By David Selden
Shot in colour on 16mm with the sound post-synchronized, Hans Richter’s extraordinary portmanteau film, Dreams That Money Can Buy is a real curate’s egg. Completed in 1947 for a budget of $25000 ($15000 of which had come from Peggy Guggenheim), the feature length film took three years to complete.
Conceived as a showcase for the work of Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Richard Huelsenbeck, the film was described by Richter as “7 dreams shaped by 7 contemporary artists”. The soundtrack features original compositions by John Cage, Paul Bowles and Darius Milhaud tied together by weirdly brilliant syrupy jazz interludes by Louis Applebaum, who later complained that his involvement with the project as musical director had almost bankrupted himi.
Although technically relatively sophisticated, today the tone of the film comes across as a queasy mixture of Cocteau and Monty Python, its satirical rhyming narration seems heavy handed and condescending at times. Despite this, there are moments of hallucinatory beauty and startling invention. It comes as no surprise that David Lynch should cite Dreams That Money Can Buy amongst his favorite movies ii.
Richter’s involvement with film dated back to 1921, when along with the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling, he had begun to experiment with the medium, producing Rythmus ‘21, one of the very first completely
Already an internationally established artist, Richter was a fixture of the New York émigré community of the 1940’s and held the directorship of the Institute of Film Techniques. Before the 1st World War he had been involved with Die Brucke and the German expressionists but had then gravitated to Zurich where he fell in with Hugo Ball, Jan Arp and Tristan Tzara and together with Sophie Täuber, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck, they founded the Cabaret Voltaire.
Transcontinental connections followed a tireless campaign of periodicals, manifestos and letter writing, with Dada’s influence being felt as far and wide as Amsterdam, Berlin. Paris, Tokyo and New York. Duchamp, who had emigrated with Francis Picabia in 1915, had encountered the American artist Man Ray and together they became the ringleaders of radical anti art activities in the States. When Richter applied for American citizenship in 1940 to escape Nazi persecution, his status and connections guaranteed him a warm reception in the bohemian, avant-garde milieu of New York.
In the 1940’s there was a growing tension between the film worlds of New York and Hollywood. In New York the avant-garde was in the ascendant and largely contemptuous of the “empty tinsel of Hollywood.”iv
This ambivalence is keenly felt in Dreams That Money Can Buy. Having secured a lease, Joe, the films protagonist, must find a way of paying the rent. He does this by discovering that “the eye is a camera” and exploiting his ability creates dreams for a procession of bourgeois clients. Romantic clichés are mocked by a parodic noir-ish narrator, “sterile flowers” are offered as tokens of love to mannequins, dreams unfold within dreams and in Man Ray’s sequence, “Ruth, Roses and Revolvers”, a cinema audience is asked to imitate the actions of the characters on screen.
The Marxist critique of the Frankfurt School had had an impact on the thinking of many of the artists working in the medium at the time but the surrealists, for all their posturing and rhetoric, were unable to conceal their love of Hollywood. In 1946 Avida Dollars, as Andre Bresson referred to Salvador Dali, was working with Disney on Destinov, which whilst abandoned due to cost considerations at the time was to be finally realized from the original artwork to great acclaim in 2003.
In 1945 Dali had also produced the dream sequence for Hitchcock’s Spellbound but the influence of the European avant-garde on Hollywood (and vice versa) was by no means confined to the great Spanish self-publicist. Hollywood had become a magnet for German directors escaping the Nazis and the choreography of Busby Berkley, the anarchy of the Marx Brothers as well as the psychological intensity of film noir all had antecedents in the European avant-garde.
In New York Richter established a production company, Art of this Century Films Inc, with Peggy Guggenheim and Kenneth Macpherson (one of the founders of the influential Pool Group film collective)vi. Macpherson’s only previous feature length project, Borderline (1928), had starred Paul Robeson and dealt with the subject of interracial romance.
The montage technique which Macpherson had borrowed from Eisenstein infuriated critics, with the London Evening Standard advising him "to spend a year in a commercial studio" before attempting something as difficult again. It was an ill omen that Richter ignored and, if a photo spread from LIFE in 1946 is to be believed, he had great commercial hopes for the project.
Although the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1947 for “best original contribution to cinematography” it left American critics nonplussed. Subsequent issues with its distributor meant that the film was not deemed commercially viable for presentation in conventional theatres. That it received any public screenings was in large part to a network of film societies and the tireless efforts of Amos Vogel, who had founded the avant-garde ciné-club, Cinema 16 in New York the same year as Dreams That Money Can Buy was completed.
Vogel’s club would go on to be the first to screen films by Roman Polanski, John Cassavetes, Nagisa Oshima, Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais as well as staging early and important screenings by American avant-gardists of the time such as Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner.
Ten years after Dreams That Money Can Buy’s premiere, Richter, at the age of 70, completed another feature length film, 8 X 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements, which reunited many of his original collaborators.
i Louis Applebaum: a passion for culture, Walter G. Pitman
ii BBC documentary Ruth, Roses and Revolver. Arena 1987
""I'm very happy to be a fellow traveller with any one of these guys..."
iv Cinema 16: documents toward a history of the film society, Scott MacDonald, Amos Vogel
v The Destiny of Dali’s Destino, Ron Barbagallo 2003
vi The rediscovery of Pool, Alberta Marlowe