November 18, 2011

Christian Marclay: THE CLOCK

Synopsis from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston:
"The Clock (2010), an ode to time and cinema, comprises thousands of fragments from a range of films that create a The Clock tells the accurate time at any given moment, and wherever it is screened it is synchronized to the local time zone, so that it is literally a working time piece."
Four shots from the movie. There are NOT multiple screens
simultaneously, and the movie is not all close-ups of clock
faces. It's much more complex and amazing.
Here's what happened: I entered the theater at 10:55am. Onscreen was a clip from a movie where the time is 10:55am. The clips continue from 10:55am, to 10:56am, and so on. Not every minute is necessarily depicted onscreen, but almost all. More importantly, it stays in sync, so clips of 11:00am begin at 11:00am.

Each clip includes a clock, watch, or someone mentioning the time. Each instance of the time matches the current time I'm watching the film. Each clip is long enough to put the instance of the time in context, but rarely with any context for the plot of the movie from which it is taken.

Sometimes the time in the scene is the subject of the scene: "What time is it?" or "I'm going to be late!" and so on. Other times, there's merely a clock in the background of the shot.

What elevates this project from antiseptic obsessive-compulsive symptom to art is HOW the clips interact with each other. It's not merely the appropriate scenes edited in order. Marclay made choices:
  • To smooth the transitions between scenes, the background "soundscape" and/or incidental music from one scene often continues after the visual ends. Sometimes it's just the street sounds, birds chirping, or, appropriately, a clock ticking.
  • Characters from different clips will seem to be joined together: Johnny Depp talks to someone offscreen. We cut to Vivien Leigh demurely smiling back at him. We cut again to a dog, probably from Depp's original scene, and back to Depp again.
  • An bell will ring in one movie, and a character will pop out of bed in another movie.
  • A scene will begin, then three unrelated clips will play, then we'll return to the original scene, a little later on, as if the  original scene were taking place concurrently with the three inbetween. This is a editing technique called "parallel action" which we take for granted until clips gathered from the whole universe of cinema are edited together.
  • Because it's assembled from nearly a century of filmmaking (from Buster Keaton to Jason Statham, I swear to God) the quality of the visuals varies wildly from scene to scene, but we're so hard-wired to trust the editor, it hardly matters.
Marclay's chosen one piece of the moving picture storytelling universe and discarded everything else. This eliminates all plot from the movie, but he could have accomplished the same thing by making a 24-hour-long montage of people eating in the movies, or people climbing stairs, or cursing. That would accomplish the goal of observing the art of cinema detached from the story and stars and music itself. Marclay's goal is larger than that. In a strange way, removing the plot and focusing on time reveals the plot of life as it is: not the things we do, or the things which happen to us, but rather everything which happens in between. Time is passing by us and through us every moment of our lives, whether we are paying attention to it or not. This movie, by moving Humphrey Bogart, Glenn Close, and Michael J. Fox to the background and placing their wristwatches, Big Ben, and alarm clocks in the foreground, reminds us that everything we've accomplished, everything we hold dear, and all our favorite memories, all happened while time was passing.

It's truly weird to watch a movie where you don't have to check your watch to see
what time it is. I knew I wanted to watch until 11am that day. I simply had to wait
until the movie WAS 11:00am.
This art can be easily sustained for a few minutes: the YouTube is full of "supercuts". THE CLOCK lasts for 24 hours. My Stub Hubby Grade: A-plus.

It's playing all day every day at the MFA through New Year's Eve. I strongly recommend checking it out for an hour or two. I have seen 10:55 through 11:35 on one occasion, and 10:20 through 10:55am the next time.

2016 Re-Review Update

When THE CLOCK returned to the MFA, I visited on Wednesday November 17, one of their late nights, and watched THE CLOCK from 7:30pm until 9:50pm. New observations:

  • There is a lot of cigarette smoking in the movie!
  • We see a lot of wristwatches in closeup, so a lot of hairy wrists.
  • The photo above (clock radio and Pepsi Free can) is from Back to the Future; Marclay also includes a scene of Marty and Doc and the brand-new clock tower in Back to the Future Part III. Unfortunately I was unable to see if he includes the 1985 clock tower scene - the lightning strikes at 10:04pm.
  • A bunch of TV shows popped up in this two-hour segment, including Matlock and The X-Files, and others I didn't recognize.
  • Mostly we don't see enough of a plot from any one scene, but he did focus on an old black-and-white movie where a shotgun is hidden in the base of a standing floor clock, laid as a trap for a would-be murderer?
  • Three different James Bonds in this segment- Casino Royale was onscreen when I arrived; later we saw Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and a Sean Connery Bond film, one of the early ones.
  • I would guess I could name 10% of the films represented, but I recognized many more movie stars but could not name the film.
  • I noticed there's hardly ever any violence, action, or sex. Like I said above, the movie is all about the inaction inbetween the action in our lives.
  • Marclay draws on all of world cinema, so I noticed a lack of American comedy movies represented. The exception proves the rule - a segment from the 2009 rom-com He's Just Not That Into You (featuring Justin Long and that guy from Entourage) stuck out like a sore thumb.

RELATED: Jennifer Bruni on THE CLOCK
VIDEO: BBC feature on THE CLOCK [seven minutes]