Clocks for Seeing: Christian Marclay’s The Clock
Christian Marclay’s The Clock is exhausting. I say this not because I sat with the installation for roughly 20 hours, but for the interminable rotation of its 24-hour span, as ambitious a found-footage compilation as anyone has ever achieved. Its archive of film clips is expansive, though perhaps not as encyclopedic as it may seem. Culled from a trove of mostly Hollywood fare, with a few art-house classics sprinkled in, The Clock assembles, or at least aspires to, a meta-cinematic universe, the worlds of each film bumping up against their sequential neighbors like the apartment-dwellers of Rear Window (which we see in both original and remake forms). But make no mistake: this is a meticulously crafted and highly selective object, with scenes tightly knit together according to the principles of classical editing, using subtle sound bridges, eye-line matches, and intercut telephone calls—one of Marclay’s favorite devices—to link shots that otherwise have nothing to do with each other.
In Marclay’s view, of course, these shots have everything to do with each other, at least when seen from the perspective of the clock. Towering over bustling city scenes like Big Ben, The Clock’s most visible star (Marclay’s rejoinder to Warhol’s Empire, perhaps), time is what governs this meta-diegesis, and it is a pernicious ruler. In the afternoon hours, people are either too late or too soon, waiting impatiently or rushing late to their appointments. Even at night, at hours when you would assume most people are sleeping, time haunts the insomniacs, the fitful dreamers, and the emergency phone calls. (The only peaceful inhabitants of this universe, it seems, are those horror victims who lie in bed unaware of their shadowy attackers.) Whether hyperbolized as heroic feat—a tense and sweating John Travolta is evidently very concerned about the time in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3—or presented as the banality of an ordinary, overstressed life—see the multiple Woody Allen references—the people that populate The Clock are yoked to the clock, enslaved to what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous, empty time.” Onscreen at 1:02 p.m., for example, there’s a woman checking her watch during sex.
Are people really that concerned about the time, or is this time dependency, the well-trod modern condition, the point Marclay is trying to make? I would hazard that the obsessive minute-by-minute clock-watching is a function of the kinds of commercial films, along with the stray television show, that Marclay selected. Mixed together in this way, The Clock reveals the rhythms of these accumulated genres, with attention to time governing and uniting a fairly predictable set of actions and outcomes: the melodramatic ominiousness of a husband who hasn’t yet returned home (Julianne Moore demonstrates this in back-to-back scenes from Chloe and Far from Heaven, respectively), the textbook suspense sequence of a bomb-loaded bus in Hitchcock’s Sabotage, the Western chaos that explodes when the train doesn’t arrive on time (“Where’s the 3:10 to Yuma?” Christian Bale demands at 3:12 p.m.). The Clock is filled with straightforward presentations of plot, and it’s extremely watchable for this reason, because we more or less know what’s coming next, and when it will arrive.
Far from Heaven
There are moments, however, of time unhinged, most of which occur in the early morning hours. Seated since noon, my delirium by 2 a.m. matched what I saw on screen, and the shot of Lee Kang-Sheng in What Time Is It There?, watching from bed the rotations of Antoine Doinel pinned to a Gravitron wall in The 400 Blows, was particularly emblematic of my bleary-eyed state. There were people in life-vests thrashing around the water-filled lobby of Titanic, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman prancing through an empty street, and Jimmy Stewart’s double take as he spots his neighbor carrying a suitcase out into the rain—at this hour, Rear Window lent a fitting sense of gloomy, shape-shifting paranoia. Was that an ostrich I saw walking through a bedroom? Who was that bald man following Tom Cruise post–Eyes Wide Shut orgy? These half-hallucinations often slipped into nightmare, sometimes literally, as with the droopy clocks and eye mosaics of Salvador Dalí’s nocturnal interlude in Spellbound or the spiral plunge of Vertigo’s dream sequence, but also in that indeterminate zone where time slips away, as when the drowsy children of The Night of the Hunter drift down a river, floating beneath a dewy spider-web.
The clocks, too, seemed to lose track of time, their hands sometimes spinning out of control or, in the case of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, missing altogether. As the morning wore on, however, these more elastic evocations of time were interrupted by wake-up calls and other intrusions, like the fax that arrives in Bill Murray’s Tokyo hotel room in Lost in Translation, or the man who shakes Robin Williams awake at 5:30 a.m. (Half an hour later Williams bellows “Good morning, Vietnam!” to the surprise of no one.) The Clock, it seemed, also wakes up, eager to resume its relentless linear march as more alarm clocks sound with each passing hour, and to mark the encroaching morning we see a shaving montage, showers, and toast. Appropriately on time at 6:30 a.m., too, a new guard came over to tap my shoulder. “No sleeping,” he said sternly, then moved onto the next viewer dozing on one of the couches provided.
In his essay “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative,” the avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton describes a nightmare recounted to him by a friend: first the filming of a woman’s entire, illustrious life, then the man doomed to watch it, her life eventually consuming his. For Frampton, narrative films presented a set of restrictions, a trap; freedom meant understanding the laws that indisputably govern the movies—continuity editing, convention, and, of course, time—as arbitrary constructs, rules that can be bent and broken. It’s not a vision of cinema that the self-proclaimed film illiterate Marclay shares, nor is it one that people typically see when they go to the movies. Around 3:30 a.m., with the screen mostly dark and quiet, and 20-odd people still left in the black-curtained room, the incessantly chatty couple behind me finally stood up. A moment prior they had been disputing the right time to leave. The irony of their quibble was lost on them; the wool of clock-time, it seems, was just too thick.
The Clock runs through August 1 in the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The above visual materials come from films represented in the installation and do not necessarily reflect their appearance in the artwork.