The Clock / Christian Marclay / 2010 / 

Active Ingredients: Ingenious idea; Scope of project; Rhythms across many films
Side Effects: Simplicity of connections among films


Cinema has always been defined by its intimate relation to time, both as a technology and an art. To the first film audiences, cinema seemed able to freeze time and create a true record of duration, something no other medium could achieve. But the technology’s relationship to time is much more complicated. From the curiosity of the early actuality films’ depiction of unbroken time, to the manufacturing of a cinematic time through editing, the experience of watching film has remained a temporal one, and no modern film makes the duration of cinema more apparent than Christian Marclay’s monumental The Clock.

The result of thousands of short film clips and years of editing, The Clock is a 24-hour long installation piece exploring film’s connection with time and the collective hours we’ve spent seduced by images in the dark. The idea is very simple: whatever time it is in real life as you watch the film, corresponds directly to the images and actions on screen. If it’s noon, we see clips featuring clocks or watches that show 12:00, or characters referencing that time of day. For every minute of the day, fragments of films from all over the world and across the breadth of film history represent the actual time, synchronized perfectly with the time of the spectator.

While a few brave viewers have attempted to see the whole film in one sitting, I strongly encourage you to catch what you can while it plays at Lincoln Center until August 1st. It’s free, just walk in and stay as long as you want. For the record, I saw from about 11:00am to 1:00pm, and 5:30-9pm.

Yet The Clock is far more than a compilation of images of timepieces. Through careful editing, it manages to create a mysterious universe in which all of cinema’s characters somehow live simultaneously. When it’s around midday, a family eats lunch in a rural American kitchen while, across the ocean, a man hangs from Big Ben’s clock hands or somebody arrives late to work in a scene from The Office. Sometime in the past, meanwhile, there’s a shootout in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. (“It’s past noon already; my how the time flies.”) Marclay always affords each clip just enough context from its original film. The technique allows for the strange pleasure of spotting scenes from recognizable films (everything from High Noon and Pickpocket to Run Lola Run and It’s Complicated), but the fragments also coalesce, under Marclay’s guidance, into entirely new rhythms as he weaves them together to create his own sequences, fast-paced and suspenseful or slow and lingering.

As I discovered editing my own, significantly less ambitious montage film, there’s only so far one can take the visual matching of clips. A character looks off-screen in one film and his gaze is met in another; a telephone rings in one clip and is picked up in another. Connections like these are a bit shallow, but through the masterful use of sound bridges and the conceptual strength of the whole project, Marclay creates a strangely hypnotic, mesmerizing experience. The film is smart, sometimes humorous and ultimately addictive.

The act of splicing film together ruptures a single shot’s link to real time; or better, editing serves to create a brand new sense of time, one completely divorced from reality. While watching a film, a minute can feel like an eternity, or an hour can flash by in an instant. The Clock, however, uses editing to reunite film with true time. Some segments may feel faster or slower, but the viewer is constantly reminded of exactly what time it is, of exactly how long each moment has lasted. The Clock, then, not only allows us to understand the way we respond to filmic time, but slyly forces us to confront the constant, unstoppable force of the time unfolding in the real world, just outside the theater.