Film Review: Notes on an Appearance

Frustratingly opaque.
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Stubbornly opaque in its narrative, Ricky D'Ambrose's debut feature Notes on an Appearance is the sort of experimental film perfectly designed for exposure in highbrow festivals. This tale of a young man who goes missing in Brooklyn has some intriguing moments and a unique visual style, but it proves far too elliptical to be of much more than academic interest.

The fragmentary storyline revolves around David (Bingham Bryant), a young man who moves to Brooklyn (where else for a hipster film?) to live with and work as a research assistant for his friend Todd (Keith Poulson). Supported by a hefty foundation grant, Todd is working on a biography of Stephen Taubes, a (fictional) political and social philosopher whose controversial writings have an anarchistic bent and whose reputation has suffered because of his affiliation with an anti-Semitic magazine. (That Taubes is voiced by Stephen F. Cohen, a university professor and writer who has frequently defended both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in The Nation, proves one of the film's slyest jokes.)

Not too long after arriving in a Brooklyn that seems remarkably free of both people and such modern trappings as computers and cellphones, David mysteriously disappears. Todd and their mutual friend Madeleine (Tallie Medel) attempt to discover his whereabouts by combing through his possessions in search of clues.

Their investigation provides the film with its most distinctive component, a near-fetishistic examination of objects including postcards, vintage maps, blueprints, train and subway schedules, diary entries and even handwritten lists of expenses. They're mostly seen in close-up, often held by disembodied hands, and they're chiefly responsible for what passes as the narrative. While it's possible to surmise that David's disappearance has something to do with his research involving Taubes, the idea is left unexplored.

The filmmaker's impressive attention to visual detail is also manifested in mock-ups of numerous literary references to Taubes, including book reviews in such magazines as The New Yorker and Harper's, a New York Times obituary and articles in The Washington Post and the New York Post. The inventive sound design, featuring occasional voiceovers, effectively delivers an auditory portrait of urban life.

But for all the technical prowess on display, Notes on an Appearance proves too fragmentary to hold the viewer's interest. Its minimalist aesthetic quickly becomes wearisome, lacking sufficient variety or substance to warrant even a brief running time. The filmmaker has previously garnered acclaim for several short films, and you can feel him straining to pad this one out to feature length. Scenes are often punctuated by lengthy moments in which the screen is filled entirely by a bright shade of green, another visual device that comes to feel repetitive. Shortly before the film ends, we see grainy videos of the World Trade Center's twin towers. What they have to do with anything is anyone's guess.--The Hollywood Reporter