One Hour in the Day of The Clock

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard about The Clock, Christian Marclay’s brilliant twenty-four hour long video constructed from thousands of film fragments, that it is about time. I don’t simply mean that people are constantly looking at pocket watches, wrist watches, domestic and office clocks, public clocks - all and every clock face you can imagine, or that they insistently refer to time and how little, or much, they have of it. The sense of time I’m talking about is a measure of ontology, a trace of how we exist and how we record that existence.

That philosophical measure comes in many forms and in various tones, from the tragic to the humorous. Time plays all the human stops, but the video keeps us locked in the eternal present. Despite a teacher who shows her class of children a time capsule, The Clock is not about the future. It is about us watching for something to happen in real time. In this regard, it both respects the audience’s intelligence and exploits its compulsion to find meaning. Are we to see the proximity of a mother complaining about being in domestic thrall to her son in Billy Liar from 1963 and Glenn Ford in cowboy garb saying, “I’m like a girl singing, it puts a man’s mind to rest” as a comment on gender roles and sexist stereotyping? Or is their closeness just a question of time? Are we to hear in Malden’s call to Baby Doll, heard under Vincent Price’s afternoon visit to his garden in the original 1958 version of The Fly, a link between the messages of the drama and the horror film? The film pans from Price, the brother of the scientist who has been transformed into a fly, to an intricate web in which we see a spider going about his diligently menacing work. The web is an apt symbol for the workings of Marclay’s video.

I have seen nine hours of The Clock, initially in Ottawa, and recently in Winnipeg, where it will show until January 5, 2014. The video took Marclay over three years to make and it contains some 10,000 film clips that have been transferred to a single channel video format. It is relatively easy to show; you simply run it continuously, whether the host gallery is open to the public or not. Whenever you are watching it, the time on the clocks in the video will correspond to the actual time of day. Observing the number and variety of references made to time reminds you of Hamlet’s observation to Horatio, who has just seen a ghost and is shaken; that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Clearly, there are as many films in heaven and earth as well. The Clock, both in the way it looks and sounds, is a monumental feat of imaginative research and editing.

Only 6 copies exist and one is co-owned by the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Fine arts in Boston. It is on view in Winnipeg because of the satellite arrangement that exists between the NGC and the WAG. Over the course of the three and a half months that The Clock is on exhibition, there will be three 24 hour screenings. I have had neither the opportunity nor the stamina to see the entire video, but I am sorely tempted. For the time being, I’ve picked one hour as a template for how the film operates. Any of the remaining 23 would do as well, and as richly. The chosen hour, roughly, runs from 1:45 to 2:45 in the afternoon, from Karl Malden calling to his young, uncontrollable wife in Baby Doll, a 1956 drama set in Mississippi, to Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock face on a skyscraper in the 1923 silent film, Safety Last.

After sitting through only a few minutes you realize that the video is inseparably connected to narrative and our compulsion to tell stories and to acknowledge what are the qualities and the limits of that narrative inclination. You become aware how few stories there actually may be, but instead of registering as a limitation, the recognition that these few stories can be told in an apparently endless number of ways is ultimately liberating. The film is an inventory of genres - there are remnants of Westerns, noirs, comedies, thrillers – and there are forms of story-telling; from sections that present a logically connected narrative arc, to single scenes that function as a compressed narrative. The most obvious example of this brand of story comes when, after observing a young woman having an orgasm in a delicatessen, a more elderly woman tells the waiter who approaches her table, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The line is the clincher from When Harry Met Sally, the 1989 comedy starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. You can’t make anything more out of the line; it is rightly famous and contains its own story.

But other stories are readable, even though their original sequence is consistently interrupted by episodes from other films. The scene that best operates in this way shows Tobey Maguire in Spiderman 2 under pressure to deliver boxes of pizza within a very narrow time frame, or lose his job. He is late and is fired, a situation that is its own mini-narrative; it makes sense even if you know nothing about the plot and characters of the Spiderman films.

This one hour segment includes a number of different scenes taken from the same films, including Executive Suite, a 1954 drama in which the death of a furniture company CEO sets in motion a destructive power struggle, The Sting, the 1973 film about charming con men and the sound of calliope, and even a few shots of Kim Basinger looking pampered and sultry and bored in 9 and a Half Weeks, the 1986 erotic drama with Mickey Rourke.

There are also numerous scenes from the 2009 thriller, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but their inclusion is without shape; less about content than tone. What they add is a sense of suspense as the countdown to the ransom demands gets closer. The film, which stars John Travolta and Denzel Washington, involves a number of hostages held on a New York City subway car; if a 10 million dollar ransom isn’t paid in an hour, one hostage will be shot for every tardy minute. In the film, time’s measure separates life and death; in the video time is a way of registering anxiety.

One of Marclay’s clear advantages in his epic collaging is our acceptance of film language and the kind of cuts that can be made while still sustaining a visual logic. Film editing is the art of understanding how much can be left out, not how much needs to be put in. Marclay uses simple tricks: when a person walks in a revolving door from a street we expect to see them exit into the building from the same apparatus. We do get entrances and exits, but the characters going in are never the ones coming out. His editing is so precise, so elegantly timed, that you are never troubled by the inconsistencies. More often than not, you don’t even notice them.

What is noticeable is that our obligation to look at clocks amounts to a kind of tyranny. In retaliation, we attack the object of our frequent attention. Clocks are broken, smashed, pawned and forgotten. The Clock includes the scene from Hook where Jack pulverizes his father’s watch in the Clock Museum because he was never allowed to blow bubbles in his chocolate milk, or jump on his bed. Robin Williams’s piratical Hook encourages wholesale revenge by telling Jack, “make time stand still, laddie”. You may doubt his motives but you can’t quarrel with the impulse. One of the clocks that Peter Parker sees on his botched pizza delivery reads, tempus fugit. There’s the rub. Time is relentlessly linear and unforgiving.

The film clips constantly remind us of our mortality; Glenn Close complains to her lover about her aging, scrunchy skin; we see people in hospital beds; we enter the bedroom of a dead grandfather, guns are fired, bombs explode, men are hanged, an eccentric old man in an episode of The Twilight Zone says that when his heart stops ticking, he will die. There is something oddly poignant in his resignation and something quixotic in his metaphor. In the television episode, the man’s heart is a clock. In Marclay’s video, the clock is the heart. The old man wonders whether it’s crazy to talk that way. We recognize that he’s not crazy, but time is a madness. Marclay has said that his governing impulse in the video was to take sounds and images that we are familiar with and “reorganize them in a way that is unfamiliar.” It is an instability devoutly to be wished.

In one important way, it’s an absurdity to introduce any expectation of the conclusive in our reading of The Clock. Its narrative trajectory continually undercuts and intercepts the possibility of any coherent narrative sense. Marclay has said that he wanted, “to make a collage with continuity”. His continuity is as close to flawless as any mortal could achieve but his finished collage, inescapably, ends up a dazzling work of art about the ups and downs of time passing. The fascinating thing about The Clock, and the quality that makes it so mesmerizingly seductive, is that it’s real subject - and method - is endless deferral. We are constantly waiting for something meaningful and conclusive to happen, but the video never allows that occurrence. It revels in anticipation, and brilliantly modulates the rhythm of that frustrated imminence. I want to say orchestrates the rhythm as well because the sound editing in The Clock is perfect; Quentin Chiappetta, the Brooklyn-based acoustic engineer, slips the sound from a scene we have just seen under one we are currently watching and even though are from entirely different worlds, and have nothing to do with another, their aural relationship is impeccable. Marclay, who moved from New York to London in 2007, says that, “sound is the glue that holds the pieces together”. Tempus fixit.

When he accepted The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, Marclay invoked the influence of Andy Warhol by thanking the jury for giving The Clock its fifteen minutes of fame. He was being parsimonious with the thing his video plays so extravagantly. The Clock, pace Andy, is in it for the ages. It is a monumental achievement and will continue to be admired as long as there are movie-goers and art lovers in the world. People will talk about it forever. The video is a narcotic entrapment; once you sit with it, you never want to leave. It weaves an irresistible, fragmentary and endlessly inconclusive web. The Clock, full of time, is timeless.

Volume 32, Number 4

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #128, published December 2013.

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