Dreams That Money Can Buy

Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947)

Dreams Money Can Buy first published by Film4, July 2006 (and here slightly altered)

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

Review: 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 Dalí 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. If its surrealistic visions look somewhat lo-fi, that is because the film cost only $25,000 to make (financed in part by famed art collector Peggy Guggenheim) – and though it would have been a complete nightmare for any conventional producer with an eye on the bottom line, it is a wet dream for lovers of twentieth-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 on the ground, the film reflects an unease amongst contemporary artists about their rôle in the world and their relation to the dominant artform of the time, popular cinema. Richter’s framing narrative concerns a down-on-his-luck artist named Joe (Jack 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’ (Dorothy 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 (Samuel Cohen). Throwing together motifs familiar from Ernst’s earlier collagework, 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 (Valerie 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 targetting 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 uncompromising assumption that merely pointing a camera at moving artworks (Duchamp’s mesmeric ‘roto-reliefs’, Calder’s mobiles and wire puppets) is enough to make for satisfying cinema. Abstract and narrative-free, these three shorts test the boundaries between art and film by demonstrating how moving images alone both do not – and yet literally do – a movie make.

The best (and the longest) dream is kept till last. In Richter’s own 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. 

Verdict: Funny, strange, frustrating and uneven, this low-budget anthology showcases the work of post-war 20th-century avant-garde artists while testing the limits of commercial cinema

Anton Bitel