A recent college graduate in New York City takes a job doing research on a dubious political thinker in “Notes on an Appearance,” the debut feature from Long Island-raised Ricky D’Ambrose. When the young man vanishes in what might be politically motivated foul play, his friends launch a search effort, only to find that their academic skills and theory-oriented backgrounds are of little use. “Notes on an Appearance” -- originally titled “The Millennials” -- offers a window into how a certain demographic manages to deal with, or totally avoid, real-world truths.
“It’s a nonevent,” one prickly academic character says of the researcher’s disappearance. “It bores me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s something that never even happened.”
“Notes on an Appearance,” which opens for a one-week theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Aug. 17, could be called a highbrow art-film with the DNA of a scrappy indie-flick. D’Ambrose is a self-taught filmmaker who cut his teeth with a series of low-budget shorts and then turned to Kickstarter to raise a scant $20,000 to shoot his first feature. The result, though, is more Robert Bresson than Robert Rodriguez — an elliptical narrative that uses a stationary camera and expressionless actors to convey a sense of ennui and apathy. Film critic Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, praised the film’s portrayal of a “self-deluding intellectual realm where the ideal, grand-scale stakes bear the weight of immediate passion and the local, personal stakes remain disturbingly, bewilderingly remote.”
D’Ambrose, 30, certainly qualifies as a millennial and is in many ways a quintessential New Yorker. Over tea at a midtown Manhattan cafe on a recent afternoon, D’Ambrose describes himself as an artistically-minded kid from suburban Long Island who fled to the island of Manhattan as early as he could. Born in New Jersey but raised in Hewlett and Lynbrook, D’Ambrose recalls feeling out of sync with the sports-driven culture around him.
Inspiration found him in a roundabout way, through a home-video copy of “Twister,” Jan de Bont’s action-blockbuster from 1996. In one of that film’s many set pieces, a tornado hits a drive-in movie theater and causes massive destruction, but the preteen D’Ambrose was more interested in what had been showing on the drive-in screen: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” (Specifically, the famous scene of two ghostly girls standing stock-still in a hotel hallway.)
“I didn’t know anything about Stanley Kubrick,” says D’Ambrose, who was perhaps 11 or 12 years old at the time. “It was so startling to me. It made me, as a kid, want to know: ‘What is this movie? Who did this?’ ”
That led D’Ambrose to the Hewlett library, where he gave himself an education in Kubrick (he also attempted a shot-by-shot remake of “The Shining”) and other cinematic greats. After high school, he spent two unhappy years at Columbia College in Chicago — “I was very resentful that I wasn’t in New York,” D’Ambrose says — and applied to NYU’s storied film school twice, meeting rejection each time. He did end up at NYU as a cinema studies major, then got a master’s in the same field at Columbia University in New York.
Meanwhile, D’Ambrose made movies. Few were publicly screened, but in 2015 his short “Six Cents in the Pocket,” about a drifter staying in a couple’s apartment, found a spot in the prestigious New York Film Festival. “I went from not having a film play really anywhere to my first festival experience being the New York Film Festival,” D’Ambrose says. “Which was disorienting in a way — but also very validating.” Last year, the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center accepted his short “Spiral Jetty,” which D’Ambrose considers a “first draft” of “Notes on an Appearance.”
After its New York run, D’Ambrose says, “Notes on an Appearance” will go to the Vienna International Film Festival in October and, with help from the distributor Grasshopper Film, play as many other American cities as possible. “This film has done everything I wanted it to do,” he says. “It’s done everything that a $20,000 art-film can perhaps do in this country. And I‘m very grateful for that.”