Dada? Surrealism? Avant-garde? Cinematic abstraction? Wanton pretentiosity?
Experimental film is at least as old as film itself. All of the first films were, by their very nature, “experimental.” People were experimenting with what the medium could do. Once a reasonable grasp on that was attained, experimental film came to mean something else. An experimental film came to mean a movie that used the medium of motion picture but as a vehicle to explore art and things other than straightforward narrative. It was pleasing coincidence that the anarchic Dada movement of art hit its peak just as film was becoming a serious art form itself.
Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), considered one of the first surreal experimental movies, was a dreamlike spectacle about a lustful priest’s fantasies. Then the infamous Un Chien Andalou (1929), helmed by Spanish surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, pushed the boundaries of symbolism. The famous painter, Dalí (The Persistence of Time, The Temtation of St. Anthony, The Great Masturbator, etc.), and the developing filmmaker, Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, etc.), made what is considered a masterpiece of surreal film Dadaism with Un Chien Andalou. What makes it so great is that despite its shocking and bizarre imagery, there is nothing tying the ideas, visions, characters, or events together. It is actually just madness and doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. Both artists would explore this further in other works and they would team up again for the film L’Age d’Or (1930).
Filmmakers like Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Kenneth Anger (Eaux D’Artifice), Jean Cocteau (Testament of Orpheus), Alejandro Jodorwosky (The Holy Mountain), Mamoru Oshii (Angel’s Egg), The Brothers Quay (Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle), David Lynch (Eraserhead), and many others like to dazzle and perplex us with dream imagery that does not always seem to make much sense. I confess that I do not always understand or appreciate modern art, but I do recognize that sometimes art is just ahead of its time.
One of the most enjoyably “ahead of its time” experimental movies I have had the pleasure of watching is Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947). Dreams That Money Can Buy is an anthology of surreal dream sequences wrapped up in a loose story about a man who can make people experience dreams. He runs his apartment like an office and accepts walk-in clients who want to experience something truly unique. The film is narrated by the main character, Joe (Jack Bittner). There is no spoken dialogue. Makes the onscreen conversing feel telepathic in a way. Each dream sequence was developed and directed by a different surreal artist. Max Ernst shows us aching desires in a strange, foliage and fog enshrouded bedchamber. Fernand Léger, puts on a glorious mannequin pageant show. We see Ruth, roses, and revolvers at a bizarre funeral from the mind of Man Ray. Marcel Duchamp spins a hypnotic trance of spiraling discs. Alexander Calder tames a wire toy circus and sets a ballet of mobiles dancing. Hans Richter orchestrated the whole thing and directed the final sequence in which Joe turns blue and familiar things get weird and burst into flames. If some of the artist’s names sound unfamiliar I guarantee you have at least seen some of their famous works in art books.
I really enjoyed this movie quite a bit and the visuals alone are not all that this colorful film have going for it. If the imagery is wild, kooky, and ahead of its time, wait until you hear the music. Great innovative composers each worked on a different dream. Experimental in sight and sound! Composers Paul Bowles, Josh White, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, David Diamond, and Louis Applebaum each collaborated with the visual artists to create a truly spellbinding feature. I liked the pictures (Léger, Duchamp, and Calder’s segments in particular), but I absolutely loved the music. It was so unlike anything I had heard in movies from this era. Sounds like this wouldn’t integrate themselves into film until the 1960s and yet Dreams That Money Can Buy was made in 1947. Richter really made sure all aspects of production were headed by great artists who were ahead of their time.
The film also has a sharp and clever sense of humor. It winks almost as much as a “Looney Tunes” cartoon. Dreams That Money Can Buy is a dazzling achievement and one that I will definitely be watching again. I can’t say you will like it as much as I did, but it is definitely a fascinating artifact worthy of inspection. It’s neat to see how each visual artist leaves their unmistakable marks on their filmed segments. Of course, Calder would use mobiles! Rather than deconstruct this film’s possible meanings, I’m just going to have to tell you to see it for yourself and become your own dream interpreter. I’m also going to cough and say that an American DVD distributor needs to pick this one up.