What is the single biggest complaint about even the best movies? “It was 15 minutes too long.”
Strangely, nobody is saying that about Christian Marclay’s art piece slash timepiece “The Clock” – even though it has a running time of 24 hours.
It is the rarest of rare occasions when an avant-garde piece of art (anything 24-hours long is by definition outré) is also incredibly entertaining. But more than that – it’s bizarrely compelling. So much so that the main thing you hear from people as they emerge squinting from the makeshift theater in the Art of the Americas building at LACMA is: I couldn’t tear myself away.
“The Clock” is a mashup of 100 years of movies and television – from around the world, famous and obscure, classic and eminently forgettable. In almost every scene, there’s a clock, or watch, or someone makes some reference to the time. The gimmick is, “The Clock” is actually as much a timepiece as an art piece – it’s a movie you can tell time to. So, when you’re watching a clip of “The Apartment” and Fred MacMurray says “it’s a quarter to seven,” it really is 6:45.
I must say, I wish I hadn’t known that going in. I envy the people who discovered the conceit on their own. It must have been a wonderfully weird experience.
Marclay thought about the piece for a year while he tried to figure out if it was possible. Once he finally decided to go ahead, it took two years and six assistants to finish the massive project – his minions combed the local video store for clips and he sewed them all together. They weren’t able to find representations of every one of the 1,440 minutes in a day, though now Marclay says he sees the time in movies everywhere ( “The Clock II” perhaps?).
“The Clock” is certainly a piece of conceptual art; that is, it has a big idea behind it. As a movie, it could be called “high concept” – which also means it has a big idea behind it. But in Hollywood, “high-concept” is a bit of a slam, insinuating that the idea is so simple that after you hear the film’s title, you don’t need to see it – like “Snakes on a Plane.” It’s about snakes. On a plane. ‘Nuff said.
I usually run away from “conceptual” and avoid “high concept” – put them together and you have the makings a real snore-fest. But of course, implementation is everything, and Marclay has implemented big time. Pun intended.
Sound and music from one movie overlay the next. Characters seem to interact across movies and eras. The film ebbs and flows… picking up steam as it builds to the top of the hour and slowing down after. The movie moves…which is no surprise given that Marclay is credited as one of the major forces in turntablism. “The Clock” seems to have a heartbeat…and not just from all the timepieces in the film; there are also tapping feat, and chugging trains and the amazing use of music. And the pacing of the editing itself. That’s part of why it’s so compelling. But there is so much more. This is the piece of art that redefines the phrase “it works on so many levels.”
The first thing you’ll notice when you sit down on one of the slip-covered sofas at LACMA is that everyone is whispering. They’re playing the “what the hell is that movie?” game. When you don’t recognize the movie – which will be a lot of the time – you’ll be busy trying to figure out what’s going on. There are actually a tremendous number of clips where people are doing nothing per se – but you can’t help look for clues and try and figure out what they’re up to – and why. Henry Fonda walks into a liquor store looking consternated…then he walks out without buying anything. Is he an alcoholic fighting his urge to drink? But wait, there are tough guys outside the store…are they forcing him to rob the place against his will?
There’s also the “Where’s Waldo”-like sense of looking for the next clock…will it be in the foreground? The background? From screen left or right? A watch, clock or sundial? Will there be a time piece at all? Have you ever seen a clock that looks like that?
But things really start to get fascinating when you stop noticing the clocks altogether. How that is possible I do not know – time is literally staring you right in the face – yet the consciousness of time fades in and out, and you find yourself just going with it. In that way, the piece is quite meditative.
Ironically, the thing that keeps you glued to your seat is the relentless tension. We’ve all seen a lot of movies, and we’re trained to expect some kind of conclusion. “The Clock” does not “conclude” in either the macro or micro sense. Marclay is constantly creating tense situations (a woman looks pensively at the clock, the music intensifies) but not paying them off. You keep sitting there waiting for something that never comes - in the best possible way. That may be the reason I noticed a lot of people leave at the top of the hour – you have to invent some neat cut off point since the movie doesn’t give you one.
There are plenty of little satisfactions, and when the movie does pay off, it pays off off big time – noon (which I’ve seen) and midnight (which I haven’t) are two of the biggest moments, for obvious reasons.
All of this is why “The Clock” is so compelling and entertaining. But the way it makes you think – no, feel - about time is why it’s a great piece of art.
You can’t help but marvel at our obsession with time and being on time…and the number of amazing devices that we’ve come up with to keep us on time – “The Clock” is horologist porn! But the real power behind “The Clock” is that we, sitting in the theater now, are linked somehow to past time.
I was doing an interview a few years ago and I reached down and pushed the button on the recorder to make a “track mark” on the tape – I could see the number advance on the recorder’s display. Later, when I was listening back, I could hear the sound of the button being pushed and then I saw the track advance. It was like past me had just reached out and pushed the button in the present – and it really gave me a shiver.
By syncing up past time – the time on the screen – with current time, “The Clock” has that same effect.
Connected to past “times,” the odd and rapid juxtaposition of old films with new films – with time as the backdrop – conveys a powerful subliminal message. I don’t normally watch old black and white movies and think to myself “that actor is dead!” But the mix of the old and the new, with a clock ticking in the background makes you feel nostalgic and very mortal, all at the same time.
Obviously, they can’t keep the museum open around the clock, which means except from the few 24-hour screenings, most people will never see the majority of the film – including midnight. When I first heard about “The Clock,” I thought it would have been cool to project it in a space that would be accessible all hours of the day. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same if you were distracted by everyday life – and in fact there’s the added food for thought about being pulled out of your “regular” time to experience “Clock” time. So what about DVD’s or YouTube? It would be great to be able to go over “The Clock” with a fine-tooth comb and watch the entire piece in your own time. Of course, that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Go visit Christian Marclay’s remarkable piece at LACMA as soon as possible. But be warned – you will stay longer than you mean to. It seems “The Clock” doesn’t just give you the time – it takes time away.
By the by, Christian Marclay – “The Clock” maker – grew up in Switzerland. He assures me there is no connection.
Thank you Christian Marclay, LACMA curator Christine Kim, good friend and filmmaker Aldo Velasco, fascinating guy Sean Hathwell and LACMA trustee Steve Tisch for the insights that went into the writing of this piece…and thank you Steve for bringing “The Clock” to Los Angeles!
Also on the Matt’s Movies blog – “The Clock” and Hollywood. Click here.
TIME FUN FACTS
- “Standard time” – synchronizing time across different geographic regions – was established in Britain on December 11, 1847. It was also called “Railway Time,” since it was created to make the trains run, uh, on time. The Standard Time Act of 1918 established standard time in time zones in U.S. law as well as daylight saving time. The law was repealed in 1919 over a presidential veto, but reestablished nationally during World War II.
- Arizona does not observe daylight saving time.
- India is 11½ hours ahead of LA. Nepal is 11¾ hours ahead. I do not know why.
- The monasteries on Mt. Athos, in Macedonia, are not on “civil time” – their day begins at sunset in accordance with the Old Testament.
- King Edward VII created his own time zone for his estate of Sandringham between the years 1901 to 1936….it as known as Sandringham Time.
- Longitude and latitude are expressed in degrees, minutes and seconds. Each degree of latitude is sub-divided into 60 minutes, and a minute equals one nautical mile or 1.1507794480235425 (statute or land) miles. A minute of longitude changes as you get closer to the poles.
- Seafaring was a major impetus for the development of highly accurate clocks. Navigational computation was reliant on time keeping, but early clocks were susceptible to the motion of the ocean and the fluctuation in temperature and humidity. The race to develop an accurate time piece is documented in Dava Sobel’s bestselling “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”