Do It Again: On Ricky D’Ambrose’s Words and Images

By Phil Coldiron

The quarrel between word and image is, on the eve of the third millennium of an illustrious career, in a period of relative calm, one marked by a casual cohabitation which has produced gratifying results in the arts and considerable trouble elsewhere, where it tends to be mistaken for the decay of a consensus on truth, or at least the truth of a given matter. This trouble, felt acutely in America but resonant globally, gnaws at the edges of much of our times’ most sophisticated art. As the mid-century painters, who tracked flatness and presence towards an absolute clarification of the terms of their art, would likely be alarmed at the energies now given to modes of figuration both literary and illusionistic, so the filmmakers, led by Brakhage, who endeavoured to chase all traces of language from their work might be horrified by the pile-up of words, thick and consistent, found in Sara Cwynar’s Rose Gold (2017) or Luke Fowler and Sue Tompkins’ Country Grammar (2017). If criticism is to go on having any use, it may be in guarding against the traps of dogma and nihilism by clarifying the ways in which the imagistic qualities of words and the wordy qualities of images operate within and without the fluid boundaries of what is recognized as art.

There is, of course, no shortage of artists whose work is primarily concerned with this critical task: though no longer directed towards the essential, the rigorousness of a work’s explication of its historical position remains one of the chief measures of artistic seriousness. Given the retreat of popular criticism into the role of a clergy tasked with assuring its audience that an object has a single, coherent point and that this point will not be missed or dwelt on overmuch, most criticism today is in fact done by artists in the name of art. Nevertheless, certain options remain available only to critical activity relatively unburdened by aesthetic concerns. Though the artist-critic dates to the origins of the practice—the term “art criticism” entered the language through an unremarkable British painter of the early 18th century—and though the director-critic, or cineaste (a term which opens the field to a variety of para-critical activities), is central to film’s short history, it is curiously the case that the American cinema, besotted at it was by the New Wave, has produced next to no noteworthy examples of this particular figure. We find instead either filmmakers whose writing cannot be called critical in any traditional sense (Deren, Markopoulos, Dorsky) or critics whose artistic practice was other than film (Farber, Adler).

It comes as some surprise then that those on the forefront of new filmmaking in New York are united by a cineaste interest in structuring the critical context into which their work enters, whether by programming films, translating or otherwise making available the work of their predecessors, or writing criticism itself. That the seriousness, wit, and intellectual range of the films of Gina Telaroli, Ted Fendt, and Ricky D’Ambrose sits at a marked contrast to the collegiate aloofness of the previous generation of young Americans is, plainly enough, a form of the criticism-in-art mentioned above. Taken together with the work of those even younger directors inspired by their examples who are just beginning to make their first short films, this amounts to a significant challenge to the typical style of independent film in the US over the last six decades: naturalism. In taking Ricky D’Ambrose’s work—one mid-length feature, three shorts (there is a fourth, which he seems to view as student work), and a dozen articles in various literary magazines, primarily The Nation—as paradigmatic of a certain emerging tendency, I should not care to make him speak for a group or school which does not exist, but simply to offer one example of how seriousness looks, or appears, today.

1. Looks

D’Ambrose’s “On Looks,” published in The Nation as “Instagram and the Fantasy of Mastery,” is one of the few recent examples of sensitive and sustained formal criticism of the present visual economy to surface outside specialist or academic publications. (Others include a pair of essays on blackness by Aria Dean, Erika Balsom’s survey of “the reality-based community,” and Sarah Nicole Prickett’s lengthy engagements with Twin Peaks and the figure of Wonder Woman.) In collecting, refining, and combining positions first advanced in relation to topics as far flung as the films of Straub-Huillet, the spectacle of “immersive theatre,” the uses and abuses of transparency, and the surrealist writing of Max Blecher, it strikes an endearingly haughty tone in playing the moth-eaten role of grand public intellectual comically straight.

Though its SEO-inflected initial title feinted towards a judgment on social media and The Way We Live Now, D’Ambrose’s concern is, at bottom, to provide an updated toolbox for dealing with the old-fashioned problems of form and content. His borrowed term for the basic unit of visual culture, the “look,” emerges when “creativity” usurps art, or “sensuous intelligence,” as the ideal of cultural production. “What’s important to stress is that a look is not a style,” D’Ambrose tells us, “if by style we mean the involuntary guiding plan of a work of art, or the transmission of an ineffable personal vision or sensibility into form.” We now have available to us both an inexhaustible supply of images and the means, simple enough to be used by anyone with a computer or smartphone, to take them apart and keep only what suits our taste. As all images reduce to homogenous “data sent out for processing,” every element of a work is marked as potential content—“the frame disappears,” as does the very notion of composition. It is not apparent that this diagnosis demands a moral reckoning, though D’Ambrose provides it with one, framing creativity as a sort of false consciousness, a move which constricts a theory that might have covered the full field of visual production to diminished relevancy outside the narrow context of “the myth of total creativity…[which] comes with its own stock figure: the young ‘creative,’ thoroughly urbanized, mainly white, typically heterosexual and male.” This is the only context in which “I can do that, too” can be understood as the expression of a sensibility as disagreeable as the one which leads a parent, taking in an abstract or naïve painting, to claim, “My child could do that.”

Still, the thinness of a theory does not foreclose the possibility of its having considerable depth, and in voluntarily creating a “weak theory,” D’Ambrose has avoided the problems of self-perpetuation which would attend an attempt to root out looks at a global level. If anything is available to the logic of the look—and it must necessarily be—there is no reason to worry, at least in the first place, about questions of the derivative or innovative (neither word appears in “On Looks”). While his closing call for “a new view,” a phrase which also ends his essay on Michael Haneke and appears at a crucial moment in his first feature, Notes on an Appearance, tempts such a reading, it is perhaps worth remembering that “fais-le de nouveau,” the source of Pound’s call to make it new, translates more comfortably as “do it again.”

2. Appearance

When considered in its proper context, the critical potential of D’Ambrose’s thinking blossoms against the background of elitism, snobbishness, and pretension, all of which he gladly risks. This self-consciously refined social setting is the milieu of his films as well: his characters, brownstone housesitters and sickly shut-in observers languishing amidst brimming bookshelves, graduate students living off fellowships and freelance assistants to National Book Award winners, young women who are “well set up” in Milan and the sons of Chappaqua they date, are the kids of Stillman’s Urban Haute Bourgeoisie. He is working from the inside against the deadening effects of privilege, which renders its subject, who will never worry about hunger, recklessly appetitive, to use one of his pet words. His position is that, given the world, it is the tendency of those who see themselves as the leading edge of culture today to do nothing other than squander it.

Pilgrims (2013) and Six Cents in the Pocket (2015) approach this issue obliquely. They both share a frame, the typical widescreen of HD video, and a palette, the muddled greys and browns of fall and winter in New York. Both star Michael Wetherbee, whose face has the quality of fading youth Bresson favoured in his black-and-white films. The earlier film, indeed, is modelled on Journal d’un curé de campagne, charting the decline of its central figure through a series of journal pages, held on screen as he speaks their contents, which describe the following scene’s action, sapping its drama. The latter introduces an equally canonical structure derived from Antonioni and Godard, as it follows a young man going about a chaptered series of mundane tasks—framing a painting, courting a young woman—before a sudden event eclipses the narrative and sets the film strolling, stunned, through emptied urban space.

Spiral Jetty (2017) opens well beyond the hermetic worlds of the earlier films. D’Ambrose expands on the use in Six Cents of a series of postcards from abroad to narrate the arc towards its fracturing incident to now introduce events entirely outside of what the central figure, played by the director and publicist Bingham Bryant, experiences directly. The story of a recently deceased psychologist of fraught renown is relayed through the sorting and examination of documents in his archive—clippings of essays and newspaper stories, but also notes and VHS tapes. The tighter frame of the Academy ratio proves more congenial to the settings, which remain largely domestic (the exquisitely composed close-up now predominates, rather than the somewhat ungainly medium shot) and the saturated range of creams, reds, and greens allows for moments of purely expressive colour, most notably in a series of shots which frame characters against inscrutable monochrome fields.

As “On Looks” brings together ideas tested across the writing that preceded it, so Notes on an Appearance functions as a summary of the first phase of D’Ambrose’s filmmaking. Its style is, in its particulars, nearly identical to Spiral Jetty: it retains its rich, primary palette and monochrome intrusions, its distant, cooling relation to dramatic incident, and its intrusive, inciting story, again related through documents, which shifts to the similarly fraught legacy of a philosopher and political theorist, rather than a psychologist. Bryant, a fascinating screen presence, capable of exquisite gradations of interest and repulsion, returns as a central figure, joined by Keith Poulson as Todd and Tallie Medel as Madeline, comic performers who are both fixtures of recent New York film. The narrative shape is again borrowed from familiar models, as the sudden disappearance of Bryant’s David, who we are led to believe will be our guide through the film, sets in motion a scenario owing equally to Psycho (1960) and L’avventura (1960). Most significantly, it revisits and refines the rigorous musical form introduced in Pilgrims, an approach to constructing a film which, in its determination to maintain its images’ opacity, cannot precisely be called either montage or découpage, and which is crucial to making sense of the exit D’Ambrose cracks open from the anaesthetic domain of the look.

That viewing these films in terms of what appears to be derivative and innovative in them is unlikely to lead to productive reading or misreading is evident even from these brief sketches. They argue, implicitly, that to understand our situation is to realize that much of what we need, or believe we need, to see is already available to us; to conceive of work on the principle of showing an audience something they’ve never seen before leads to the miserably simple-minded discourses of virtual reality and empathy machines, the unreflexive spectacle that goes by names like “Iñárritu.” One can make do with ideas of composition, performance, and narrative drawn from a tight range of canonical sources—Bresson, Resnais, Antonioni, Duras, Akerman—when these parts of a film are taken to function as, for example, colour does in Frank Stella’s early shaped canvases, a role he has called “arbitrary, or intuitive.” What this forces is the matter of taste, which, in the economy of looks, becomes ambient or, to use D’Ambrose’s words, “unintentional…like the weather.”

In the absence of taste, style, and art, what flourishes is the interesting, the condition to which all looks aspire. If D’Ambrose’s films can be said to have a signature shot, it is the close-up on a face, its expression blank or opaque but for the downward gaze of the eyes, which introduces a hint of shame. It is the image of someone looking as if they were alone, which is precisely what the characters who perform it are doing: in Pilgrims, watching online streams of protests happening, it seems, within earshot, or in Spiral Jetty and Notes watching the inscrutable VHS tapes of the dead intellectuals Blumenthal and Taubes. This odd, anti-naturalistic image of the posture many of our faces now hold for hours each and every day was formalized by Petra Cortright—whose affection for presets D’Ambrose quotes dismissively in “On Looks”—in her 2007 video VVEBCAM. Taste, mercifully, can overcome our more sober judgments.

Cortright’s video is situated in an acute lack of interest; she seems not to care one way or the other about what she is looking at, which is, presumably, the very image we’re watching. D’Ambrose complicates this situation slightly, though he does not match its intoxicating, affective pull. The dying young man in Pilgrims looks through his computer at the world, where he sees that something is happening, something which demands not just recollection, but the creation of an archive in real time. His eyes might be best described as feverish with intent. In contrast, Bryant’s gaze on the VHS material in Spiral Jetty and Notes is situated somewhere in the realm of the incredulous. His voiceover narration in the latter confirms as much: “I rarely saw anyone in any of these recordings. Their importance was unclear.” This footage—a tourist’s home movies of an anonymous beach, the Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul, European cities seen from trains, the World Trade Center viewed from a boat off the base of Manhattan—is of interest, a candidate for the archive, solely because of its apparent source. This genuinely vulgar auteurism is rhymed by the fact that these images, shot on VHS, have a particularly marked look in contrast to the material that surrounds them.

But where did they come from? Is this D’Ambrose’s earliest footage? Though such views of the World Trade Center can’t help but take on an overwrought symbolic dimension in a film circling a disappearance, what such images of the towers insist upon most forcefully, in the plain absence of an effects budget, is their age. That is, they stay where they were, historically speaking, and resist attempts to render them detachable or transparent, to bring them fully into circulation (this clarifies, as well, the relationship between looks and nostalgia, which these images are conclusively not immune to). As the last VHS images to appear, they resonate back through those that came before; the insistent presence of history is, perhaps, one spell to fight against the disaggregating activity of the look.

It’s here that the problem of form and content is at its most urgent. Content is our name for what, in an object, whether intentionally artistic or not, can be explained in language. History, in contrast, demands that we exceed language; consider that it is idiomatic to say that a particularly rich historical account “paints a picture of the past.” To reiterate, any image can become the basis for a look, but here we see how the presence of history, which goes beyond form or content, instills a unity that is the mark of style, and art. One might see nothing but looks in David’s painting of Belisarius begging, or, closer to our time, Kerry James Marshall’s School of Beauty, School of Culture. In both cases, this would be miserably crude. The neoclassical adoption of the forms of antiquity grew out of the conviction that an old dream was finally being realized, while Marshall aims his outrageous talents at every gap torn in the tradition of painting by anti-blackness, by chattel slavery and its wake (his era-defining retrospective was, after all, rather pointedly titled “Mastry”).

D’Ambrose’s films, sensibly, are more modest in their scale. Postcards, models of narrative economy and vessels for circulating images, recur throughout his work, and provide an appealing metaphor for its size and mechanics. When Spiral Jetty concludes with the replacement on a wall of a postcard reproduction of Watteau’s portrait of Pierrot—a canvas which, like those mentioned above, both tempts and refuses to be viewed as only the sum of its looks (i.e., the regalia of commedia dell’arte)—with a photograph we see being taken in its opening moments, the arc which Notes will follow appears. Notes opens with a postcard, a “brief hello” from David to Todd (Poulson) that lays out the cast of characters and sketches their relationships. The former is returning from a visit with Madeline (Medel) in Milan, and there is the vague promise of intrigue between the two young men: “There’s a lot for us to talk about, too.” This card only arrives at Todd’s apartment near the film’s completion, some days after David’s death has been confirmed, a conceit D’Ambrose first deployed in Six Cents (its spookiness reiterating the pun in the film’s title, which the earlier use of Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost had pointed towards).

These haunted lags in communication, moments of various scale in which the time is out of joint, are the most acute form of D’Ambrose’s key theme, the music of time, or its style. Once heard, it seems to play everywhere. It’s there in the sense of Notes as a portrait of a certain segment of the New York film scene today, one which, like Frampton’s Manual of Arms (1966) or Markopoulos’ Galaxie (1966), is decadent, happy to risk an accusation that it is “too much.” (Here is perhaps the moment to note that, along with filmmakers Dan Sallitt and James N. Kienitz Wilkins, two contributors to this magazine appear in the film, while a third is said to write for it.) And it’s there in the long, long walk that David takes down a Brooklyn street as he wanders out of the picture following the revelation that the man whose reputation he’s been tasked with managing was, it seems, open to fascism. That there is no satisfying answer to where he has gone, and how he has ended up dead in a marsh, is its own sad song, a mystery whose answer is not in time: Todd’s retracing of his friend’s steps, a repetition which seems to come from somewhere in the film, rather than from any reasonable motivation, is a bitter joke on a character whose failure is, we suspect, tied to his belief in Taubes’ project.

D’Ambrose, for his part, believes unfashionably in art. To return to his style, I should only like to say that, having seen Notes on an Appearance now six times, I am confident that I could recount every one of its nearly 300 shots in sequence. But the harmony which, through his precise compositions (few filmmakers have ever made such extensive and varied use of the visual field afforded by a table top) and his elegant, gently repetitive chaptered structure, plays in the mind, does not appear. It is a structure, a form, a style that is always elsewhere, and which demands our care and attention to flourish; it is the preciousness of history, an insistence on what counts, an exit from looks.