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  • TBC
  • Fantasy
  • 1947
  • 80 mins

Dreams That Money Can Buy

Dreams That Money Can Buy

Synopsis

Hans Richter and his friends from the avant garde construct a curious series of celluloid dreams.

About

The Dadaist artist Hans Richter had been engaged in pioneering experiments with film as a medium of expression from as early as 1921 (with his abstract animated short Rythmus 21), nearly a decade before the surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salavador Dali collaborated on their avant-garde classics, the short Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the feature-length L'Âge D'Or (1930) - and the man, though hardly a household name, was very well-connected. So while Richter's feature Dreams That Money Can Buy had little commercial appeal and consequently vanished almost as soon as it was made, it features contributions from a checklist of avant-garde luminaries the likes of which would never be seen again. In other words, though it must have been a complete nightmare for any producers with their eye on the bottom line, it is a wet dream for lovers of 20th century art.

Made shortly after the end of the Second World War, at a time when the compulsive madness of the Dadaist and surrealist movements had been overtaken by even more darkly irrational events, the film reflects an unease amongst contemporary artists about their role in the world and their relation to the dominant art form of the time, popular cinema. Richter's main narrative concerns a down-on-his-luck artist named Joe (Bittner) who discovers that he has the ability to show individuals their innermost dreams, and sets about trying to turn his talent into a profitable business (somewhere between entertainment and therapy) so that he can win back his 'dream girl' (Griffith). The rhyming voice-over and film noir stylings become rather twee (even if they are designed to parody as much as exploit the conventions of mainstream cinema), but all this is merely the framing device for the film's real raison d'être: seven surreal sequences conceived and directed by prominent members of the avant garde as an aesthetic alternative to Hollywood's dream machine.

The first, Max Ernst's 'Desire' (with music by Paul Bowles), reveals the inner sexual longings of middle-aged accountant Mr A ( Cohen). Throwing together motifs familiar from Ernst's earlier collage work, its classical costumes and painterly mise-en-scène positively drip with languid eroticism, as an apparently respectable man pursues a woman, all to the accompaniment of a nonsensical chorus, and under the watchful eye of Ernst himself (as 'the President'). In Fernand Léger's 'The Girl With the Pre-Fabricated Heart', a high-strung bluestocking (Tite) dreams of herself as an aloof shop window dummy, rebuffing the advances of a lovesick male mannequin with the help of her plastic sisterhood, in what is a hilarious animated spoof (complete with accompanying narrative song) of the unattainable perfection on offer from Hollywood romance - even if it mocks as much as it celebrates the independence of its feminist heroine.

Third is photographer Man Ray's 'Ruth, Roses and Revolvers', this time targeting the crude manipulations of Hollywood cinema (and the ready susceptibilities of the audience) by placing its two recalcitrant characters in a theatre where viewers are urged to mimic every gesture shown on screen. Ray himself appears at the end in, suitably enough, a photograph. The next three segments, Marcel Duchamp's 'Discs' (scored by John Cage), and Alexander Calder's diptych 'Ballet' and 'Circus' all suffer from the mistaken assumption that a camera pointed at moving artworks (Duchamp's mesmeric 'roto-reliefs', Calder's mobiles and wire puppets) is enough to make for satisfying cinema.

The best (and the longest) dream is kept till last. In Richter's 'Narcissus', Joe himself imagines a 'great disaster' in which he has been turned blue, alienating him from his friends, his love, and even his past. It is a psychedelic journey into the isolation of both the artist, and of modern post-war man, whose old roots have been forever severed and whose new future is all at once confusing, terrifying and liberating  and there is something eerily compelling in the fact that the film, just like its protagonist, ended up plummeting into unknown oblivion.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Max Ernst, Jack Bittner, John Latouche, Anthony Laterie, Bernard Graves, Samuel Cohen, Ethel Beseda, Dorothy Griffith
  • Director: Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder
  • Screen Writer: Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Rehfisch, Joseph Freeman, Hans Richter, Alexander Calder, David Vern, Fernand Léger, Man Ray
  • Producer: Hans Richter, Peggy Guggenheim, Kenneth Macpherson
  • Photographer: Werner Brandes, Meyer Rosenblum, Arnold Eagle, Peter Glushanok, Herman Shulman, Victor Vicas
  • Composer: Darius Milhaud, John Cage, David Diamond, Paul Bowles, Louis Applebaum

In a nutshell

Dreams That Money Can Buy is funny, strange, frustrating and uneven - just like dreams. A curiosity piece for lovers of the surreal, if not exactly for the mass market where the real money lies.

by Anton Bitel

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