This weekend is your last chance to check out the late night hours of video artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Lincoln Center in New York. After catching some more of the film last night (about 10:30pm to 2:15am), I’m still convinced that The Clock is a monumental work and newly impressed at how organically it evolves over the hours. If you missed my first take on it here, The Clock is 24-hour long montage of time-related clips culled from thousands and thousands of films, synchronized with real time as you watch. So shortly after noon, characters from films eat lunch or take breaks from work. At 1 or 2am, however, characters toss and turn in bed haunted by dreams, or sleeplessly wander empty streets. The experience of watching The Clock is much more than its simple premise may suggest, so I’ve left some additional thoughts on the work below. Don’t miss your chance to check it out yourself through this week.
The Clock often feels like a massive game of “Where’s Waldo,” which only strengthens the audience’s involvement with the film and makes it even more addictive. First, there’s a compulsion to figure out the source film of each clip, even though the well Marclay draws from is deep enough to continually stump us. Second, we become trained to scan each image for a clock or a watch. They’re often way in the background or partially obscured by other objects.
Not every clip in the film even has an image of a clock or a watch, however. Some feature characters talking about the time of day, but there are many more with no immediately obvious link to time. It seems that Marclay has chosen footage which simply reflects something representative about a particular day of time, for example lying awake in bed sometime in the early morning. Still others have been employed to aid in links or motifs developed through the editing. There’s a beautiful image from The Red Shoes, for example, as a plume of smoke rises from a passing train departing from a different film.
Over time, certain styles of clocks and watches almost seem like recurring characters. Those old-fashioned alarm clocks with two bells on top were mainstays of Old Hollywood, particularly useful for bombs, it seems. Car radio clocks are very active at night, but in real life they always seem to run fast or slow. Pocketwatches and grandfather clocks suggest opulence, but be careful, there could be someone hiding in the latter.
According to this film, time does not figure equally into the each genre. I was pleasantly surprised to see that The Clock contains clips from not only classic films, but tons of B-movie schlock as well. Some genres that seem most concerned with time: melodrama, romance, noir, horror, and especially thrillers. (“There’s not enough time!”; “I need more time!”; “Only 10 more minutes!”) Clocks, watches and ticking time bombs figure prominently in generating suspense in thrillers, and Marclay has used these devices brilliantly. Some less represented genres: Westerns, epics, fantasy and sci-fi. Sure, they didn’t have watches in ancient Rome, but they still measured time. In the future, too, it seems, we’re less concerned with time, although there’s one great sci-fi clip in which a man is shot and the glowing meter on his futuristic wrist device slowly fades away.
Speaking of genres, I wonder if there are any animated or documentary clips in The Clock. There were none that I noticed, but I think either would disrupt the flow of the film. Animation would detract from the theme of time weighing so heavily on the human players of live-action films. Similarly, documentary footage would negate The Clock‘s greatest power: the strange, fictitious, alternate-reality movie universe it weaves together.
Foreign films are not subtitled. For me, this was not a problem as the clips are short enough to automatically click into context.
All films are presented in the same aspect ratio. It looks as though some have been trimmed and others squeezed down to fit.
The Clock often returns to some films to great effect. In one minute, a scene is set up (the police issuing an ultimatum for a cornered criminal to give himself up, for example). Some time later, Marclay returns to the action, checking up on the characters we left earlier. The tactic is particularly effective the longer the clips are spread apart, sometimes over many hours. Marclay also coyly refuses to resolve other narrative threads. The Clock continually encourages us to construct a story out of its many fragments, yet ultimately forces us to find satisfaction beyond narrative resolution.
It is a very witty film. The Clock reveals the absurdity of some films with a simple cut, placing one image with another in dynamic juxtaposition. It’s often hilarious, and the film gets more laughs than the recent Ted. It did seem, however, that the audience responded to the same tricks time and again, if an edit took the film in an unexpected direction. Even just an image from a recognizable film was enough to draw a few chuckles.
As I mentioned in my initial review, there’s only so far Marclay can take his match cuts. For example, a character looking offscreen always precipitates another clip, but rarely suggests a deeper connection. These connections work the best when they’re at their most absurd and least literal. One of my favorites involved a couple in bed staring in disgust, paired with clip of a man urinating into a chamberpot.
This ability to create new meaning out of the juxtaposition of two unrelated clips recalls the famous Kuleshov Effect, hilariously explained here by Alfred Hitchcock. If we see a hand grasp a door knob, followed by a door opening, we’ll infer the connection. It’s an extremely powerful force in film, and Marclay has wisely tapped into its potential.
Lastly, many time-related film clips feature characters talking about time outright. People squander it, obsessively horde it, seek to conquer it, passively wait for it to pass, and rush to keep up with it, but the cumulative effect of all these attitudes compiled in The Clock will ensure that you’ll never think of time the same way again.