Over the course of eight weeks this summer I worked as a curatorial intern in MoMA’s Department of Film, assisting curator Jytte Jensen and associate curator Ron Magliozzi in mounting a large-scale show devoted to celebrated production designer Dante Ferretti. While for some, Ferretti may not immediately register as a household name, even a cursory glance at his filmography reveals noted collaborators—Martin Scorsese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, to name just a few—and a talent whose work many filmgoers have long admired, if perhaps unknowingly. In order to communicate Ferretti’s craftsmanship and his unique contribution to the cinematic canon, the show is divided into two parts: Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema pulls together drawings, miniatures, and constructed objects in an exhibition context, tracing Ferretti’s process from early conceptual drawings to completed set pieces; the complimentary film series, Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen, presents 22 films, each showcasing his unparalleled ability to interpret and bolster a director’s vision.
While the diversity and international scope of Ferretti’s collaborations speaks to his talent and versatility as a production designer, it introduces an interesting challenge in presenting his work, especially within the context of a film series. Following the selection, at the curatorial level, of the 22 titles that would constitute the film program, department assistant Clay Farland and I reached out across MoMA’s own moving image collection, Luce Cinecittà, multiple Hollywood studios, several studio sub-distributors, and a host of archives on both sides of the Atlantic in search of prints. Complicating these efforts even further was the recent sea change in film distribution, with digital cinema formats rapidly eclipsing the infrastructure surrounding traditional 35mm film prints. As these prints become scarcer, cultural institutions that place a premium on their exhibition value are faced with growing challenges in securing materials for comprehensive film programs
All of which is not to suggest that locating every film in the series was an uphill battle. A good portion were culled from MoMA’s own storied film archive, and are presented in uniformly gorgeous prints. It was the road to those films outside the Museum’s collection that would prove more labyrinthine. The search for Federico Fellini’s Ginger e Fred, for instance, began with a joint canvas of the major American and European archives, which, produced only a slightly damaged print with no subtitles—far from ideal for our needs. Then we discovered that the film had been included in a major Fellini retrospective that had toured the U.S. some years earlier. With the help of programmers at various tour venues, we were able to track down this second print, but it had suffered the wear and tear of many projections in recent years, and also proved unsuitable for screening. Ultimately, our search led to a far less likely source. Ginger e Fred, distributed theatrically in the U.S. by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, opened to American audiences in March 1986. During the intervening years, through a series of legal and financial circumstances, Warner Bros. had acquired the distribution rights to much of MGM’s pre-May-1986 film and television library. And so our subtitled print came courtesy of Warner Bros., a studio that had nothing to do with producing or releasing the film.
Although locating a reliable print source was often the biggest investigatory hurdle, once this was resolved our focus transitioned to ensuring that the films would actually arrive at the theater. In scheduling the program’s three Pasolini films (Salò, Arabian Nights, and Medea), a print source was assured from the outset; the issue of scheduling our dates around the films’ inclusion in a large-scale touring retrospective, which originated at MoMA in December of 2012, became the issue. Once the dust settled, we had shuffled dates and coordinated with programmers across five venues in as many cities to receive prints from San Francisco, Berkeley, and Houston, with plans to ship them back across the country following our screenings so they might resume their place in the tour. Print traffic also played out at the international level, with various films in our program shuffling between France, Italy, and Germany.Once the films were located and the dates secured, we often arranged for in-house screenings to ensure overall print quality. Generally this took the form of reel-by-reel condition reports (feature films are broken down by reels, each generally representing roughly 20 minutes of 35mm screen time). Scratches, tears, poor splices, audio pops and hiss, missing frames, and color fading proved the most persistent problems, with each affecting the overall condition to varying degrees. While it might seem overcautious to go about noting, for instance, film damage across two discrete frames in a three-hour-long film, a nasty tear can knock the film off its path in the projector, quickly affecting both the image and the soundtrack. Other issues, such as mild scratches at the beginning and end of reels, are largely unnoticeable and often endemic to even the best archival prints, many of which began their life as distribution copies and bear the cosmetic traces of having been repeatedly built up and broken down over the course of multiple screenings.
As the digital revolution continues to fundamentally restructure many corners of filmmaking practice, transforming the medium from a tactile analog discipline to an increasingly remote digital enterprise, Dante Ferretti remains a craftsman deeply invested in materiality. It seems only fitting, then, that 20 of the 22 films in this series are exhibited in 35mm prints, as they were on their initial release. The program notes state that Ferretti is an artist whose work is best appreciated on the big screen; chief among my responsibilities was ensuring that the the screen, more often than not, was filled with light that passed through a strip of film.