The Clock, on display through August 1 at Lincoln Center, is a mesmerizing 24-hour video installation composed of film clips that register the exact time at every minute. Created by Christian Marclay, The Clock is a large-scale formal exercise that also feels organic, a film that recalls the earliest motion pictures, typically short series of images without plot or narrative, while forming its own absorbing narrative.
It takes a few minutes, quite literally, to adjust to the rhythm of the film, which is more leisurely than I anticipated. I expected each clip to last just a beat, so that I wouldn’t have time to register the content of the scene, to recognize the films or actors. But sixty seconds is actually a pretty long time on film, much longer than a single beat. Each minute in the film contains scenes or images from a handful of movies, some showing/mentioning the actual time, others marking time more generally – characters exclaiming that they’re late or looking at watches that we don’t actually see.
After the first ten minutes or so, I stopped looking for the time in each scene and starting noticing other aspects, like the music, mood, setting. And then I noticed that, while the film may not have conventional plot continuity, it has its own thematic continuity. In the three hours that I watched (about 1-4pm), there were groupings of scenes featuring drinks, meals, trains, brown-paper-wrapped packages. Marclay ratchets up the tension in the package sequence through editing and score, until it ends with an image of a package exploding. It seems like Marclay does this on a roughly 15-minute cycle: he uses thematic/visual similarities, editing, and musical scoring to build mini-narratives, with their own internal suspense and climax. I imagine that all the thematic cycles form a meta-narrative over the 24-hour length of the film, but of course, I’d have to watch the whole thing to be sure. (If the film is ever released on DVD, I think it would make for a cool home screening / film-geek slumber party!)
Speaking of film geeks, certainly part of the fun of The Clock is to pick out the actors and films we recognize. And that seems to be Marclay’s intent, since he doesn’t just use obscure, little-known movies. He uses Hollywood classics and new favorites, silent pictures and foreign films. We see a lot of Johnny Depp in the real-time movie Nick of Time, Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma, Judy Garland in The Clock, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, James Bond movies, and, curiously, a lot of Nic Cage in National Treasure. I also wonder, though, if the film works on a purer level if you’re not a movie buff, if you’re not pulled out of its reality every few moments by a jolt of recognition.
Or perhaps Marclay uses our familiarity with these movies to make thematic connections among seemingly unrelated films, allowing us to create new narratives. The purpose of the montage isn’t to disorient the viewer by decontextualizing visual images, but to put the images together in a way that creates a whole new organic context. It’s almost as if all these films, across genres, languages, and time periods, are telling one larger story about the human experience. The Clock comments on our relationship with time, the commodity that can never be replaced. Marclay takes our obsession with it – spending it, saving it – to the extreme, making the passage of every minute explicit on screen. And that hyper-awareness allows us to let go of it somehow: even though I was aware of the time at every moment, I able to lose track of it, to lose myself in the communal yet intensely personal experience of cinema.