Berlin-born Hans Richter - Dadaist, painter, film theorist and filmmaker - was for four decades one of the most influential members of the cinematic avant-garde. Richter assembled some of the century's liveliest artists as co-creators of Dreams That Money Can Buy.
Joe, a young man down on his luck, discovers he has the power to create dreams, and sets up a business selling them to others. The 'dreams' he gives to his clients are the creations of Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Richter himself.
Like much surrealist art Dreams draws strongly on Jungian themes, and the film's most effective episodes are those which best evoke the disjunctive logic of dreams.
The cinema, wrote Hans Richter in The Struggle for Film, "must seek such dramaturgical forms as will make an audience that is reluctant to think do precisely that, with ease and without the loss of pleasure". His most ambitious attempt to achieve this aim DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY, was released in 1947 and was awarded a prize (for Best Original Contribution to Film Progress) at the Venice Film Festival. Bit for most of the subsequent sixty years this bid to bring the work of the European artistic avant garde to a wider cinematic audience has generally been dismissed as a clumsy failure: neither intellectual enough for an art film, nor entertaining enough to be popular. James Agee, reviewing the film in The Nation laid into it unmercifully. "It seems at once arch, snobbish and sycophantic. It is about as genuinely "experimental" as a Chemcraft set, and not even its laziness is likeable".
Looked at today, when categories are less absolute, and "art" and "entertainment" movies blithely trespass on each other's territory, DREAMS hardly seems to deserve such harsh judgements. Uneven though the film undoubtedly is, there is a relaxed playfulness about it that anticipates elements of post-modernism, and it is not surprising that a filmmaker like David Lynch. Himself an archetypal exponent of "crossover" movies should have expressed a fondness for it. Richter's chief miscalculations are the framing story, a none too-successful parody of film noir conventions, and the voice over commentary that goes on far too long telling us things we can see for ourselves.
These elements apart, there is a good deal to enjoy. Richter, who seems to have known almost everybody, roped in some of the century's liveliest artists as his co-creators. Dreams includes elements devised and directed by Ernst, Duchamp, Leger, Alexander Calder and Man Ray, with music by (among others) Milhaud, Cage, Varese, David Diamond, Paul Bowles and Duke Ellington. Several of the sections allow the artists involved to reprise their favourite motifs in cinematic form. Calder creates a charming ballet for his puppet-like mobiles, as id Miro had collaborated with animator George Pal. Duchamp works variations on his Nude descending a Staircase, interspersed with hypnotically spinning discs. Man Ray satirises the cinema itself, with an audience treating the film they are watching as a series of instructions to be obediently followed, while Leger sends up the conventions of popular romance with a courtship enacted by shop-window dummies. Max Ernst creates a miniature costume drama of amour fou, shot in livid colours; its fevered eroticism recalls Buñuel's L'Age d'or.
The framing story, of a man who finds out how to tailor and sell dreams to a series of anxious clients, turns the whole film into a satirical portrait of Hollywood, the great dream factory. Compared to the more acrid of Hollyewood's self portraits the satire lacks bite. Despite its occasional infelicities, DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY provides a diverting and historically revealing snapshot of the more user friendly end of the avant-garde at the mid point of the 20th century.