A Great Use of Time

The Clock ***** (out of five)

Playing daily, for free, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until 3 June.

Christian Marclay’s 24 Hour experimental film The Clock has been written about in many places as it continues its tour of the world’s great modern galleries. I could write about it for a very long time, as it had a greatly profound effect on me. But one thing The Clock does is make you aware of time, and I’ll be aware of my own and of yours, and keep it relatively brief.

In case you don’t know, The Clock is a twenty-four hour film that loops back into itself – so, really, it never ends. It features many, many scenes and fragments of scenes, cut from many many movies (and some television programs) featuring a mention – most often visually, by the inclusion within the frame of a clock or watch – of the current time. Among the many genius aspects of the film’s construction is that it is a clock; it tells the time precisely. For example, you might be watching a section of the film at 7:48pm – and you’ll see a scene with a clock on the wall, and that clock says 7:48pm. The entire film tells the time in real time. The first time you venture in and check it out, this realization is astonishing.

I’ve seen about five hours of The Clock, over two different sessions. Essentially I’ve seen from about eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon. I very much want to go back late at night – I suspect the hours between midnight and dawn will be very different (in Sydney, at the MCA, the only time you can see this section of the film is on Thursday nights, when the museum stays open all night specifically for this film).

It is mesmerizing, and the only reason I left on both occasions was because I needed to be somewhere else. I could easily watch six or seven hours of it in a session. In fact, allowing for going to the toilet, eating a little something, and occasionally dropping off where I sat, I imagine I could watch the whole thing in a continuous sitting.  (Marclay has specified the couches for the audience as part of the actual experience, and they’re certainly comfortable enough for this, including the napping). I would actually love to do this, as I think the experience of drifting off and re-awakening with this thing would be fantastic. Your dreams and the experience of the film would dance together.

The source material comes from everywhere but there is no doubt that Marclay has focussed more strongly on films and faces that are in the collective consciousness of the majority of people who will see the film, and that’s part of the fun. Lots of famous faces appear, from lots of famous movies. What’s really interesting is their recontextualisation. We’ve all seen a particular clip from When Harry Met Sally, say, over and over (the restaurant scene: “I’ll have what she’s having”); we’ve seen it on television shows about romantic comedies, about Meg Ryan, about Billy Crystal, about food, about Rob Reiner, and we’ve seen it on the Academy Awards a billion times. But Marclay doesn’t show the orgasm or the zinger line – he shows the fragment with the clock. Likewise, when, in other areas, we’ve seen a clip from The Sting, it’s almost always at the poker table from the film’s climax. But we see other clips from The Sting here, clips that mention the time, and it reminds us that that film is not just Redford, Newman and Shaw at that poker table but an entire movie, and one we may want to revisit.

So you’ve got the recognition factor, and you’ve got the curiosity factor, but there’s so, so much more. Marclay’s brilliance is that he’s edited these thousands of clips into the appearance of a narrative. If we see someone run over in the street, we then see someone at the window of an apartment, looking down on something then turning away in distress. The clips are from two different films – one may be in colour, one in black and white – but Marclay has matched them so well – including through camera angles – that they appear as to have always been designed to be cut together. Not only that, he plays with the sound design, so that the screams of the onlookers at the car accident roll into the shot of the person at the window – linking the two films across time and space. Elsewhere, he does the same trick with music, so that the doom-laden score of one film clip may carry into the next – even if that second clip is from a wacky comedy. In this contextualization, however, the second clip ceases to be comedic, because it’s informed by the first, and the new music frames the second clip in a totally fresh light.

The ultimate result of all of this is, in essence, an unbelievable exercise in sustained, unrelieved suspense. Clocks and watches are seen in movies, or people mention the time in movies, usually when time is of the essence. Someone is racing to beat the clock (the opening sequence of Spiderman), or something is happening at a pre-determined time and that time is approaching (High Noon); things are giddy when movies show clocks and time, the stakes are high and the onscreen characters are in turmoil and anxiety. It’s this resultant suspense that makes The Clock so consistently watchable – you’re always wanting to see what happens next, even though you have no consistent characters or story to guide you there. Marclay has discovered, in his use of clocks and time, that the pure mood of suspense is enough to drive our attentions, to keep us hooked. The most recent time I went to a session, three hours passed incredibly easily – but a three hour narrative film has to be extraordinary to hold my attention. And what’s even more amazing – I was always aware of the time.

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