"Everybody dreams. Everybody travels, sometimes into countries where strange beauty, wisdom, adventure, love expects him." These words, a tad floaty and dreamlike themselves, open 1947's Dreams That Money Can Buy. "This is a story of dreams mixed with reality," the narrator intones. He can say that again. Directed by Hans Richter, painter, graphic artist, avant-gardist, "film-experimenter," and energetic member of the Dada movement, the picture takes a storyline that seems mundanely realistic — impecunious poet finds apartment, then must figure out how to pay the rent — and bends it into all manner of surreal shapes. And I do, literally, mean surreal, since several of the scenes come from the minds of noted avant-garde and surrealist artists, including, besides Richter himself, painter and photographer Man Ray, conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, sculptor Alexander Calder, and painter-sculptor-filmmaker Fernand Léger.
Joe, the film's protagonist, finds he has a sort of superpower: by looking into the eyes of another, he can see the contents of their mind. He promptly sets up a sort of consultation business where he examines the unconscious thoughts of a client: say, an unambitious banker whose wife lives "like a double-entry column: no virtues, no vices." He then uses the abstract materials of their thoughts to come up with a self-contained, somewhat less abstract dream for them to dream: in the banker's case, a dream called "Desire," which takes the form of a short film by Dadaist painter-sculptor-graphic artist-poet Max Ernst. For Joe's other, differently neurotic customers, Richter, Man Ray, Duchamp, Calder, and Léger come up with suitable formally and aesthetically distinct dreams. While all these artists imbue Dreams That Money Can Buy with their own inimitable sensibilities (or nonsense abilities, as the case may be), I feel as though certain modern filmmakers would have the time of their lives remaking it. Michel Gondry comes to mind.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.