On Marclay’s “The Clock”
Most video pieces presented at art shows (like most art) are utter garbage. You walk into a dimly lit room waiting to be surprised, moved, shocked, and most often you are bored or reminded why excellence is so rare. The moving image is such a common cultural form and we are so adept at reading its rhythms that (unlike certain other art forms), it is very difficult to fake real wisdom. It takes a rare and beautiful work to explode or supersede our inherent zoetropic savviness. Christian Marclay’s The Clock is just such a piece.
The piece is deceptively simple. You come to understand it in waves. On the surface: the video is twenty-four hours long and is composed of thousands of clips stitched together such that the passage of time is maintained in real time, that is our time. In most of these clips, the time is referenced or shown in various time pieces. The clips come from all over the globe—some contain instantly recognizable stars, some have been clearly forgotten by time. Indeed, one could imagine a parallel piece which is an utter disaster. The world’s longest though experiment run amuck. But in the hands of Marclay and his trusty team of editors (there must have been many), The Clock emerges as a masterpiece.
The real phenomenon is watching people watch it. They begin, curious, amused, and then gradually they become enraptured and then obsessed. They cannot tear themselves from it. Everyone stayed longer than they meant to, and some never left. Why? What’s going on? There are many reasons for such engagement, but let me propose three:
1) We are creatures bred on anticipation. And cinema is the art of anticipation. The three act structure of most movies is built on dropping cues, leading us along using light and sound and carefully-crafted edits toward some inevitable car crash or robbery or murder or sexual climax. The Clock is filled with these cues, probably because we tend to look at our watches when we are on our way somewhere. In The Clock, we are always on our way somewhere. Something is always about to happen. We are in the perpetual penultimate moment. Even when nothing is promised, when the film lingers in some precious in-between moment never before lingered upon, we insert this expectation. This becomes particularly true in the moments leading up to the hour marks, for, being predictable creatures, we most often reference round numbers in our cinema. 10 o’clock. 11:30. Noon. We love these moments before the bell tolls. The hour is about to come and we know that when it does come, there will most certainly be a shoot-out, an explosion, an ending. But then the hour comes, nothing happens, and The Clock marches on. And still we cannot turn away because we are addicted to finding out what will happen next, even when we know nothing will happen.
2) Despite its infinitely Frankenstein nature, The Clock works amazingly well as a narrative. Because cinema is crafted on the jump cut, on the cutting out of time, we are primed for all kinds of wild, gestural cuts making perfect sense to us. We do not mind if the sequence jumps from a black-and-white classic from the twenties to a Japanese monster movie from the 70’s to a horrific Nick Cage flick from last year. A phone rings in one clip and in another clip, another time, another space, another actor in a fedora answers. We giggle. Nick Cage must be calling back in time. The actor in the fedora looks at his watch and says, “It’s time,” and then the film jumps to a sad-eyed woman being led to her death. Another world entirely, neither Cage nor Fedora. These people are not speaking to each other (and who were they ever speaking to really?), yet stitched together as such, they are most definitely speaking to each other and this makes us giddy with the possibility of a universal cinematic experience, of a universal human experience. When Nick Cage picks up the phone, he is calling all time and space. He is calling us. This must be true: all movies are the same movie because they all speak the same language—time.
3. The Clock is like no other movie before it because, unlike all other movies, it is experienced in our own time. This is the most unusual sensation of all. Precisely because film is designed around the jump cut—we see a forest, we see a cabin, we hear a tea kettle whistle, now it is night—we have been conditioned to understand that time, as presented on a screen, is a malleable thing, that can be pressed and prodded into submission. Even if a film is presented as a single take, we do not trust this take. Film can be sped up and slowed down. The tether bounding the image on the screen to our own lives is always suspect. But here, in this piece, all of these jump cuts, all of this trickery, all of this mashing together of bits and pieces from cinematic history is actually, precisely, in service to the very thing that cinema never follows: real time. You can look down at your watch and it will always match the clocks on the screen. In The Clock, the bells toll at noon and you will hear the bells in your own city do the same. Time is an invention, says The Clock, but it is the only invention we know.