet approach to the material, further affecting Hidell's eternally peripatetic acquaintances Todd Siskin (Keith Poulson) and Madeline Goldenhar (Tallie Medel). Ultimately, Notes On An Appearance is an invigoratingly rare moviegoing experience and should be regarded as a spiritual companion to Matías Piñeiro's Hermia And Helena (2016), which screened at Spotlight Cinema in 2017. —Grant Phipps