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Time for More: The Clock Strikes Three

By Film Comment on July 30, 2012 in Film Comment

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The Clock

In a rare instance of the editor getting top billing, The Clock is the product of hundreds of hours spent by Christian Marclay stitching together sequences from thousands of clips. It is at once a display of plenitude—24 hours’ worth of material—and of limitations and interventions that are not at first apparent. Somewhere between pastiche and what might be called database art, the artwork’s source material (movies and television) was originally compiled by a crew of assistants, some or all recruited at the London video store Today Is Boring. These worker bees presented Marclay with footage reportedly ripped from DVDs—a choice that automatically filters out the vast extent of film history not committed to DVD, or, for that matter, to DVDs available for rental in the U.K. “I probably would have made different selections,” Marclay told one reporter, “but you have to accept what people bring to you.”

Marclay is far from the only artist, now or ever, to leave research or execution to others; fellow brand-name art star, Ai Weiwei, relies upon his own “hired assassins” (as one such assistant calls himself in Alison Klayman’s documentary). Marclay’s creative process is, in a way, an elaborate version of the chance collection inherent to much cut-and-paste collage (a magazine fashion spread here, a classified ad there), which don’t usually make claims to being comprehensive: here you’ll see It’s Complicated pop up as well as The Third Man. The assembly of The Clock also echoes the collaboration inherent to film, though perhaps with fewer credits (insomniacs, please report: is there a credit roll?).

But as an intertextual work, The Clock is less than meets the eye, its audiences fractured by differing prowess at identifying films but not to a significant degree. “I really know nothing about cinema,” Marclay has said. Yet The Clock is as addictive and, at times, entertaining as channel-surfing, or daisy-chaining through YouTube videos. (Given the serial patterns of time-sensitive emotion in the film, whether excitement and panic as the top of the hour approaches, or doubt after dinner, animated “I feel like this” GIFs are another touchstone.) What is distinctive is its scale and Marclay’s often seamless editing, which extended to re-recording some sound and evinces a gimmicky interest in matches on action. Yet that same smooth construction limits the dissonance and possibility so crucial to other compelling works of appropriation, which do not always come up in discussion. It has been strange, for example, to see The Clock hailed as “the ultimate work of appropriation art” in one prominent article that did not name a single other such work (whether the now-canonical A MOVIE, The Movie Orgy, or, for that matter, Concrete TV).

For many, all this is besides the point, as Marclay deploys film and television for their powers of alternately fixing and freeing a sense of time. Sometimes quite literally: a commonly reported symptom upon exit is compulsive clock-spotting, the viewer becoming like Chaplin leaving the factory in Modern Times, still tightening bolts in the air. Marclay creates a system large enough to appear to exceed one’s grasp, whether that triggers associations with Finnegans Wake or with a lawyer’s file dumps. (One can, in one sense, hold it: multiple copies of the work have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which not only puts something of a dent in its novelty appeal of the world’s only all-movie timepiece, but also makes one wonder whether rights-holders will eventually object.) Acquired by numerous institutions, The Clock is destined to become the Cremaster-like obligatory endurance test of the Aughts (After Abramovic). And like the movies of which it is made, Marclay’s installation has proven an unavoidable topic of discussion among those who come in contact with it: The Clock as the new weather.—Nicolas Rapold

The Avengers of the video art scene, The Clock inspires Christian Marclay fanboys to line up for hours-long waits to catch a glimpse of his latest blockbuster. But instead of six superheroes, Marclay brought together six young researchers to trawl through DVDs to isolate images of timepieces. It stitches together a full 24-hour day from these images, with the video itself working like a Swiss clock, but within this structure there are surprising pockets of thematic montage. In the stretch I viewed, there were sections devoted to binoculars (a peeping Mark Wahlberg and Charles Bronson), mascaraed eyes, ascending elevators, train rides, and rotary phones (the last one ending with Maggie Gyllenhaal pounding her push-button model in Secretary). They provide thumbnail sketches of technological shifts as well as the role they play in enduring narrative tropes, which leads to jokes of clichéd repetitions familiar to habitual viewers of YouTube supercuts (a format Marclay pioneered in his Telephone video). As with those more concise mash-ups, The Clock is clever, entertaining, and conceptually thin, an especially witty one-joke movie. I would rather devote my day-long cinephile minutes to the myriad pleasures of viewing Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945) 16 consecutive times.—R. Emmet Sweeney

There are no subtitles in The Clock, so unless a viewer understands at least four languages, he or she may feel lost for considerable stretches of time. Watching Christian Marclay’s installation is like being a voyager in a foreign yet parallel universe: some of the recognizable elements are there, but they’re strangely arranged; familiar signposts point in alien directions. The Clock trades in postponement, forcing the viewer to parse the in-between, the not-quite, and the familiar, alike, in the search for some semblance of a greater message. Forever anticipating a payoff which may never come, a viewer can tire quickly. And like a wandering traveler who doesn’t speak the language, the viewer longs for home, a place to be at ease and rest for a while.

In one sequence, a Parisian police officer is firing questions at his colleagues across a desk, his body language suggesting he all but owns the place. Turning to the handsome man to his right, the cop translates the French patter into a question: “His face?” The man turns out to be Harrison Ford (it’s Frantic), and his familiar face and American English provide a welcome respite. But The Clock speeds onward, and soon Shaft is bounding down the street in close-up, the camera pulling back to reveal his location: Greenwich Village, across from Minetta Tavern. Cut to black-and-white: a harried Woody Allen runs down the street in a light-colored suit, his dash rhyming with Shaft’s. Crossing the screen from left to right, the opposite direction of where we had seen him running about five minutes earlier during a different set of sequences, he stops... to buy a hot dog.

Marclay’s project takes no such delicious pause, though, as the nearly mute clip gives way to the sound of street noise and the image of 17th Street and Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, from a few stories above street level. All of this is a bit exhausting, and even if it does allow the viewer to construct their own narrative path, the visual map it provides for exploration is riddled with dead ends. It’s a bit like a disoriented traveler in the desert, following the footprints another traveler has left, only to find that the man had been walking in circles.—Jonathan Robbins

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