What do you make of a compilation film that includes comedy scenes from both “The Pink Panther” and “Porky’s”? Or, the back-to-back selections of scenes from “West Side Story” and “Jailhouse Rock”? Can a movie with reminders from both “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Eating Raoul” be taken seriously?
These are questions that can only be raised after you have seen Chuck Workman’s “Precious Images,” a six-minute short that was made to help the Directors Guild of America celebrate its 50th anniversary this year and ended up becoming a visual aperitif on the film-festival circuit.
The film, which includes movie footage dating from 1915 to 1985, has been seen in festivals from Cannes to Hong Kong and won awards at Chicago and Houston. It is eligible for--and would seem to be a strong candidate for--an Academy Award.
Those who see “Precious Images” for the first time inevitably try to register each scene shown and connect it with a movie title. The scenes included aren’t all classics, but they’re all familiar, and you can actually hear competitive murmuring in theaters as movie fans impulsively blurt out titles in vain efforts to keep up.
Before you can say “Casablanca” you’re looking at “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Some of the scenes last a few seconds, but most are measured in fractions of seconds. Workman, an independent film maker who has done montage sequences and trailers for major studios for years, used as few as eight frames of film (there are 24 per second) to recall one scene.
Despite that, watching “Precious Images” is not a frustrating experience. Once you give in to its strobe-like assault, the feeling is more like a wave of nostalgia. It is taken in gulps of genre, from love stories to musicals to comedies to action-adventures to Westerns.
It opens with some of the screen’s most taunting kisses and ends with Dorothy and her pals skipping down the yellow brick road. In between, poor Ray Milland slugs down a shot of booze in “The Lost Weekend” and Ronald Reagan mugs with a chimp in “Bedtime for Bonzo.”
Workman uses music from movies to introduce sections, taking us through the romantic clinches with “As Time Goes By” (from “Casablanca”) and the comedy scenes with the theme from “The Pink Panther” and suspense with the music from “Psycho.”
You could start some great arguments debating the merits of scenes that were included and those that were left out of the film. It is hard to justify anything from “Porky’s,” “Rambo” or “Mommie Dearest” as being among Hollywood’s greatest. But there they are, like a bad moment at a good party, flashing through our minds.
Workman said he didn’t set out to pick the best scenes, only those that best tapped the moviegoers’ memories.
“There is an iconographic image that you see immediately,” he said. “The magic of the movies is that these images are retained in our minds.”
When “Precious Images” gets to videotape (it is bound to be televised eventually, allowing us to trap it in our VCRs), it is going to make a great party game. Show it at regular speed and then give everyone another six minutes to recall as many of the 458 movies included as they can.
In the meantime, you will be lucky to find it. “Precious Images” is one of three films commissioned by the DGA (the others are Douglas Stewart’s “50 Years of Action,” made primarily for film students, and Newton Meltzer’s “The Television Makers,” which will air on PBS Jan. 13), and the committee that set its $30,000 budget did not foresee the strength of its appeal.
“We never knew we would get the response that we got from the public and exhibitors,” said Workman, who is now doing a similar but longer montage tribute for Paramount Picture’s upcoming 75th anniversary. “The public really wants this film. We have to figure out how to get it to them.”
“Precious Images” was a huge hit at the ShoWest convention for theater owners in February and, carrying the proclamation that it was made as a gift to American moviegoers, the impression was left that we would be seeing it in theaters all year long.
Unfortunately, the budget allowed for only 30 prints of the film to be made. Attempts to get major studios to make prints and send them out with their big summer movies failed. (Workman would not say why, but a fair guess is that the studios didn’t want to replace their trailers, which sell specific movies, with “Precious Images,” which merely sells the medium.)
Had the DGA known what kind of response it would get from exhibitors, it might have figured out a way to supply the film directly to them. The venture is nonprofit, so exhibitors would have had to pay for lab and shipping costs only. Workman said that some exhibitors, on their own initiative, have called either the DGA or a group called the Short Film Showcase, which is helping with the distribution, and done just that.
Still, there are only about 50 prints of “Precious Images” in circulation. Only two of them are in Los Angeles, both being used as the warm-up act for Vestron’s “Malcolm” (at the Westside Pavilion and the Beverly Cineplex).
Workman said that he spent most of the year trying to figure out how to distribute his film, and with only three weeks remaining in the DGA’s Golden Jubilee year, he thinks he has finally found the way.
“We are talking to some major companies about corporate sponsorship,” he said. “If it goes the way it looks right now, we’ll get about 4,000 prints out next year. One way or another, we’ll get it out, if I have to carry a print to every theater in the country.”