Set within the remote planet of Brooklyn intelligentsia, Ricky D’Ambrose's hourlong Notes on an Appearance relays a narrative teeming with incident -- death, disappearance -- through an elusive yet methodical style. The inciting incident finds David (Bingham Bryant) traveling from Milan to Brooklyn, where he intends to hook up with graduate student Todd (Keith Poulson) and assist him in researching the work and estate of the antiestablishment political thinker Stephen Taubes. But Taubes proves elusive; soon our protagonist disappears, too.
D’Ambrose deals in minimalism. Establishing shots are few and far between. A scene might consist almost entirely of a tableau of physical objects. Scenes of characters commuting are portrayed via close-ups of the New York City subway map and the aural roar of a train tearing across the tracks. Such economical methods are all a creatively frugal solution to the challenge of an average 9-to-5 employee, such as D’Ambrose, producing a debut feature. But his means of expression can also seem like a concerted rejoinder to more conventional storytelling wisdom, for reasons that have nothing to do with money.
D’Ambrose proves uncannily adept at conjuring zero-budget paranoia through the sheer accumulation of documents. Eventually, with the movie hopping from such haunted elements as David’s diary entries to wobbly footage of the Twin Towers to audio of Taubes, Notes simply plays like a plaintive reminiscence of things that no longer exist. D’Ambrose doesn’t engage in character psychology -- he instructs his cast, a who’s who of New York cinephilia, to recite their lines with minimal emoting -- but he does suggest some emotional conclusions through this block-by-block organization of material. In the balance between the carnage and the bullshit, there arises something like a deep disillusionment.