Stage and Screen

Nick Pinkerton on Dante Ferretti at the Museum of Modern Art

Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York, 2002, Super 35, color, sound, 167 minutes.

WE BEGIN IN AN UNDERGROUND WARREN WITH EARTHEN WALLS. The camera, approximating the POV of a little boy whose father is about to lead a small army into battle, cranes to peer at various roughnecks preparing for the fray, sinister in guttering candlelight. The accents are Irish. The setting might be frontier America; it might be after the Apocalypse. As the party emerges aboveground, a crane shot reveals a vast, multistoried timbered structure, part beer hall, part tenement, whose overcrowded population sends up a riotous clangor. Arriving at the building’s main door, an ogreish member of the party kicks it open and, as the camera leads the charge through, tenebrous claustrophobia is left behind for a still, snowy vista that fills the full span of the wide-screen frame. This is Paradise Square, the Five Points, Lower Manhattan, 1846.

In actual fact, it’s Cinecittà, the largest film studio in Italy. The film is Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York. The Five Points—as well as Gangs’ other fantastic dens of iniquity—originated in the mind of production designer Dante Ferretti, then to be visualized in one of his conceptually striking production sketches, and finally built to scale by a small army of carpenters, masons, bricklayers, ironworkers, and so forth. Through February 9, 2014, several sheaths of those charcoal-on-paper sketches, as well as other ephemera from Ferretti’s career, will be on view in the lobby galleries of the Museum of Modern Art.

Ferretti has collaborated with Scorsese eight times to date, beginning with The Age of Innocence (1993) and continuing through Hugo (2011). MoMA’s simultaneously launched twenty-two-film Ferretti retrospective includes all of their movies together except Bringing Out the Dead (1999), while among the artifacts on display are the enormous clock face from Hugo’s Gare Montparnasse, as well as the blueprints for the station.

Approaching the escalators to the Roy and Niuta Titus theaters, you encounter a picture of Ferretti standing in one of those warehouse-like soundstages—at Cinecittà, Pinewood, Shepperton—that have housed his greatest creations. The vastness of the empty space is commensurate in size with Ferretti’s vision, which will fill it. He looks very much the Renaissance artist in his studio, or like Giotto in the scaffolding-covered chapel which Ferretti designed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971). Being the all-important director, Pasolini got to play Giotto himself, though Ferretti’s displayed sketches, many of them instantly recognizable, reveal his crucial input into the overall look of the films that he has worked on through their unmistakable proximity to the final product.

Dante Ferretti was born in Italy’s Marche region, near the Adriatic coast. This isn’t far from the native country of Federico Fellini, who would employ Ferretti to design his last five movies. When one thinks of the grand theatrical artifice of Fellini’s 1983 And the Ship Sails On, one thinks of Ferretti’s rolling plastic ocean, its mechanics revealed in the final shot; of the cruise ship with its cavernous boiler room, made into a concert hall by the prima donnas and primo uomos of the Italian opera. (Ferretti has, incidentally, moonlit at designing operas since 1977, including Howard Shore’s The Fly, based on David Cronenberg’s film.) Like Fellini, Ferretti was an ambitious, movie-mad young man who came to Rome from the provinces. After studying at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, he began working as a set designer while still a teenager. For nine years Ferretti would be assistant and apprentice to Luigi Scaccianoce, a frequent collaborator of Pasolini’s, until finally taking his mentor’s place on Pasolini’s 1969 Medea.

Pasolini was partial to shooting outdoors, but when using constructed sets he had Ferretti build with his primitivo, presentational style in mind, based on centered, head-on compositions shot from a fixed point. Where Pasolini wanted static canvases for his figures to move against, Scorsese favors obstacle courses for his fleet camera to duck and weave through. All this and more is visible in the centerpiece of MoMA’s show, the so-called labyrinth. The labyrinth is composed of sixteen screens, hung at right angles to one another in the center of the gallery space outside the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1. On both sides of each screen, scenes from Ferretti-designed films are digitally projected—thirty-six clips in total. Once inside the labyrinth, one’s sightline can simultaneously take in Robert de Niro’s Ace Rothstein arriving at the Tangiers Hotel & Casino on the Strip in Scorsese’s Casino (1995), Brad Pitt’s Louis torching his enemies’ coven in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), and a deliberately-stagey false-front cityscape, reminiscent of Baroque theater, in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The inspiration, said associate curator Ron Magliozzi in a roundtable conference with Ferretti after the press preview, came from the fact that the “labyrinth is a recurring theme in [Ferretti’s] work: corridors, adjoining rooms, caves, maze-themed geography.”

Dante Ferretti, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles – Le catacombe, 1993. Charcoal on board.

As one wanders the labyrinth, the cumulative sum and scope of what Ferretti has raised from the ground in the course of his career appear stunning. Equally stunning is the fact that practically none of it exists, outside of cinematic record, today. The Five Points set is still standing at Cinecittà, and Ferretti has other permanent structures in the works. He is collaborating with architect Renzo Piano on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, while the most surprising sketch on view is a design for a roller coaster for a cinema-themed amusement park, Cinecittà World, slated to open next year. While Five Points is the exception to the rule of impermanence, by today’s production standards, it is remarkable that all of these places ever did exist in any form other than that of digital data. One of the last Old Masters, Ferretti still supervises the physical construction of vast sets from scratch, after the classical Intolerance model. A builder of worlds, Ferretti builds worlds that are bound to be destroyed—or at the very least neglected. For example: The chandeliers from Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), pendulant and suggestive of penetration, now hanging in MoMA’s entry lobby, were only discovered in a dusty storage room after an epic search.

Ferretti’s production sketches give invaluable insight into his process and, in a way, are worthy objets d’art in their own right. Divorced from their intended role and isolated in a gallery context, however, original artifacts like the clock and chandeliers have less “aura” than they have in an industrially produced and distributed film. At this advanced stage, Ferretti’s art needs the camera to complete it.

Neither those who hired Ferretti for one-offs, like Jordan, Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Julie Taymor, nor longtime colleagues like Pasolini, Scorsese, and Fellini were created by Ferretti. In each case, there is a distinct, preexisting authorial voice that Ferretti is seeking to give expression. A genial, humble man, Ferretti is emphatic in saying that he doesn’t work alone, crediting his success not only to his directors but to his collaborator of thirty years and wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo.

Ferretti is less an author than a conduit, a great enabler. Though his signature is unmistakable, his work is only fully activated through collaboration with the right filmmakers—that is, filmmakers who don’t confuse design with direction. In this sense, the “success” of any gallery show in capturing the genius of a film-world figure may be inverse to the success of that figure in making cinema per se. So where LACMA’s Kubrick show could only hope to capture a fraction of what constitutes its subject’s art, MoMA’s Tim Burton show had no trouble getting the full measure of Burton’s.

Ferretti has worked in fantasy films and period pieces, creating imagined worlds and reviving lost ones—though that distinction isn’t so easily drawn. Ferretti recalled being pressed for details of his dreams by Fellini, until he took to inventing them. “Fellini knew I was a liar,” he said, “but he liked the idea.” Likewise, Cocoanut Grove in the ’40s and ‘50s could never have been so riotous and glamorous as Ferretti makes it appear in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2005). Ferretti doesn’t seek to re-create. Instead he makes magnificent imitations of life, begun in the bold, dynamic strokes of his production drawings. These will set the stage for drama presenting neither dream, nor history, nor quotidian reality, but the lucid amplification of all three. This amplification is one definition of cinema.

“Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema” and “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen” are on view at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters and Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art through February 9, 2014.