As an art project, Christian Marclay’s THE CLOCK is impressive: Thousands of film clips, spanning the history of cinema, representing each minute of the day, are spliced together to create what is essentially a working, 24-hour cinematic timepiece. On the surface, it’s like the greatest YouTube mash-up video ever constructed. But for those who have even the slightest interest in film, its history, or the simple joy of watching a movie, it can be an absolutely transcendent experience.
God knows how many movies Marclay and his team scoured over a two-year period before finally unleashing this magnum opus on the world in 2010. The sheer scope of the project is hard to fathom, and I don’t think anyone has yet figured out exactly how many clips appear and what they all are. But what is truly amazing about THE CLOCK is that it actually manages to form an oddly cohesive narrative -- perhaps not always logically, but certainly emotionally. There is, of course, no beginning and no end, but ebbs and flows of dramatic tension result from the nature of humanity and our relationship with the passage of time. Many clips feature mundane activities: Walking, sleeping, reading, talking. But at key times -- usually every quarter hour –- there is a rise in activity because that is, simply, when people typically do things. We don’t make plans for 4:33 p.m.; we make them for 4:30. And then things get really interesting as the top of the hour approaches, often with great rising action and a flurry of images as the big moment strikes.
Of course, that is not always the case. In BACK TO THE FUTURE, lightning strikes the clock tower at 10:04 p.m. (this memorable moment is represented spectacularly). Moments like that, which diverge from the usual structure of time, are even more fascinating. But in either case, Marclay brilliantly creates drama, humor, action sequences and general weirdness by using clever editing (both images and sound) to manipulate, tweak and even subvert the humanity-time relationship -- which, in many ways (at least, as far as movies are concerned), has not changed very much over the past century.
It is amazing how well some of Marclay’s edits work on a purely visual or thematic level. Very often, a phone will ring in a clip from one decade, only to be answered by someone in a film decades later... or a door opens in ancient black-and-white and a person emerges in the present day... but it happens at the same moment on the clock! A personal favorite moment occurs at 1:54 a.m.: A couple is having steamy sex, only to cut to James Stewart waking up with a start in REAR WINDOW. Just what WERE you dreaming about, Jimmy?? Another occurs at midnight -- obviously a highly-anticipated moment. It starts with Big Ben being destroyed in a huge explosion (V FOR VENDETTA), goes into a rapid-fire montage of clock faces displaying the midnight hour, and ends with Big Ben suddenly rebuilt (none other than GONE WITH THE WIND, when Rhett Butler comforts Bonnie Blue after a nightmare and the clock is visible in the background). Thus, as the madness of midnight ends, the world begins anew... from a certain point of view.
Since I was there late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, the themes and images that comprised my experience told a late-night story -- which, some might say, is the best time for a story to come together. Lots of couples on dates. Late night encounters, poker games, rendezvous. Lots of sex. Sleeping, of course. Bouts of insomnia (indeed, the movie INSOMNIA makes an appearance very late). Phones constantly waking people up at ungodly hours. Interestingly, there are also some instances where Marclay & Co. apparently couldn’t find a clip to fit the time; these moments are usually represented by random dream sequences -- bizarre, twisted, feverish -- which, in a way, perfectly fits the mood of the late-night crowd.
In truth, THE CLOCK makes one extremely aware of the passage of time while also causing one to lose track of it completely. It’s fun to play “Spot the Clock”: Sometimes it’s in plain sight, sometimes it is well-hidden in the frame, sometimes it is actually the focal point of the shot. But eventually, you might become so enthralled in the “story” that you’ll simply forget to look for the clock altogether. And then suddenly, you’ll remember again, and it’s 10, 15, 20 minutes later. It really is a trip.
Now, I managed to take some notes during my epic, borderline insane 8 1/2 hour overnight viewing. When I entered the exhibit at 9:30 p.m., I was greeted by a shot of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan talking to the villain Scorpio on the phone. Ten o’clock is marked by an extended execution scene from THE GREEN MILE. The aforementioned BACK TO THE FUTURE moment happens on schedule at 10:04, though to my personal delight, it is immediately preceded by a shot from POLTERGEIST. Sparks fly between Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM at 10:16. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING drew a nostalgic laugh from the crowd at 10:40 p.m. Eleven o’clock highlights a scene from a film called THE HONEY POT (which, admittedly, I had to look up; to that point, THE CLOCK can also be quite humbling to even the most ardent film buff -- for every clip I recognized, there were countless more that I did not!) in which Rex Harrison handles an hourglass and declares, “There's good time and bad time, you know -- the clocks don't give a damn what time they measure.” My girl Scarlett Johansson makes an appearance in a cab in Tokyo at 11:41, and a minute later, a scene from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET featuring a young Johnny Depp drew the biggest crowd reaction of the night.
Midnight happens and then things get crazy. At 12:05, in LOVE AND DEATH, Woody Allen is called a great lover, to which he responds, “Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone.” At 12:45, a clip declares, “You can’t beat the clock!” to which I said under my breath, “We’ll see about that!” (Spoiler alert: The clip was right.) One movie I had hoped would be well-represented was Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS, and I was not disappointed -- its first of several appearances comes at 1:40 a.m. The grand staircase of James Cameron’s TITANIC fills with water at 2:15 a.m. (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is also used several times). Some unusual late-night choices include SAW and not one, not two, but THREE Adam Sandler movies -- perhaps Marclay is a fan? An Emilio Estevez movie (STAKEOUT? ANOTHER STAKEOUT? Something else?) is recalled on three occasions, too. I received a personal jolt of happiness at exactly 4:00 a.m. with two clips from AMELIE. After that, my note-taking ceased because I was starting to fade... and perhaps not coincidentally, this is when the most bizarre dream sequence montages kicked in (I did manage to note one such sequence at 4:50 a.m. with the following: “????”).
Finally, at 6:00 a.m., a double-dose of Bill Murray as Dr. Leo Marvin attempts to wake up Bob Wiley and “I Got You Babe” wakes up Phil Connors, who proceeds to smash the alarm clock (a specific moment I’d been striving towards all night). Robin Williams then bellows, “GOOOOOOOD MORNING, VIETNAM!” And as I was putting my jacket on and preparing to leave, I was treated to a scene from a movie that I’d been hoping to see, but was strangely (perhaps purposefully?) absent until this final moment: BEFORE SUNRISE. In the clip, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are sitting at the foot of a statue following their all-night jaunt through Vienna, and he paraphrases the following poem:
“‘All the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime. Oh, let not time deceive you -- you cannot conquer time. In headaches and in worry, vaguely life leaks away, and time will have its fancy tomorrow or today.’ Something like that....”
For some, the experience of THE CLOCK would continue for God knows how long. For others, it had just begun as they walked into the room at that wonderful moment. For me, after eight and a half hours, I really couldn’t imagine a more perfect ending.
THE CLOCK has been playing at MoMA for the past month, but, unfortunately, ends its run tomorrow (Monday, 1/21) at 5:30 p.m. If you hurry, there’s still time to catch some of it! (Seriously... go right now.) It is one of the most astonishing movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had -- I cannot stop thinking about it and cannot wait to pick up where I left off next time the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, time marches on....