This is a movie that is best watched with a finger on the pause button, yet it is only just starting its festival run. Hopefully, you read Vulcan-fast, because there is a lot of intriguing back-story that flashes across the screen in fictional news articles. Whether or not the mysterious disappearance of a recent college graduate has anything to do with the controversial life of the late political theorist Stephen Taubes is open to speculation, but the writer’s coy advocacy of ideological violence certainly seems to represent these divisive times. Look not for answers, but only more questions in Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
After an extended period of slackery, David Hidell accepts a Brooklyn-based research assistant position with his former college friend, Todd, who is working on a definitive Taubes biography, thanks to a considerable grant. Despite his Ivy League pedigree, Taubes is no bourgeoisie James Q. Wilson. He is an avowed anarchist, who railed against capitalism and democracy. Rather awkwardly for his admirers, it has also come to light that he pseudonymously wrote for a Europe journal with a reputation for fascist and anti-Semitic leanings.
There is the tantalizing possibility Hidell was made to vanish because he discovered something embarrassing about Taubes, but D’Ambrose steadfastly refuses to indulge in crass mystery/thriller conventions. Frankly, he is more interested in epistolary forms, sort of like Eric Baudelaire’s hybrid doc Letters to Max, which also has authoritarian sympathies. When it comes to the drama, such that he allows, his approach is not unlike the deliberate artificiality of Eugène Green and the extreme distancing of For the Plasma, which makes sense, considering the crossover personnel it shares with Appearance.
There are times when it is hard to tell if Appearance is deliberately satirizing the hyper-pretentious Brooklyn literary scene, or so deeply immersed in it, it inadvertently launches into self-parody. That uncertainty is highly problematic. Regardless, D’Ambrose does not want you to get involved in the narrative—and you won’t. The cast does everything they are supposed to, scrupulously following his direction. Yet, what really captures our imagination is Nation magazine contributor, Russia apologist, and Trump-collusion denier Stephen F. Cohen lending an eerie voice to Taubes and his ideology of menace.