People, Places, Things:
An Interview with Ricky D’Ambrose on The Cathedral
By Lawrence Garcia
Over the past decade, New York–based filmmaker Ricky D’Ambrose has built up a small but highly distinctive body of work. His films feature a select, almost obsessive repertoire of images and sounds: individuals photographed against bare walls and sparsely decorated rooms; on-screen series of postcards and letters, often read aloud; precise stylistic imitations of gallery writeups, newspaper clippings, and magazine excerpts; and, occasionally, the presence of a narrator, whose steely intonations relay pointed, potted biographies of the films’ sundry figures. These elements create the impression not so much of a world of action and event as of reflections on the very same—less of a story moving in time than of a visual riddle we are meant to puzzle out. As D’Ambrose’s films unfold, we feel driven to piece them together into a coherent, even schematic whole—to establish a vision of simultaneous apprehension which we nonetheless feel some unease about accepting. Always, the clarity of his images is matched only by the spectral force of the gaps between.
These aspects of D’Ambrose’s work achieve concerted expression in his latest feature, The Cathedral, one of four projects funded in the Venice Biennale College Cinema’s 2020-21 edition. Based largely on D’Ambrose’s own experiences, the film centers on an only child named Jesse Damrosch (played by five different actors), who grows up amid a tangle of familial and national strife from the late 1980s onwards. In broad outline, The Cathedral may be described as both a family melodrama and an oblique chronicle of American politics, spanning two decades, from the death of Jesse’s paternal uncle in 1986, before the boy was born, to the loss of his grandmother in 2006. But the film is a far more discontinuous affair than such descriptions suggest. Featuring a plethora of archival material, The Cathedral progresses in isolated fragments and sketches, the film’s forward impulsion continually giving way to enigmatic flashes of meaning—perhaps what Stendhal, in his own highly discontinuous autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, referred to as “mental images.”
This dimension of the film is explicitly brought out when a teenaged Jesse (William Bednar-Carter) develops an interest in filmmaking, which we are told “reflected less an interest in memory than in measure.” The phrase is indicative not just of D’Ambrose’s visual style—particularly the postcards that recur throughout his oeuvre like scaled, synecdochic models—but of his entire body of work. With their steady successions of objects and sensations, his films continually mark the distance between us and the world, between what’s in frame and what’s out of field. They make us feel what one might call the vertigo of the outside.
D’Ambrose and I discussed his film over Zoom following The Cathedral’s debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival and ahead of its North American premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Reverse Shot: In your artist statement, you wrote that you’ve had the idea for The Cathedral since the funeral of your maternal great-grandmother. Is The Cathedral substantially different from what you’d initially imagined?
Ricky D’Ambrose: Yes, mainly by the virtue of having gotten older and evolving different relationships to the people in my life than I had when I was 18, when I first wanted to make the film. Also, as someone who doesn’t have siblings—and since it wasn’t just me who was getting older—I thought about what life would be like if my parents were no longer alive. That kind of thing wasn’t at the forefront when it first occurred to me to make this movie. But it became something that guided my thinking about the film as my twenties became my early thirties, until I finally started writing the script.
RS: One thing that strikes me about your work is its formal economy. This film covers a much longer span of time than your shorts and your previous feature, Notes on an Appearance (2018), but shares many similar elements. Was your approach to this film at all different in terms of organization and structure?
RD: Not in terms of the organization and structure. Things had to change because I was dealing with a crew of a size that I hadn’t worked with before, and when you have proper departments working for you, and you have more people you have to communicate with, that changes your day-to-day on set. But the actual writing of the script—the structure of it and the planning of it—proceeded basically in the same way as I’ve always approached my other films, which is that before the film became a script, it was a chart, a grid. I knew that there were going to be images, sounds, sequences, memories—my own memories—that would appear at certain points in the film. The Cathedral spans 20 years, and we’re dealing with a whole ensemble of people, but having that grid or chart—columns and rows where I could find visual correspondences—that didn’t change.
I will say the script was developed in consultation with the Venice Film Festival’s Biennale College Cinema, which was the first time I had ever worked so closely with people who weren’t friends of mine to develop a script. And to have people reading your work closely—making comments about it, providing insights about it, and encouraging you to think about it in different ways—that was new. And because there were time restraints placed on me to deliver a draft, I had to work more quickly than usual.
RS: It’s interesting to hear about how you map out this grid, because the movie does feel like someone organizing their own experience. The film follows Jesse as he comes of age, comes into his own social and political consciousness. But because it also functions as his reflection on things, he becomes a kind of void in the film. Early on especially, we see scenes that he’s too young to even remember. Was there a conscious shift in how you were thinking about or directing those early childhood scenes versus the later ones?
RD: The idea was that this movie would be set up so that the family relationships were central from the get-go and that the entrance of the boy becomes an occasion for those relationships to unravel. Jesse becomes a screen through which we can watch these things. And as he gets older and his politics become more articulate, the archival footage we see in the movie also becomes more pointed. There’s a development of a kind of sensibility. I don’t think it’s a coming-of-age film, really, but if you want to say that there’s a development, it’s in his relationships to the persons that he’s quite literally sharing rooms with. As he gets older, the film becomes less and less visually explicit in terms of the period style and the temporal markers. It was important that the 1980s, before Jesse was born and during his early years, which were the peak years of the family, should therefore be visually the most articulated. But then as Jesse gets older, I think the film becomes more neutral. It almost becomes just people in front of walls.
RS: As the movie went on, I increasingly found myself using the archival footage of the various events in American history to place myself temporally. In your other movies there’s often a sense of ambient or looming disaster—protests, political upheaval, and the like. But here, the news events never directly connect to the family saga. How did you conceive of the relationship between the larger American context and the family story?
RD: The news events in the film were things that I had very dim memories of, especially in my younger years, and which are very similar to the sense impressions that Jesse has in the film: the shadows on the wall or the light patterns on the carpets. If you grew up in the United States and are of a certain age, these things are evocative; they carry with them a context, and inevitably people are going to read what they want into those clips because we have our own associations with history. But what was happening in this family—especially the changing of money that goes on in this movie—isn’t completely irrelevant to the mores and values that were inaugurated in the Reagan years and continued into the Clinton years. One goes with the other; the family isn’t divorced from its time. At the same time, I don’t think the clips make those things explicit. They should exist on a more subjective plane.
When I was 18 and first wanted to make this movie, it was the beginning of the end of the George W. Bush years, and also when my own politics formed. But I had also watched Tarkovsky’s The Mirror for the first time, and the way that Soviet history intrudes, or is included within, this very scrambled memory story of someone reflecting on his childhood was really compelling to me. I thought, “Ah, here’s a way to bring something of the world, of the country’s history, into this otherwise very intimate, almost inaccessible movie.”
RS: There’s the section in The Cathedral where Jesse is given a video camera and develops an interest in filmmaking, and the narrator says something really striking: that for him this act of recording “reflected less an interest in memory than in measure.” It makes me think of how your other films have postcards or photographs held up on-screen, and how they become a kind of measure against which the rest of the film unfolds. Could you speak more about that notion of measure?
RD: What I wanted that bit of narration to make clear was that there was an impulse or sensibility emerging within this kid that wasn’t so much interested in recording things like found objects, but in literally measuring the distance between himself and the world: the fact that there is a gap, a frame, a perspective on his situation that filming permits. You could say that this relationship to things—the need to have a distance between myself and the things that I’m recording—is implicit in all my films going back to Notes on an Appearance or my short films. But it’s made explicit in The Cathedral in a way that it’s not in those other films. I mean, hell, Jesse is based on me in many respects, and the narrator describing what the character may be feeling or thinking at a given time makes this notion of “measure” pretty prominent.
I’ve had to watch the film many times while doing color and sound, and one of the things that I’ve continued to find unsettling is the scene in the high school classroom where Jesse is presenting the photograph of his two aunts sitting on his father’s bed with the nail polish. And there’s that monologue where Jesse is talking about different components of the photograph and what they mean to him. If I were to make this movie now, I’m not sure whether I would include that. Maybe I think it’s too…
RS: Too explicit?
RD: It creates an intimacy with Jesse and the thing he’s talking about that up to that point you may not have expected. But that photograph needed to be seen at that moment in that film, because it was always apparent that there would be an epilogue in which we would see the space of that photograph in live action, and it would therefore take on a different meaning. But the monologue itself… It could have something to do with the delivery, the performance style, the tone in which it was delivered. If you can forgive the allusion, I don’t know if you remember the movie American Beauty… [laughs] Let’s leave aside whether or not we think that movie is even worth talking about. But the problem of the dancing white plastic bag, which one should never succumb to, where you have a young man talking about something that he’s witnessing, that he’s been sensitized to, and that the rest of the world doesn’t have access to because he’s budding as an artist. And in that movie it’s the dancing bag in the wind that he records on camera. Unfortunately, that character’s name is Ricky… Leaving that aside, I thought the photo presentation ran the risk of doing something like that, though I think it’s still necessary to show the still before the epilogue.
RS: I was curious about your approach to directing actors. You’ve gotten comparisons to Bresson, Straub-Huillet… are there particular line readings, particular intonations that you already know you want? How do you think about those elements?
RD: By and large, I don’t think the performance style in this film bears much of a relationship to the performance style of any of my other films. That has to do with a few things. Mainly with the fact that I was dealing with professional actors whom I trusted to make decisions. Not that I never trusted the people who acted in my films before, but it was easier for me to take a friend who wasn’t a working actor and give him or her very limited parameters for how to move, how to talk, the intonation of the voice.
Yes, it’s related to Bresson, it’s related to Straub-Huillet—maybe because those were filmmakers who were formative to me at a certain point. I still think that a performance, the voice of an actor, can be features of the film much like the mise-en-scène: they are formal properties, things that can be modulated. And here, even though I was working with actors who may have been prone to giving more naturalistic performances, I still tried to do something similar: to trust the actors but also to make sure that the things written on the page were paced in a certain way, that the dialogue still had a certain rhythm, and that there were still very intentional pauses in the delivery.
RS: What I find most immediately pleasurable about your films is the use of diary entries, letters, the presence of narration, and the like. You feel like you’re getting a mental history of the characters, which reminds me a bit of the Truffaut of Two English Girls (1971). You talked before about how the budget sometimes dictates how you do things. But are these elements of your films something you’ve always been drawn to?
RD: I’ve only ever dealt with very slim budgets in my life. But even when I was still a very ambitious teenager, thinking that I was going to make these two-hour long movies, there was already something transfixing to me about conveying things to a viewer by having them read text on a screen, as opposed to giving them a play-by-play recreation of it with actors. When I was 16 or 17, I made a Catcher in the Rye film that included newspaper inserts: fake newspaper articles that I designed, printed out, pasted to the wall, and filmed close-ups of. It’s true that budgets kind of force you to do those things, but they do and they also don’t because there are plenty of filmmakers who work with low budgets and don’t necessarily cut corners that way.
RS: It makes me think of what Borges writes in the preface of one of his collections, which is that instead of writing these enormous books, he just pretends they already exist and offers summaries or commentaries on them instead. In your films, you don’t often present the action per se, but writing on the action, or reflections on the action.
RD: Or the consequences of the action, without ever seeing the action.
RS: One last question. I know you’ve written arts criticism for The Nation before. Do you still do much writing nowadays?
RD: No, I haven’t written in a while. I still think there’s something very attractive about being a filmmaker and writing about the things you care about, that you think should be defended, and that you think other people should be paying attention to. It’s never weird for instance for a novelist to write reviews, or for a visual artist to write in Artforum about some show or artist that means something to them. But there seems to be more of a disconnect between critics and filmmakers. I don’t know, maybe it was being under the spell of certain French young men from the 1950s sitting around and talking about Hitchcock… But those days of writing for me are over. Writing served a purpose for me at a time. It allowed me to think about films in a way, and forced me to articulate things, but I’d never admittedly got any pleasure from writing. It was always a chore. If I were to continue writing it wouldn’t be about film.
RS: What would you write about?
RD: I’m interested in a lot of things. I’d love to write about psychotherapy or painting. But every time I say, “Well I’d like to write about…” what I’m really thinking is, “I’d like to make a film about…” And at this point, I think there’s more for me to say or do as a filmmaker.