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Wednesday
Mar162011

Ferdinando Scarfiotti II: "Toys"

[ED: This is the second in a series of posts on the work of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, this post focusing on his work for the 1992 film Toys. Youtube has disallowed embedding, but you can view the music video sequence from the film (referenced in the text below), featuring the song "The Mirror" by Thomas Dolby here.]

TORI AMOS: HAPPY WORKER

"By 1987 Scarfiotti was firmly ensconced in Los Angeles, but he returned briefly to Italy for a terrific little picture called Mamba. The plot is a vicious treat: Gregg Henry plays a sneering, self-contained software magnate who elects to punish his ex-lover (Trudi Styler) by penning her within her apartment in the company of a drug-crazed snake. The mamba has the luxurious advantage of an hour in which to puncture its prey before overdosing on venom, but it finds in Styler a resourceful opponent. The loft which Scarfiotti designed for Styler is a riot of postmodern design flourishes in the seriously playful style of Ettore Sottsass, accordingly making merry with conventional notions of architectural syntax. It is a kind of erotic fantasy for subscribers to Blueprint, so much so that, when in the course of her frenetic flight from the mamba, Styler scatters her furniture and tarnishes her pristine floors, the viewer feels a sharp and unexpected pang of sorrow.

In 1989 Scarfiotti was all too briefly reunited with Bertolucci on The Sheltering Sky, a project of which he had schemed and dreamed. Nicolas Valle had recommended Paul Bowles’s novel to Scarfiotti who, his partner remembers, ’fell totally in love with the book and gave it to Bernardo saying, “If ever I direct a movie, this is what it would be”’. Scarfiotti’s notion, tellingly, was to film The Sheltering Sky entirely on stage, gradually descending into surrealism. But Bertolucci was the man who got the money to make the film, and was determined to go forth into the desert. Scarfiotti gamely set about the location-hunt, but contracted hepatitis deep in the Sahara and was forced to retire from the film." [1]

"Scarfiotti returned to work in 1990 on Barry Levinson’s Toys. This project dated from 1978, its fanciful story (of a bombastic general and his holy fool of a nephew who feud over the family toy factory) having found little favour or funding before Levinson’s later triumphs. Toys plainly required a strong and guiding design concept, and Levinson went after the best man: what he got in return, over their first breakfast meeting, was Dada. ’When I read the script,’ Scarfiotti claimed, ‘I told Barry I would do it if he’d allow me to stay away from traditional American fantasy - such as the Disneyland themes - and instead go back to the European modernist movement of the early century which included surrealism, dadaism and futurism’.

This was no idle threat, so to speak. Scarfiotti’s touchstone for Toys would be the Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero, a crackerjack of all trades whose inventions included patterned waistcoats, bolted books, sets for Diaghilev, and covers for Vanity Fair. The choice was inspired. Depero had also been a compulsive maker and illustrator of figurines, and, with Giacomo Balla, penned in 1915 Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, hymning a new world order ’run according to the principles of the Futurist toy’. M Depero’s joyful paeans to fighting dolls (not nearly so grimace-worthy as Marinetti’s conviction that war was a form of hygiene for civilisation) gave Scarfiotti a line straight into the highly coloured whimsy Toys required.

Scarfiotti was by now much perturbed by the industry’s changing perception of ‘visual style’. ’If you look at what commercials and MTV are doing now, they’re so technologically advanced that it‘s scary,’ he confessed. ‘But at one point all these new technologies become very unimaginative, and it gets very tiring for the eye and the mind to be bombarded with an enormous amount of images in a very short time’. Toys is therefore a clarion-call for the hand-made magnificence of which Scarfiotti was the master: the film came before its audience unarmed, with a child-like ingenuousness. ‘We have a tradition of whimsy here at Zevo Toys’, Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams) cautions his uncle Leland, sounding the keynote of the picture. In search of a unified concept for the Zevo Toys, Scarfiotti elected to shun the mass-produced and seek out the rare. ‘I decided that the old-fashioned wind-up toys . . . had a common look. They are very innocent and have a fantasy element to them, unlike the modern toys of today’. Thus Scarfiotti found himself realising what Depero only dreamed of, building a number of adorable toys with concealed war-waging capabilities." [1]

"Scarfiotti conjures the innocence of the Zevo operation, and the subsequent threat to its purity, through boldly contrasting strokes. Initially Kenneth Zevo’s office is littered with wind-up toys, the walls awash in Depero‘s carefree colourful frescoes; but upon his demise and the installation of brother Leland, military murals in gross parody of Russian Constructivism are painted over, and towering, threatening robots line the walls. As influential as Depero upon Scarfiotti’s internal logic was Magritte, who provided inspiration for mechanical wheezes (a pop-up house) and colour-schemes (several Zevo interiors are daubed after his inimitable skies). When required, somewhat to his distaste, to design a pop-video sequence, Scarfiotti appropriated Magritte’s enigmatic bowler-hatted mannequins, and in a barrage of cuts Robin Williams and Joan Cusack bring to life Golconda, Le Faux Miroir, and Le Mois des Vendunges, amongst others. There is even a canny homage to De Stijl, the design movement which gave a rational order to Futurism’s romantic, anarchic ’machine aesthetic’. The Zevo factory‘s canteen is a loving recreation of the classic Cine-Dancing room created by The Van Doesburg in 1928 for the Aubette entertainment complex in Strasbourg; coloured squares on stucco panels climb the walls in Van Doesburg’s dynamic, diagonal style of ’Counter-Composition’." [1]

"Scarfiotti celebrated his experiences on the film in terms which, for him, signified the highest praise: ’Toys was the closest thing to theatre you can imagine. You start from a blank page and make a drawing, then a painting, and you have it reproduced on stage exactly the way you want’. His adventures in the cinema almost at an end, Scarfiotti had emphatically achieved something he had always sought. Paul Schrader, however, feels that Scarfiotti‘s work on Toys was overshadowed by graver matters. ’I think Scarfiotti was approaching an aesthetic crisis at the end of his career,’ Schrader reflects. ’It’s a crisis not uncommon to exploratory, hugely influential artists. Nando had become so imitated towards the end of his life that it was harder and harder to work in his style without seeming to be derivative of the films which were derivative of him. I think if his health had been better, he could have attacked this dilemma frontally, gone back to work in Europe or done something more experimental. After The Sheltering Sky, health became an overriding concern. He didn’t want to be too far away from medical help and his friends. This meant maintaining a relatively expensive lifestyle, which meant big budget studio films. Toys can beseen as his attempt to reinvent himself: new palate, new tone, new shapes. A big budget Hollywood comedy is not the ideal place, to my mind, to reinvent yourself'." [1]

"As Nicolas Valle confirms, ’Nando was constantly approached with all the top films being made (or not) in Hollywood’. Ill health and the toil of Toys compelled him to pass on several cherished projects. Finally, he committed to Love Affair, a vehicle for Warren Beatty and wife Annette Bening. The picture was a pleasant piece of romantic pabulum for which Scarfiotti provided warm, subtle interiors indicative of his personal taste. One of these is a tropical retreat designed for a character played by Katherine Hepburn. ’If Nando could have designed a ”dream home” for himself,’ Valle laughs fondly, ’that set was very much how it would have looked’. Scarfiotti passed away on April 30, 1994, and Love Affair salutes him In Memoriam." [1]

ALL IMAGES AND ANIMATIONS TAKEN FROM THE BARRY LEVINSON FILM TOYS, 1992; ALL TEXT [1] BY RICHARD KELLY, TAKEN FROM "FERDINANDO SCARFIOTTI 1941-1994: EXCURSIONS INTO STYLE" AS IT ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN CRITICAL QUARTERLY, VOL. 38, ISSUE 2, JUNE 1996

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Reader Comments (1)

I've never seen this...uhhhhhhh I know what I am doing this weekend. Bummer about Robin Williams but it will be so worth it!!!
March 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergenevieve

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