#584) Precious Images (1986)

#584) Precious Images (1986)

OR “The National Film Registry Speed Round”

Directed by Chuck Workman

Class of 2009

“Precious Images” is the quintessential movie about movies, and I’ve compiled an as-comprehensive-as-possible shot list for anyone who wishes to do a deeper dive.

The Plot: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America, Chuck Workman assembles a celebration of great movie moments in “Precious Images”. In seven minutes, Workman presents a rapid assemblage of clips from almost 500 movies, distilled down to their most iconic moments, seemingly interacting with each other through their shared imagery, and set to such equally recognizable movie music as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “As Time Goes By“. For those of you who don’t have several years to devote to watching every great American movie, “Precious Images” will do in a pinch.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the most influential and widely shown short films in history”, praising the film’s “dazzling effect” and “dizzying compilation”. “Precious Images” is so big it took two people to write its NFR essay: film professors Dale Hudson & Patricia R. Zimmermann.

But Does It Really?: This is certainly one of the NFR’s more meta inductions, but the history of film should include a nostalgic clip package from the master himself. As I’ve said previously on this blog, our collective memory of the movies boils down to moments: a line, a character, a scene. “Precious Images” is an impressive compilation of hundreds of such moments, many of which I’m sure will elicit an emotional response from the viewer (they certainly did for me). At a time when film preservation was in the national conversation, Chuck Workman showed us the power of the movies and defined clip packages for the next 25 years. “Precious Images” is as worthy of NFR recognition as the hundreds of movies it represents.

Shout Outs: By my count there are 231 films featured in “Precious Images” that are also in the National Film Registry (as of the 2020 induction). For a full run-down, check out my aforementioned shot list.

Everybody Gets One: Chuck Workman began his editing career cutting trailers for low-budget movies, eventually graduating to bigger studio fare such as the original trailer for “Star Wars“. Workman had made two films for the DGA (“The Director and the Image”, “The Director and the Actor”) when he was commissioned by them to make a trailer of sorts for all the great movies directed by DGA members. Compiling and editing the clips (and winnowing down Workman’s initial list of 700 movies) took Workman and his team three months, with Workman likening the cutting process to a sprint: “You take a breath and you go.”

Everybody Gets One-Precious Images Edition: Based on their archival appearances within the film, this is technically the only NFR appearance for: Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Vanessa Redgrave, Goldie Hawn, Jill Clayburgh, Albert Finney (twice), Patty Duke, Roger Moore, Sean Connery’s legs, Luise Rainer, John Cleese, Cantinflas, Marsha Mason, Mary Tyler Moore, Red Buttons, Michael Keaton, Dudley Moore, Ryan O’Neal (three times!), Ali MacGraw, Robert Donat, Paul Scofield, Frankie & Annette, Leatherface, Benji, The Beatles, and yes, Jane Fonda.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among the ’80s movies featured that probably wouldn’t make the cut today are “Annie”, “First Blood” (Parts 1 & 2), “Rocky IV” (the most recent film included), “My Favorite Year”, “The World According to Garp”, “Porky’s”, “Mr. Mom”, and “Octopussy”. Not that any of these are bad movies, I just don’t think they would still be deemed iconic enough for inclusion.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the 1987 Oscars, “Precious Images” won the award for Best Live Action Short Film, which is as good a classification of this movie as it’s gonna get. “Precious Images” was also aired in its entirety at the end of the ceremony.

Other notes 

  • Before we go any further, special mention to this film’s assistant editors: Rob Claridge and John Santos. Every movie editor has a team of assistants who help contribute to the process, but these two deserve to be highlighted for what I can only imagine was a Herculean achievement.
  • As mentioned in many other write-ups on this film, Workman’s fluidity of genre is commendable. Chuck Workman has been quoted as saying he doesn’t believe in genres, and that shows itself in “Precious Images”. A montage of westerns features Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy”, a selection of musical moments features Walter Huston’s memorable jig from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“. But of course, everyone’s favorite is Esther Williams descending into the water in “Million Dollar Mermaid” transitioning to Susan Blacklinie from “Jaws” getting dragged below the ocean.
  • Special shout-out to five of the films showcased: “Dog Day Afternoon“, “The Incredible Shrinking Man“, “The Mark of Zorro” (the 1940 version), “Once Upon a Time in the West“, and “Pillow Talk“. While a seemingly random collection, these five films were inducted into the NFR in 2009, the same class as “Precious Images”, meaning that each of these films have a moment that was preserved twice in the same year.
  • I’m also enjoying the wide-range of areas encompassed by the comedy montage: pratfalls lead to Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”, which leads to such beautiful women as Audrey Hepburn and Bo Derek, which leads to Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot“. Turns out sex is hilarious. 
  • As best I can tell, the shot of a man sitting alone on a ferris wheel is from the 1976 film “The Money” – aka “Atlantic City Jackpot” – directed by…Chuck Workman! Also noteworthy is a shot of the Three Stooges getting slapped, as Chuck Workman wrote and directed his love letter “Stoogemania” the same year that “Precious Images” was released.
  • I don’t know how they did it, but Randy Newman’s “The Final Game” composition from “The Natural” works perfectly with the film’s finale of familiar movie star faces. It’s a piece of music equally nostalgic and epic. Newman should have won a retroactive Oscar for its repurposing here.
  • What I wouldn’t give to see a really solid HD upgrade of “Precious Images”. Even the better quality prints of this film have that grainy, early VHS feel to them.

Some of my favorite precious images in “Precious Images”:

  • Charles Grodin making bedroom eyes at Miss Piggy in “The Great Muppet Caper”.
  • Chuck Norris in “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning”, because I love that Chuck Norris is on the NFR.
  • “Fritz the Cat”, the NFR’s first and most likely only dip into pornographic animation.
  • Hitchcock’s cameo in “Rear Window“, therefore giving “Precious Images” a Hitchcock cameo.
  • “Jaws 2”? If you say so…
  • Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s nude wrestling match from “Women in Love”.
  • The segue from Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” to Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce” to Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane”.
  • Zero Mostel’s weird high-pitched squeal from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
  • A scene from 1917’s “Teddy at the Throttle” in which a young Gloria Swanson is tied to the railroad tracks as the train approaches. I didn’t realize that was from an actual movie!
  • James Baskett as Uncle Remus walking through a cartoon world in “Song of the South”, which is as close as this movie will ever get to the NFR.
  • Putney Swope“: shoutout to the late, great Robert Downey Sr.
  • Mark Lester as “Oliver!” asking for more (one of a handful of international moments otherwise ineligible for this list).
  • The (as of 1986) three versions of Mrs. Norman Maine from “A Star is Born”.
  • Fredric March and Myrna Loy embracing in “The Best Years of Our Lives“, a movie moment that gives me chills just writing about it.
  • The perfect final shot: Dorothy and her traveling companions skipping off into the horizon on the yellow brick road.

Legacy 

  • Chuck Workman has created countless film montages since “Precious Images”. His immediate follow-up was “Words”: a tribute to the Writers Guild of America. I’m also fond of his 1994 compilation “100 Years at the Movies”, and 1989’s “50 Years of Bugs Bunny in 3 1/2 minutes”.
  • Workman is perhaps best known for his many Oscar montages, which he produced for ceremonies throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In addition to the various salutes to cinema that opened many ceremonies, Workman was also responsible for any Best Picture clip packages, as well as the In Memoriam. Workman’s personal favorite of these was a montage of the moviemaking process set to “Putting It Together” for the 1994 ceremony.

Further Viewing: My vote for the spiritual successor to “Precious Images”; Jonathan Keogh compiled clips from “1,001 Movies to See (Before You Die)”, added over 200 additional titles, and made an energetic movie montage with a 21st century sensibility.

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