Picture Thinking: Ricky D’Ambrose’s Spiral Jetty at New Directors/New Films

spiral jetty-3When this publication put Ricky D’Ambrose on last fall’s 30 Under 30 list of up-and-coming Brooklynites, he said in response to the boilerplate “tell us about your next film” question: “I’ve finished a new short, called Spiral Jetty, about a young archivist hired by a celebrated New York intellectual to whitewash her late psychologist father’s reputation.”

Indeed, Spiral Jetty, which plays as part of one of the shorts programs at this year’s New Directors/New Films (screening March 17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and March 18 at MoMA), is distinguished by a heady atmosphere of intrigue against a backdrop of magisterial Manhattan intellectual culture. The film begins with Daniel and Emma lolling about in a park (clearly Fort Greene Park, but not in the movie), reading art books and snapping photos, at the start of a summer promising a stay in a country house for her, and a job for him, archiving the materials of the late psychotherapist Kurt Blumenthal. (The atmosphere of highbrow poverty and intellectual gigs suggests the rarified, long-lost milieu of Renata Adler’s novels, or indeed Renata Adler’s life.) Blumenthal’s work, we learn from voiceover and note-perfect fabricated Times and New Yorker articles, was dogged by controversy and a mysterious death in the family; Kurt’s daughter Cynthia, a fearsomely accomplished author, is fiercely protective of his memory.

This sounds plotty, but the narrative is parceled out in single shots, in close-ups of faces expositing in front of flattened backgrounds, or in in on-screen letters, diary entries, and VHS home videos which Daniel is supposedly “logging”. The compositions are austere, reverent—Bresson is an inevitable comparison, but Spiral Jetty, stitched together by Daniel’s literate voiceover and snatches of classical music, has the feel of a scrapbook. Like D’Ambrose’s previous short Six Cents in the Pocket, the construction feels simultaneously intensely personal and coolly abstruse.

I exchanged a few questions with D’Ambrose over email, both about this new short, and his upcoming, long-planned feature An Appearance, for which he’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign later this month. [Update: The campaign, which runs through May 26, 2017, is here.]

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Brooklyn Magazine: Can you tell me about the title Spiral Jetty? I’m drawing a black on connection to Robert Smithson—the best I can come up with is a link between this subterranean construction, now exposed to the eye by drought, and the various strands of repression your protagonist encounters in the “whitewashing,” as you put it in your synopsis, of this controversial psychologist’s reputation. But I suspect there’s a visual and/or structural resonance to the title that’s escaping me as well…

Ricky D’Ambrose: There’s no obvious connection. Smithson wrote an essay fifty years ago, a part-anthropological, part-autobiographical cut-up cultural history that came out of a bus trip he took across the Hudson River to Passaic, New Jersey. He called what he found—like the town’s used car lot and its unfinished highway—“ruins in reverse,” which he related to the suburbs’ special ahistorical character. Smithson called them “monuments,” too, but monuments for the future, not the past. I like this idea; maybe some of it comes through in the film, since Daniel and Cynthia are legacy-builders in their own way. But I’m thinking of the Passaic essay only now, since you asked about Smithson. The film has less to do with Smithson than with being unwittingly caught in a spiral of incriminating information and distortions. (Another possible title was Whirlpool, like the Otto Preminger film.)

Can you tell me about the appeal of filming handwritten correspondence? As opposed to electronic? From the way the letter at the end of the film calls back to the opening scene in the park, at the start of summer, it seems to have something to do with nostalgia…

It was the simplest, most attractive way to reintroduce Emma, I think. Because I knew she would send a photograph to Daniel in the mail, it made sense that she’d also enclose a note and that the note would be hand-written. Some background on the genesis of that photograph: I wrote and recorded a much longer version of the Kurt Blumenthal lecture that appears in the finished film. Originally, I thought Daniel’s ongoing transcription of the lectures would cause his thinking to adapt to Blumethal’s reactionary form of psychotherapy, which Blumenthal calls “picture thinking” in the earlier, longer recording. To be brief, Blumenthal claims that all psychological symptoms are self-incurred, and that the psychotherapist’s task is to encourage the patient to effectively censor whatever is most painful about his or her past. The patient does this, according to Blumenthal, by replacing a “negative memory picture” with a “positive” one. Early in the film, we see a reproduction of a Watteau painting in Daniel’s room; at the end, it’s replaced by Emma’s photograph. Leaving aside the two images’ connotations and their meaning for David and for the audience, this swapping out of pictures retains some of this earlier idea.

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Maybe a related question: You mock up a number of Times, New Yorker and other periodical articles, with accurate fonts and tones, to evoke the Blumenthals’ cultural milieu, like a less-whimsical Royal Tenenbaums. For someone like me, who works in media and has access to a pause button, they’re far more accurate-seeming than the generic newspaper articles in Hollywood montages since time immemorial. (And they don’t spin towards the camera.) What’s the appeal of intervening in New York’s cultural history in this way? How did you go about recreating the look and textual feel of the different publications? Any unexpected challenges?

I was a research assistant for a little while for the Susan Sontag Foundation, itemizing unpublished letters and manuscripts, and I’m sure some that work was relevant to this film. The newspaper inserts were just an effective way to compress the characters’ histories without stocking the script with unnecessary expository conversations. Visually, they’re also the closest the film comes to duplicating Daniel’s point of view.

(And a digression: for your spurious New Yorker profile of Kurt Blumenthal’s daughter, you recycle a quote from Joan Acocella’s 2000 profile of Susan Sontag but use the byline of Calvin Tomkins—am I reading too much into this switch if I say that it called to mind Tomkins’s profile of Carl Andre, which dealt with the did-she-fall-or-was-she-pushed death of Andre’s wife Ana Mendieta?)

The main source for Laure Blumenthal was a Hungarian-born writer named Susan Taubes, who was married to the Jewish scholar and philosopher Jacob Taubes, and who drowned herself off of Long Island in the late 1960s. As far as I know, there never were any suspicions abouts Taubes’s involvement in his wife’s death—very much the opposite of the Mendieta murder, which was also an influence here, with Kurt Blumenthal standing in for Carl Andre. And some of the news coverage we see of the Blumenthal case comes from contemporaneous reporting of the Vince Foster suicide, which I’m afraid is still a talking point among the Clintons’ detractors on the right.

Do the classical music selections in this film and Six Cents in the Pocket reflect your own taste? Are you consciously eliding a personal “pop” sensibility from your films at all? If so, to what end?

They do. But I’ve been thinking about a much longer film for many years now, one that would be set between the late 1980s and the middle of the George W. Bush years, “scored” entirely with incidental pop music. The music in the shorts comes from casual and continuous listening; in many cases, I’ll write sequences around pieces of music that I’ve been listening to for some time, as I did with the Stravinsky sequence in this film and with the coffee shop scene in Six Cents in the Pocket. What I like about using symphonic music is the ability to listen to and select from as many different recordings of a single piece as possible. With a piece like Wallingford Reigger’s String Quintet, which appears over the coffee house sequence in Six Cents in the Pocket, the decision is simple, given how few recordings exist. The situation is of course very different with something as famous as The Rite of Spring, and I like being able to sift through and compare renditions before shooting, since the tempo of any given recording will finally influence the way the shots are timed.

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Tell me about the videos! Where did they come from, what was your thinking in integrating them into the narrative?

They’re from childhood trips, recorded by my father, except for the clip on the lake, which I shot when I was 11 or 12. Incidentally, they’re also all recordings of bodies of water, which in a way rhymes thematically with the Blumenthal drowning-murder and with the sound of ocean waves at the end of the film.

Tell me about An Appearance (if that’s still what it’s called)—how do you see your style “scaling up” to a feature-length film? Obviously Six Cents in the Pocket and Spiral Jetty, the latter especially, have very distinct narratives, though your (I don’t use this term with great precision) modular montage, used in preference to classical continuity editing, means the arc of the story isn’t always privileged. Do you sense your visual style “loosening up” at all, or will we continue to see a largely a montage of one-shots and inserts, with controlled performances and literary voiceover?

It’s about the unforeseen consequences of a young writer’s disappearance on a small group of people, set in an unnamed city, and coinciding with the discovery of a cache of controversial notebooks and letters belonging to an esteemed political theorist whose relationship to the proceedings remains unclear. So much of the shorts was determined by what little money I had, and this typically meant drawing upon a limited repertoire of types of images; of eliminating establishing shots; of relying on inserts (postcards, newspaper clippings, notebook entries) to convey information, etc. Perhaps the feature will be a chance to avoid some of these things, or at least to use them differently. The shorts exist because the feature existed before them: each short was an attempt to solve certain aesthetic and conceptual problems that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started writing An Appearance.

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