Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance takes place in a Brooklyn that’s at once familiar and strange, beholden to an idea of the past that the young filmmaker never knew, and still quite obviously the gentrified borough that has, in the last 20 years, transformed into a bastion for artsy folk. There’s something antiquated about the film’s version of Brooklyn and its dearth of technology (no one uses iPhones or computers), the way people communicate through letters and postcards and use archaic maps to navigate the city.
The Brooklyn of Notes on an Appearance is a tranquil place full of cafés and bookstores and where writers can make a sustainable living. As in Alex Ross Perry’s melancholic Golden Exits, D’Ambrose nearly utopian vision of the city suggests a daydream, with flaxen washes of light splashing all over everything. Perry’s truculent and loquacious characters think they’re self-aware because they speak volubly, whereas D’Ambrose’s are taciturn, often looking out windows whose curtains dance in the breeze. One film is concerned with listening, and not listening, the other with seeing and disappearing.
D’Ambrose’s style of storytelling is, like his avoidance of modern technology, somewhat démodé. The narrative is revealed in an epistolary manner, through a bevy of newspaper clippings, subway maps, and publications, meticulously flat and flush with the camera. It’s a narrative that largely unfolds on paper. David (Bingham Bryant), a young unemployed man from Chappaqua, is recruited by a biographer friend, Todd (Keith Poulson), to do research on Stephen Taubes, a controversial and elusive political writer, one who gets reviewed in The New Yorker and, when he dies, an obituary in The New York Times. Taubes leaves behind notebooks replete with scribblings that reveal thoughts that may potentially damage his already contentious reputation, and his family requests that David and Todd expunge from their research anything that can be “misconstrued.” There’s a faint air of conspiracy in their assertive censorship, a sense of danger to David’s journalistic endeavor. The writer has an “ignominious” and “disturbing” past. He’s been accused of anti-Semitism, and one of his books is called Violence and Its Valances.
A laconic voice occasionally drifts into Notes on an Appearance, and the quietude is punctured by brief bursts of operatic music and the diegetic sounds of the city—subways rattling, overheard badinage in cafés, and so on—but this is a mostly muted film, moving along with the insouciance and torpor of a discarded napkin floating along the sidewalk. Not that there’s any refuse or detritus in this unsullied, almost sterile Brooklyn. The film is an airy endeavor, fluttering by like a fleeting thought. There’s a pallid languor to it but also a punctilious attention to detail. With rigor and precision, his camera unmoving and observant, D’Ambrose creates a hermetic world in which everything is orderly and clean, like an assiduously arranged scrapbook.
David, handsome and stoic, is a writer who rarely writes, and brings to mind a quote from Renata Adler’s Brooklyn-based novel Speedboat: “That ’writers write’ is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.” Like a flaneur, he wanders the streets, stopping in bookstores, coffee shops, the usual writerly haunts. The question of how he and Todd can afford to live in Brooklyn without real jobs is, thankfully, briefly addressed. Todd subsists on a fellowship that allows him to work on his book full-time; David very strictly tracks his expenses, jotting them down in a notebook. D’Ambrose is aware that writing gigs in New York are almost entirely based on nepotism, as Todd offers to get David work through some connections. It’s just the nature of their vocation, and their city of choice.
David vanishes halfway through Notes on an Appearance, and here’s where the film slightly falters. What is, or should be, an unflustered film of locations and objects, of reticent Brooklynites sitting in unfurnished bedrooms, becomes, ever so briefly, a murder mystery. Did David’s prying lead to his disappearance? Jittery, handheld archival footage of the Twin Towers, accompanied by the abrasive sound of wind whipping past, suggests both a city that never stays the same for long and a city that’s rife with violence. “Day and night, we must have but one thought…and that is death,” Taubes says, via voiceover. The film works best when it dwells on those locations and objects, unconcerned with plot or character. Like a quirkier Bresson, without the Catholic ennui, D’Ambrose lingers on mundane items (especially hands and dishware) and favors negative space. He’s patient, allowing David to transverse the screen, from one corner to another, when he walks around. With a slight bounce in his step, David saunters along the narrow street lined with buildings of pale red brick, shrinking as he gets further and further from the stationary camera, his yellow shirt like the highlights on his map.
Early in the film, David muses that he can see his whole neighborhood from a window in his fifth-floor walkup, and across the street there’s a construction site where a new building is being erected. He contemplates the impending new view, whether he’ll be priced out of the area within the year. With its classical aesthetic and paucity of modern conveniences and epochal notables, Notes on an Appearance exists in a kind of timeless realm, one where things change so often that it’s difficult to keep track. D’Ambrose views Brooklyn as a fugacious thing, one that, like David, is there one moment, gone the next.