Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Dreams That Money Can Buy

I've had this film on DVD for years on loan from a friend of mine, but I had some time to watch only now. I'd read about the film quite a lot and I'd been interested in it for a long time, but the film proved to be somewhat disappointing.

This is spelled out in the excellent brochure that comes with the British Film Institute DVD: the film is "neither intellectual enough for an art film, nor entertaining enough to be popular". But the story behind the film is more interesting than what we see on screen. Dreams That Money Can Buy was supervised by Hans Richter, German avantgarde filmmaker whose abstract animations are part of the canon of the experimental cinema. The film was made in the US as an indie production and the point was to make an experimental film that could be played in more conventional forums, not only in art galleries and places like that. Richter got other European Surrealists and other artists to go along in the project - the list is breath-taking: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Fernard Léger, Alexander Calder and Max Ernst. This is not only abstract animation, the episodes are made all in different styles and techiques. (I won't provide links to all the artists, I'm sure you know who they are. At least you should!)

The problems are visible almost the minute the film starts: the actors are clumsy, the voice-over narration (used also in dialogue) is clumsy. Not all of the episodes are interesting either. I recognized Max Ernst himself in his own episode, "Desire", that followed the Surrealist dogma of resembling a dream, but his episode left me cold. This was a far cry from any Luis Buñuel film. (Buñuel always did things in a very realist way, shooting at eye-sight and not using weird editing techniques - this keeps even his most Surrealist films very watchable.) Fernand Léger's episode, "The Girl with the Prefabricated Heart", was a love story told with shop-window dummies - must've been a fresh idea at the time, but it's been done so many times since that Léger's film seemed dated. The song to go with it, sung by Libby Holman and Josh White, was quite funny, with its Surrealist lyrics, but all too long.

Man Ray's spoofy and jokey "Ruth, Roses and Revolvers" was about the film media making people act against their own will, but again, not very interesting. Marcel Duchamp's "Discs" was one of weirdest episodes, but also one of the best: it has different discs rotating, facing the viewer, and shots of a nude descending the stairs (Duchamp's best-known Cubist painting). The film also refers to Duchamp's earlier film, Anemic Cinema. The music was by John Cage (more on that later). Alexander Calder, famous for his beautiful mobiles, had two episodes. The first one was just about his mobiles moving around, and it was not even very well photographed. The other episode, "Circus", was done with some of his moving toy-like figures. Charming, but not very interesting as a movie - not enough story.

The film ends with Hans Richter's film noir parody, "Narcissus". A guy notices his face turns blue during a poker game. A nightmare starts, he runs away from other people and other things, everything seems scary. This episode also suffers from stilted acting and voice-over, but it's still one of the most interesting things in the film. David Lynch is said to like the film and it's easy to see that he's taken things especially out of Richter's episode.

As for the music in Dreams, it's done by modernist composers, like Darius Milhaud and Louis Applebaum. Their music has suffered in the hands of time, though: it just doesn't like modern anymore. John Cage is an exception here, his short composition for Duchamp's hypnotic film supports the images and sounds fresh even today. Interesting to note, though, that Paul Bowles, the writer of The Sheltering Sky, wrote the compositions for two films, Ernst's and Calder's.

The BFI disc has also three short films by Hans Richter, from the 1920's. They are interesting, but suffer from the lack of music on the soundtrack. There's a hypnotic quality to these, though. The middle one, Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928), shows the love the Surrealists had for the crime and adventure fiction, and the last one, Everyday (1929), has some contribution from Sergei Eisenstein - there are some shots in the film that might be outtakes from an Eisenstein film.

Here's the link to other contributions to the Tuesday meme.

Here's Duchamp's and Cage's "Discs" from the film:

5 comments:

K. A. Laity said...

Despite the obvious disappointment, I must admit to being equally intrigued by the back story! Wow, what a fantastic idea or set of ideas. I have a weakness for the surrealists, especially Maya Deren.

Todd Mason said...

I've seen bits of this before, but never the entirety...sounds a bit like the neither-fish-nor-fowl of FANTASIA, to be heretical, and others following in FANTASIA's footsteps...

Evan Lewis said...

That video, with some appropriate spy music would make a fine intro to a Bond movie.

Juri said...

Rather weird at that, Evan, rather weird at that... but yeah, you're onto something.

Todd: for some reason it keeps coming to me that Hans Richter worked at FANTASIA and some of his ideas are seen in the beginning - where the Disney film resembles abstract animation. Or then it was some other German experimentalist. No, it was Oskar Fischinger.

Juri said...

Kate: some of Maya Deren's films are great, better than this one here, though I must admit laughing at the film with the black dancer, popping onto the screen from different angles...