The cerebral, single-minded films of Ricky D’Ambrose

The filmmaker’s debut feature, “Notes On An Appearance,” screens October 17 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

The filmmaker’s debut feature, “Notes On An Appearance,” screens October 17 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

In the micro-budget filmmaking community, writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose has developed a style all his own, favoring minimalist art direction (lots of monochrome earth tones), stationary cameras, voiceovers, and trails of printed materials that carry a significant amount of narrative detail. The aesthetic has garnered various comparisons to classic European art house auteurs like Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni, but the origins of D’Ambrose’s cinematic world-building are also highly literary.

Ricky D’Ambrose.

Ricky D’Ambrose.

After a series of short films this decade, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker completed his first 60-minute feature, Notes On An Appearance, which saw its national premiere this past spring as part of New Directors/New Films Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center. The film will get its first regional screening in Madison as part of MMoCA’s fall Spotlight Cinema series on Wednesday, October 17.

Ahead of the screening, D’Ambrose spoke with me via email about the most intriguing facets of the film, including the challenges of working with a larger crew and assortment of locations from the shorts to a feature-length production, his unique sorting process for visualizing the screenplay, the craft involved in the film’s defining articles and texts, specific inspiration behind one of its central figures, and his guiding principles for sound design.

Tone Madison: How did you use the style of your short films—particularly 2017’s Spiral Jetty—as a template for Notes On An Appearance? Was it a seamless transition to making a feature-length film, or did you encounter any unforeseen obstacles in development or translation?

Ricky D’Ambrose: By the time I made The Stranger, in 2011, the first draft of Notes On An Appearance was already finished. In a way, making the shorts was a chance for me to develop, and ultimately refine, over and over again, some of the narrative and visual ideas I had in mind for the longer film. The shift from, say, 10 or 12 minutes to 60 minutes was generally seamless, I think. But I hadn’t worked with a producer [Graham Swon] or a cinematographer [Barton Cortright] prior to Notes, and I certainly hadn’t shot a film with as many actors and location changes—and on such a compressed schedule—until I made the feature.

Tone Madison: How was the experience of working with a larger number of actors and shooting in many locations on a constrained schedule?

Ricky D’Ambrose: It certainly helped to plan the shoot thoroughly, and to try to anticipate problems. Inevitably, an actor’s schedule changes, or you and your cameraman are left waiting around because a delivery truck is planted in the middle of an exterior shot. Or, later on, your colorist explains that the timecode for the low-resolution files you used to picture-lock the film doesn’t match the timecode for the original, high-resolution camera files, meaning the final edit has to be re-assembled in its entirety, cut by cut. With the exception of Six Cents In The Pocket (2015)—which takes place in three or four apartments, a cafe, frame shop, bookstore, and in the streets—most of my short films are fairly consolidated geographically. But Notes On An Appearance, because of its dense constellation of places (apartments, coffee shops, street corners, the beach, a morgue, David’s family home in upstate New York, Madeleine’s flat in Milan, etc.), involved more planning. The central problem here was having to choose among a variety of possible combinations of locations, and within each location to decide which room or wall or hallway could, in effect, stand in for Todd’s living room, David’s bedroom, Madeleine’s flat, and so on. In the end, the different apartments interlocked quite well, I think.

Tone Madison: You’re probably best known for these narrative shorts and now this, your first feature film, but you’ve also directed several interviews with legendary names like Chantal Akerman and Dan Sallitt (who makes a brief cameo in Notes) as well as fellow micro-budget directors like Nathan Silver and Gina Telaroli. Would you say there’s a notable relationship between the way you approach documentary and your method behind fictional narrative?

Ricky D’Ambrose: I’m not sure. Somewhat superficially, both the interviews and the films are episodic, even discontinuous. Maybe they’re driven equally by a sorting principle. In the former, intertitles split the talks into numbered sections, which give the videos some kind of overall thematic coherence and—since my questions are almost always excluded from the final edit—lend context to the filmmakers’ remarks. In the latter, the sections are marked in any number of ways: via intertitles, journal entries, New York City subway maps, newspaper articles, and, in the case of Notes On An Appearance, color blocks.

Tone Madison: Could you explain more about the origins of this “sorting principle” and its significance?

Ricky D’Ambrose: Well, I think there’s an impulse behind the films to taxonomize images by shot size, subject, duration, etc. For all its narrative omissions and confusions, the film is structurally very tidy. The shooting script was adapted from a chart, divided into six columns and multiple rows, that allowed me to visualize the film’s structure. In some cases, there are very clear correspondences along a given row, so that an image in Part II is repeated or modified in Part IV, for instance. I found that, by slotting and repeating things in this way, the script could work like a game of pattern recognition, since Todd, David, and Madeleine, despite their relative independence from one another over the course of the film, are ultimately linked by recurring sets of images and sounds.

A chart, also known as a “paper edit,” that D’Ambrose used in plotting out “Notes On An Appearance.”

A chart, also known as a “paper edit,” that D’Ambrose used in plotting out “Notes On An Appearance.”

Tone Madison: For me, what’s most impressive in your work is the painstaking attention to various literature that you allow the audience to scan and read throughout, and how it plays a significant role in the way you reveal not only the sequence of events but also character and personality details. It’s sort of a simultaneous process of showing and telling.

Ricky D’Ambrose: All of the on-screen text solved, in part, the problem of finding a direct, economical way to convey narrative information. The newspaper clippings about Taubes’ personal history accomplish this, I think, as do David’s handwritten notebook pages, both of which—and this is something that mattered to me, given the anti-psychological orientation of the film—are impersonal, cool, reportorial. [Editor’s note: There’s more explanation about these characters below.] As primary sources or secondary sources, they also have the effect of imposing multiple points of view.

Tone Madison: How much time in relation to shooting did it take to develop all of the written materials? What was easiest to draft or create, and the most difficult?

Ricky D’Ambrose: I spent about a month on the designs. Because they’re drawn from existing sources, they were easy enough to make, with a little patience. Most of the articles’ contents came from previously published news reports, essays, and book reviews: New York Times and Washington Post articles about the killing of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, reviews of a Paul de Man biography and of an English translation of Martin Heidegger’s controversial “black” notebooks, U.S. news stories about the disappearance of Etan Patz, etc. For David’s notebook, with its photographs, postcards, and ticket stubs, I was thinking of the scrapbooks that Jane Wodening put together in the early 1960s, when she was married to Stan Brakhage.

Tone Madison: Was there a specific real-life inspiration behind Notes On An Appearance‘s fictitiously renowned author/philosopher/political revolutionary Stephen Taubes, who’s of such interest to Todd, David, and Brandon, in the film? If not, what drew you towards writing a character like Taubes, at once invisible—as the actor portraying him never moves or speaks on screen—but hauntingly ever-present?

Ricky D’Ambrose: Taubes has a few origins. His last name comes from Jacob Taubes, an Austrian philosopher of religion who lived and worked in Germany for many years, taught for a while in the U.S., and wrote a celebrated book on eschatology [the theological study of death and the soul], in the 1940s, that I think the fictitious Taubes would like. The Taubes of Notes On An Appearance, though, has an intense, protective following among young people. Maybe an example would be someone like Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s, or, more recently, Zizek, but Taubes’ ideas are drawn from other, more sinister places. The discovery of Paul de Man’s anti-Semitic writings, for instance—and the intellectual whitewashing efforts that followed—is another obvious source. By the way, the man in the Taubes photo that shows up throughout the film is the philosopher Jacques Ranciere.

Tone Madison: How did you first come across Jacob Taubes? Maybe your particular interest in theology, sociology, and politics stem from similar places and studies.

Ricky D’Ambrose: I learned about Jacob Taubes through Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, when I was a graduate student and working as a research assistant for the Sontag Foundation. Taubes helped Sontag get a teaching job in the religion department at Columbia after she moved to New York, and she was close to Taubes’ wife, also named Susan, who drowned herself off the coast of Long Island in the late 1960s. (I reference the Taubes suicide in my last short film, Spiral Jetty; in fact, photographs of Susan Taubes are used as a stand-in for that film’s fictitious Laure Yule Blumenthal.)

Tone Madison: What are the origins of Taubes’ video travel diaries—the VHS/analogue footage we see intermittently? Was it literally archival home movies, or did you shoot it in present day in conjunction with everything else (digitally, I’ll assume)?

Ricky D’Ambrose: Most of the recordings were found on the internet. The footage of the lower Manhattan skyline was shot by my father, from an East River ferry, in 1990 or 1991.

Tone Madison: Much like the visual component, the sound design in Notes is also distinctive, as you employ some disjunctive audio, like a few seconds of a canned applause over the reveal of two characters (David and Madeleine), or some sitcom audience laughter over a shot of beer cans and empty cups. In addition to that, you utilize excerpts from Rossini’s opera, “Il Barbiere Di Siviglia,” during an extended take. What was the intention behind these stark juxtapositions, and how did you work with sound designers Sean Dunn and Kevin T. Allen to create or enhance a certain mood in post-production?

Ricky D’Ambrose: I suppose the juxtapositions are there because of some belief I have that sound shouldn’t be duplicative—at least not always. This was clear to me early on, during the writing, and it became a strategy for giving each image a certain degree of independence (so that the things we see and hear aren’t necessarily mutually reinforcing) and for preserving the integrity of each new setting. Most of the street noise was recorded by Sean Dunn; beyond the music, the rest of the film’s soundtrack came from sound libraries, and was edited and mixed by me during the picture edit, using Final Cut Pro, and then more extensively by Kevin T. Allen. But the guiding principle, if there was one, had much less to do with mood than with clarification.

Tone Madison: Could you talk more about your reasons behind adhering to this sonic principle of clarification, rather than mood

Ricky D’Ambrose: Maybe also amplification. I don’t think the film uses sound in a way that’s especially loyal to how I or anyone else with relatively decent hearing listen to things. Ordinarily, we listen in depth: the music playing on the stereo in front of me is much more audible, more perceptible, than the street noise coming from the window behind me, which itself is easier to detect than the traffic that’s a block away from my apartment, etc. Of course, this isn’t some great discovery. But it is something I wondered about, and didn’t want to take for granted, when I was editing this film, which I suppose resists depth of any kind—whether psychological (the “depth” of the characters and their motivations, what they think and feel at any given moment, as though all feelings are sequential), narrative (the “depth” of the story, in which each new scene is expected to reflect and advance upon whatever came before it in the film’s chronology), or visual (people and things staged “in depth”). Why not flatten out the soundtrack, too?

Tone Madison: Besides certain filmmakers you’ve cited like Chantal Akerman, Alain Resnais, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and Robert Bresson, have artists in other mediums—writers, painters, architects, musicians—provided consistent inspiration in honing your particular style?

Ricky D’Ambrose: I’ve learned from [painter] Agnes Martin, [free jazz pioneer] Cecil Taylor, and [Nouveau Roman writer] Alain Robbe-Grillet. Because I don’t paint or play an instrument or write fiction, what I’ve learned from these people isn’t necessarily connected to any particular activity, let alone filmmaking. I think it’s a sensibility—maybe their seriousness and single-mindedness—that I find so attractive about them, and that I admire.

Tone Madison: Do you have any other projects in the works or in various stages of development?

Ricky D’Ambrose: I’d like to shoot another feature, next year. It will be a larger film, partly autobiographical, set mainly in the late 1980s and 1990s. I’m also at work on a new short, due to begin shooting before 2019.

Tone Madison: That’s great. Can you tell us anything else about the short? Have you cast it and chosen a shooting location?

Ricky D’Ambrose: Not much is in place just yet, but I can say Bingham Bryant and Madeleine James (who play David and Karin in Notes, respectively) will be in it, and it will involve a French language lesson and an estate auction.

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