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Dreams That Money Can Buy (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 29, 2014

I first saw this nearly 6 years ago, rated it quite highly (89 on Criticker) and burned a copy for my personal collection.  This was before it was available on DVD here in the US, and when it was finally released, I had it on my shopping list for a long time.  But more and more I had a feeling it wouldn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, so the copy lingered in my binder until I finally made myself revisit it.  And, though some might call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, it did indeed disappoint the second time around.

The 1947 film is the work of Dadaist pioneer Hans Richter (who also directed the fabulous Ghosts Before Breakfast), with contributions by Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder (and music by John Cage).  It is essentially an omnibus film.  The framing story involves a hapless would-be poet named Joe (Jack Bittner) who decides to make his living peddling dreams.  Because this is a surrealist film at heart, even the framing device starts to go in odd directions, as Joe sells his hand-crafted dreams to a variety of customers.

The dream sequences are much more of a mixed bag than I remember.  Things start out strong — and made me think I was wrong that the film wouldn’t be as good as I recalled — with Ernst’s “Desire”.  It’s a voyeuristic Gothic fantasy with vivid colors and poetic imagery.  Leger contributes “The Girl With a Prefabricated Heart”, a witty musical mannequin romance.  The song is terrific.  And then things go downhill.  Ray’s “Ruth, Roses and Revolvers” is enjoyably silly satire but somewhat forgettable.  Duchamp’s “Discs” is merely spinning painting discs, occasionally interrupted by a near-naked lady to break up the monotony.  The optical illusions caused by the discs are nifty, but so what?  Likewise, Calder’s “Ballet” is just an excuse for him to show off the mobiles he was famous for.  Not the slightest bit dreamlike, surreal, or interesting.  Calder gets a second chance and almost redeems himself with “Circus”, a menagerie of twisted wire figures.  It still doesn’t quite fit, but it’s at least clever and amusing.

Along with “Desire”, Richter bookends the films with the strongest segments by putting his own “Narcissus” last.  A Kafka-esque (I hate to keep falling back on that term, but sometimes it fits) existential noir, it’s the most engaging of the bunch.  Having the film end with what is (IMHO) the best of the dreams is probably what made me rate it so highly the first time around.  But even “Narcissus” alone doesn’t deserve that high a score.  The film is certainly beautiful, with luscious color photography.  And the novelty and boldness of the project is somewhat exciting.  Unfortunately, that excitement had faded the second time around.  Anthology films inevitably suffer from the downer effect of particularly weak segments… in this case, “Discs” and “Ballet”.  While there are some beautiful highs in “Desire” and “Narcissus” — and the other three “dreams” are all successful to varying degrees — I have to drop my rating because of the lows.  I won’t be buying the DVD after all, but I still recommend the film for anyone with an interest in experimental or surreal cinema.  Rating: Good (74)


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