‘Notes on an Appearance’ review: A peculiar art house mystery

Notes on an Appearance

Directed by Ricky D’Ambrose

Starring Bingham Bryant, Tallie Medel, Keith Poulson


Playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center

Can something be aspirational while also being bleak? How can somber individuals who live in a world so mundane also seem … cool? This is just one of the many contradictory elements to “Notes on an Appearance,” a one-hour film by newcomer Ricky D’Ambrose. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center has programmed it along with one of the director’s shorts.)

“Appearance” is a movie where everyone speaks in flat monotone and images of maps, notes and postcards are continually shoved directly in our faces. Yet it still, somehow, manages to be confusing. This disorientation is actually part of the story, set in very specific Brooklyn neighborhoods, and has boiled down the essence of a post-collegiate intellectual’s life to its basics, but with little mooring to reality. There’s nary a computer screen or cellphone to be found, but D’Ambrose’s obsessive shooting style (tabletops, book covers, gallery cards, meticulously recreated articles from well-known outlets in the correct font) becomes a pointillist representation of a very real aspect of modern New York living.

Then there’s the plot. David (Bingham Bryant) is summoned from Milan to Brooklyn by his friend Todd (Keith Poulson), who is working on a biography on the recently deceased political theorist Stephen Taubes. He has a grant, so David can help with the research while looking for another job. As David slowly and methodically gets situated to his new environment, Todd disappears. Now he’s got two research projects: learning about Taubes (whose followers veer to the violent side) and figuring out what happened to his friend.

This is not exactly a detective yarn. We’re in deep, art house territory, but not without a sense of humor. The vanished co-star evokes Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” and the thunderous strikes of classical music during a formal lecture on literary criticism is a tongue-in-cheek echo of Jean-Luc Godard. But these are just foundational references; D’Ambrose has worked out his own peculiar aesthetic, but knows enough to have fun with it. There are no fades to black, only fades to green. There might even be a reason for this beyond “it looks cool.”

“Notes on an Appearance” has the audacity and sparkle of a young, dare-I-say-“arty” filmmaker ready to play.