18 July 2010

Precious Images

In 1986, I was working at the Denver Center Cinema (a repertory film theater in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), when we were chosen as one of a handful of small theaters in the country to participate in an exciting year-long program by the Directors Guild of America (DGA). In celebration of DGA'S 50th Anniversary, the DCC would host a different American film director each month. Throughout a weekend, a famous director would make appearances, speak, answer questions, and present a selection of his favorite films. It was a film nut's dream come true!

However, the precarious situation of such movie houses in the late 80s, when ready availability of home video kept people away from art and repertory cinemas in droves, affected even such an auspicious program as the DGA's. After just four months the DGA could no longer sustain the countrywide directors-in-person offerings. Like animated dots on the map showing one, then another and another Kane newspaper dying, the program went dark in revival movie theaters across the country. As if to teach us landlocked masses where true culture resided, the DGA continued the series event at only 2 locations: one cinema each in New York City and Los Angeles.

It was a fantastically exciting program while it lasted, though. Legendary American directors came. They talked at length about their films and their careers. They answered questions. Alan J. Pakula showed Klute and All the President's Men. Peter Bogdanovich arranged last-minute shipping of his own personal print of The Last Picture Show when the good-but-not-perfect one we had obtained just wouldn't do. The great renegade director, Samuel Fuller, strode back and forth restlessly, telling stories, answering questions, and alternatively gesturing with and chomping on his trademark cigar. I don't remember if it was lit or not.

The program was kicked off in January with a visit by the affable, gracious once-President of the Director's Guild, Robert Wise. I'm hesitating to call him a genius, but only because it is a misunderstood term. Look at just a handful of the films he helmed: The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain. Lesser-known gems of his include the great boxing film noir with Robert Ryan, The Set-Up, and the Oscar-winning performance by Susan Hayward in the riveting death-penalty melodrama, I Want to Live! (one of the films that Wise chose to present when he came to the Cinema.)

OK, "genius" will do.

Wise arrived at the Denver Center Cinema carrying
under his arm a special treasure in a film can. He had brought a brand-new short film with him, a film produced by the Director's Guild "in honor of the 100th Anniversary of Film," as an opening title says. Wise was visibly excited and very eager to share this film with us. Except for some screenings for DGA members, no one had seen it.

As we few employees of the Denver Center Cinema joined Robert Wise in the dark of our 255-seat theater, we wondered what we were in for. What could have this great director so fired up?

By the end of the 8-minute short we knew.

That extraordinary short film was called Precious Images.

Precious Images is a moving tribute to the hundred-year history of film, made entirely of short film clips set to various pieces of classic film music. The approximately 470 clips are recognizable and often iconic gems from a kaleidoscopic variety of mostly American films: sound and silent, black-and-white and color, comedies, dramas, westerns, thrillers, musicals, even a few animated features.

From these beautifully-chosen raw materials, director Chuck Workman has fashioned a marvel and a wonder. Brilliantly arranging these fleeting images by first grouping them into broad thematic categories
and then very cleverly juxtaposing individual clips in subtle, witty, and emotionally powerful ways, Workman's film carries the viewer along on a ride that's alternatively heartwarming, funny, thrilling, stirring, and intellectually satisfying.

Precious Images is aimed squarely at film lovers. Watching it is a fascinating kind of meta-film experience. Its power relies on how many of these films you have seen. As its scores of images cascade by, an image here and an image there sparks recognition: I know that film, seen this one, or, look, that's Bette Davis/Gary Cooper/Sissy Spacek/Edward G. Robinson/Marlene Dietrich/Paul Newman/Lauren Bacall! The clips flit so fast (at an average of a second per clip but in some sections much faster) that there's often no time to attach a film title or a actor's name to a particular image before ten more catch the eye. These multiple sparks of recognition transcend the verbal, and quickly become visceral. They hit the eyes and the neural pathways like a clattering shower of gems. They evoke memories, and flashes of strong emotion accumulate like a lightning storm. And very soon, even if you've only seen one in ten of these films, you find yourself awash in emotion woven from these connected flashes of recognition.

This crude, basic description of technique barely touches the miraculous emotional power of this film. Workman's editing choices are subtle, clever, often brilliant. They show his understanding of the history of American film, of the meaning of particular images, and of deep correspondences across the decades. It's a huge understatement to say that Precious Images stands up to multiple viewings. I have seen it dozens of times and always am able to pick out some clever juxtaposition of images or music that I'd never noticed before.

Look at the first two images in the film. It starts off with the snow globe resting in the hand of the dying Charles Foster Kane from the first scene of Citizen Kane. Cut to Casablanca: Ingrid Bergman in closeup, saying "Sing it, Sam," and Sam (Dooley Wilson) does: "You must remember this. . ." On the word "this," and as the song continues on the soundtrack, we switch to a clip-after-clip section of couples embracing or kissing, bang-bang-bang-bang, including Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and the eating-spaghetti kiss from Lady and the Tramp. Now we know that Sam is singing not just to Ilsa in Rick's Cafe, but to us and to our memories of films: "You must remember this..." That word "this" kicks off the whole 8-minute memory cascade.

But go back to that first image: Kane is still holding the snow globe when we see it at the beginning of Precious Images. We have to wait to the very end of the film to see Kane's lips pronounce "Rosebud," and for the globe to fall and break. It is as if all the other truly precious images, all our memories from films down through 100 years, are contained within that glass globe. They are the illusions that break when Charles Foster Kane dies.

These are just a couple of examples of the really well-considered editing choices that Workman makes throughout the film. The deeper you look, the more you discover. His use of music is perfect as well, with individual lyrics or musical cues underlining the images, sometimes brilliantly.

After that first screening of Precious Images at the Denver Center Cinema, we could not get enough of it, and neither could our audiences. We programmed it before films as often as we could, and soon it spread to other theaters in Denver. It was common in the summer of 1986 to see Precious Images before your feature at several theaters in Denver.

The film won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Live Action Short for 1986. In 2009, it was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as a film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" to be preserved for all time.

I started wondering about the film again a few years ago. I found that it was not available on DVD, and more recently saw that it had been pulled from YouTube. Some sources stated that it cannot be shown anymore, due to a massive tangle of copyright issues.

Chuck Workman, however, dispelled these ideas in a recent email. He assured me that not only is the film available to any theater in the world from the Director's Guild (dga.org), but that it can also be obtained by museums, schools, and other media arts centers. Non-profit organizations can get the film from the Film-Makers Cooperative in New York (film-makerscoop.com).

So I urge you to urge your local film organization to investigate getting a copy of this really extraordinary film.

For my readers in Denver, you have an upcoming chance to see Precious Images on the big screen. Word at the moment is that it will show at the Starz Film Center on the first Saturday of August, at 7pm, before that month's Tattered Cover Free Classic. Call the theater to make sure, however!

At this writing, you can view Precious Images here.


  1. Jim- Carol Wilson here

    Just a side story to Robert Wise --we took him to the Executive Tower Inn for dinner and were massively embarrassed for our cow town when he ordered a Caesar salad and the waiter came back and said sorry they had no romaine lettuce.

    I still have on videotape part of the local tv news coverage of Bogdanovich, with film from outside at the DCPA.

    1. Hey Carol Anonymous!

      Lovely to read your comment here!

      You must tell me how you found my blog.

      Interesting, but Randy Russell and I had brunch together a few weeks ago. Had not seen him in decades, really. And we talked about you a bit.

      Thanks so much for these fairly hilarious memories of Wise. No romaine!!??