The Cathedral

The Cathedral ★★★½

For Reverse Shot, an interview with Ricky D'Ambrose. Introduction excerpted below:

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.

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