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Time piece

Monday | February 21, 2011   open printable version open printable version

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

DB here:

Normally I wouldn’t comment on a movie after seeing only 10.4 % of it, but there are always exceptions. The Clock, which played at the Paula Cooper Gallery during our stay in Manhattan, runs 24 hours. It’s a compilation of over 3000 film clips, mostly from Hollywood but also from Europe and Asia. Some of the footage is easily recognized, but a lot of it I couldn’t identify.

The premise, or gimmick, is that every snippet of a scene is purportedly connected in some way to the passing of time measured on a clock. Characters check their watches, or the camera shows a wall clock or digital alarm clock or countdown device. There are tiny clocks and gigantic ones. If the whole thing has a star, it might be Big Ben, who reappears surprisingly often.

A nice idea, but why stretch it over twenty-four hours? So that the creator Christian Marclay can assemble scenes that synchronize perfectly with the passage of time in projection. A shot shows a watch at 11:55 AM; you look at your watch; it’s 11:55 AM. Wherever the piece is screened, it must start precisely at the corresponding local time. The Clock isn’t just about clocks; it is a clock.

The project teases you into lame puns, which I’ve been unable to resist. But my visits set me thinking about what makes The Clock unique and pleasant. Maybe it’s a little too pleasant.

Collage without closure

The Black Cannon Incident (1986).

In its collage of compiled material, what The Clock does is quite familiar to cinephiles. For a long time, experimental filmmakers have built works out of footage from mainstream movies. One of the most famous, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1935), powerfully illustrates how the collage principle can pry images from their narrative context and call attention to their poetic or graphic qualities. The assemblage artist Bruce Conner did something similar in A Movie (1958), which creates anassociational form out of newsreels and old Hollywood sequences. Although both Rose Hobart and A Movie still evoke vague narrative expectations, Craig Baldwin whipped together found footage to create a hallucinatory narrative in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1991). An urgent, hard-bitten voice-over tells of CIA conspiracies and interplanetary conquest while we see images scavenged from cheap science-fiction films.

Nowadays plenty of filmmakers, especially on the Web, have snipped footage from old films to develop a theme. Jim Emerson has done it with close-ups, and Matt Zoller Seitz, Aaron Aridillas, and Steven Santos have created a video essay around guns in American film. Last summer, at the new facility of the Cinematek in Brussels, I found thematic loops running on their video monitors. Sometimes there was an interplay among them, so that characters one screen seemed to be looking at those in another. Some of the Cinematek loops in fact centered on clocks.

So the principle of compilation collage didn’t seem new to me. But Marclay refreshes it by the other central premise of The Clock: its time structure, which syncs moments indicated onscreen with moments of viewing.

Some fiction films (e.g., Cleo from 5 to 7, Nick of Time) and TV shows (e.g., 24) have played with the conceit of making the duration of the piece (“real time”) correspond to the amount of time covered in the plot. (Usually, however, the film fudges it.) But in The Clock, there’s no overarching plot, so the duration of that action can’t be determined. Marclay gives us real time with a vengeance, in the relentless correspondence between screen clocks and audience clocks.

Without this exact synchronization, The Clock would be an enjoyable but unexceptional found-footage movie. The onscreen clocks check the flow of the images like centers of magnetic force. They form nodes around which each set of shots revolves, like a musical key that a melody can drift from and return to.

This patterning too has parallels in the experimental film tradition, I think. What P. Adams Sitney famously called Structural film was a 1960s-1970s trend that often built the awareness of time into a film’s overall pattern. A simple example is Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut (1970). A clock runs in the right corner of the frame to measure the time consumed by a film that is, we’re promised by a woman’s breathless voice-over, “exactly thirty minutes long.” (She lies.)

A less explicit instance is Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). In its central section, one by one a string of images replaces one-second shots of signs marking the letters of the Latin alphabet. The shot-changes set up a steady beat, and the pattern locks in a sense of momentum. Although we’re surprised by what images replace the letters, our expectations get focused on the inevitability of all the alphabet shots being deleted. There’s no literal clock, but we can sense this event slowly fulfilling itself. In addition, some of the replacement images show processes moving toward completion, such as dried beans steadily filling up a container. I’m tempted to say that in many Structural films, an actual or tacit clock tracing the film’s movement toward closure becomes a sort of non-narrative equivalent of a deadline in a storytelling movie.

The Clock doesn’t provide exactly that sense of closure, since it has no end point. It’s on a loop and, like a real clock, can be reset according to the time zone of the venue. But the nodal clock images make us aware of the film’s relentless unfolding, and its sync principle has affinities with the Structural tradition’s commitment to a precise time-based architecture. That tradition had its own sources, of course, including the experiments of the Fluxus movement, a trend that also influenced Marclay.

Top-down time

Tracing parallels shouldn’t lead us away from the unique qualities that make The Clock so appealing. For one thing, the fact that there isn’t a continually running readout, as in Bleu Shut or in an iPod slider, enables the film to test our feeling for passing time. Not every shot shows a clock; indeed, most shots in the portions I saw don’t. As we get captivated by clock-less images and follow their development within a scene, the arrival of a timepiece reminds us of the structuring principle. The appearance of a clock creates something like a punchline, while also letting us realize how loose our sense of duration in a movie usually is.

This test-like quality of the film, an important aspect of Structural film that Sitney points out, is reinforced by Marclay’s central idea. We are primed to scan the shots for clocks. Indeed, the search for the clock can reshift our sense of what is important about the scene. In an earlier entry, I discussed how Alfred Yarbus’ experiments in tracking eye movements assigned people tasks, such as estimating the social status of people in a painting. This created “top-down,” concept-driven search behavior. The Clock does the same thing, with the only explicit instruction being the title and our background knowledge of the piece’s procedures.

The result of our top-down search that we pay attention to clocks in the corners of shots or out of focus in the background, in scenes in which time isn’t really at stake. Normally we probably wouldn’t notice these items, but spotting them gives us a reward and allows us to admire Marclay’s cleverness. Some scenes seem to lack clocks altogether, but that doesn’t make them filler; a stretch of clockless footage only sharpens the fun when one shows up.

With shots pried free of narrative demands, you start to discriminate details, like the designs of numerals and brand identities. As you see the names Bulova, GE, Tissot, Hamilton Beach, and all the rest, you realize that it isn’t only James Bond films that use watches for product placement.

I’ve said that the film isn’t narrative in the same way that Craig Baldwin’s fantasy collages are. Yet it does tease us with some narrative expectations. If you recognize the footage, then you can summon up your memory of the story. If you don’t recognize the footage, you might still recognize the generic situation (investigation, pursuit, lovers’ confrontation, awakening in the morning). And the whole shebang does get you thinking about the role of time in narrative.

In this regard, the film makes an almost didactic point: Stories, at least those we’ve become used to, need clocks. They set the story world in motion, they measure its changes, and above all they provide deadlines that generate suspense, surprise, and satisfaction. The Clock makes deadlines especially apparent as we approach noon, when we get not only images from High Noon but also a flurry of other 12:00 PM shots (Titanic, for one). Noon is a really important moment in Central Standard Movie Time. I didn’t see the midnight stretch of The Clock, but I bet it’s a hell of a show.

Perfect timing

Like the compilation filmmakers, Marclay wants crosstalk among his bits, but the stretches of The Clock I saw don’t create much friction. There’s a lot of continuity from shot to shot: One character in one movie walks out a door, and we cut to another character from another movie entering a new locale. Music links scenes smoothly. Although Marclay was influenced by the diffuse, chance organizations promoted by John Cage, some of his earlier work emphasized through-line linkages and blending as well. Marclay’s famous record-album collages allow a unified figure to emerge as a gestalt binding together disparate images. On the right, you can see this happening in Guitar Neck (1992), which virtually diagrams the sort of smooth juxtapositions we get in The Clock.

The result has a fairly slick texture. It goes down easily. I admire the way that Marclay and his assistants have rummaged through a vast archive and pulled together a majestic, utterly entertaining assembly. But emotionally it’s mostly cold. The year-end obituary tributes on Turner Classic Movies, reminding us that the perfect faces and bodies gliding past us are definitively gone, are more throat-catching than anything I saw here. Along another dimension, so are Conner’s A Movie and his dissection of the JFK assassination, Report (1963-67). Just as important, none of what I saw seemed to me particularly challenging or discordant, and in this regard The Clock parts company with the comparable film traditions.

Structural film was notoriously demanding, ruffling viewers’ perceptions and trying their patience. And experimental compilations were often seeking to shake us up, sometimes in absurd ways. An earlier blog entry of ours illustrates how Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu (2008) builds disconcerting scenes out of bits taken from other movies. A man and woman constantly shift their identities and positions while their conversation continues without missing a beat.

Crucial to the classic compilation films is the central innovation of collage: the fragments do not blend into a smooth whole. There are clashes between one shot or clutch of shots and the next. There’s also a sense of material differences. Each piece of scuffed or distressed footage retains something of its own integrity. In his sound work, Marclay too claimed an interest in the “sound patina” of vinyl LPs:

When a record skips or pops or we hear the surface noise, we try very hard to make an abstraction of it so it doesn’t disrupt the musical flow. I try to make people aware of these imperfections and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion, while the scratch on the record is more real.

But the shots in The Clock are mostly scrubbed clean of imperfections, presenting a sleek surface that facilitates the flow across shots. The movie is a pure product of the DVD era, with all those gleaming images so easily appropriated. At times Marclay manages to match weather conditions, with rain in one scene carrying over into the next. This tactic creates an intriguing sense that the two movies are set in a homogeneous world, but it makes the gaps between the images even narrower.

For about twenty years there has been a controversy in the gallery world about whether the burgeoning tradition of “artists’ films” owes anything to avant-garde film traditions. It’s often summarized as the difference between the white cube of the gallery and the black box of the movie theatre. By setting The Clock alongside collage compilation films, am I guilty of comparing apples and oranges? For instance, the films have fixed beginnings and endings, whereas The Clock is an installation that can be entered at any point. It’s not a film but rather, to use a current phrase, a “time-based audiovisual work.” Moreover, some will argue that Marclay’s lineage doesn’t consist of Cornell, Conner, Baldwin, and Structural Film but rather Fluxus, Minimalism, Punk, and Scratch-and-Mix. (Marclay has devised a turntable he can play like a guitar.)

All of which carries some weight, but I see enough common features between the two traditions to make my main point: Based on what I sampled, this is an ingratiating work, virtuosic in a Postmodernist way. But it doesn’t risk the roughness, the boring patches, and the confusions of the film traditions I’ve invoked. Perhaps the most condemnatory thing you can say about The Clock is that it runs like clockwork.

But maybe things get more disruptive in the 89.6 % I wasn’t able to see.


This entry was written fairly early in The Clock‘s Manhattan run. I had no trouble getting in at 10:40 AM and staying until about 1:15. But it quickly became a sensation. A friend and I tried to visit on a chilly Friday night and confronted a long line. I heard from others that the line was just as forbidding at 5:00 AM. The problem, of course, is that you could wait a very long time, since there’s no set point when many are likely to leave. (Nobody will say, “This is where we came in.”)  This New York Times article traces the rise of the Clock cult. The article also confirms that midnight is a high point of the video.

Yet another Times piece discusses The Clock as akin to recorded music, making some points related to mine above. Here is a loving account by Jerry Saltz, who logged nineteen hours on duty. Easy to enjoy and admire, Marclay’s piece probably deserves to be added to Christian Lander’s list of Stuff White People Like.

A good overview of the artist’s earlier work can be found in Jennifer Gonzalez et al., Christian Marclay (London: Phaidon, 2005). My quotation comes from p. 33.

On the experimental compilation film, see William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993). See also Stefano Basilico, ed., Cut: Film as Found Object in Contemporary Video (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2004). P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film, second edition and thereafter, provides the most influential account of the Structural tradition. Scott MacDonald discusses Zorns Lemma at length in Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies. For incisive analyses of how compilation and Structural films elicit particular activities from their viewers, see James Peterson’s Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order.

Thanks to Jim Kreul and Jonathan Walley for guidance in the controversy about artworld and filmworld traditions. Jonathan’s essay “Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde,” in Tanya Leighton’s collection Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, is a useful guide to these and other trends. I advance some notions about the user-friendliness of another artist’s film project in this entry on Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle. Kristin and I have written about associational form in Conner’s A Movie in our book Film Art: An Introduction.

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