Certain moments nearly everyone remembers: where you were, for instance, at 8:46 am on September 11, 2001. Other moments are more forgettable: what you were doing, say, last Tuesday at 6:32 pm. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010)—a mesmerizing compilation of thousands of movie clips that include timepieces or references to time—ticks off each minute as if it were the most momentous in the 24-hour cycle we casually call a day. Over its 1,440 minutes, synched to the real time of the day (complete 24-hour screenings were offered on weekends), The Clock traverses a spectrum of human experience. At 11:14 am snipers take aim at an unseen target; at 3:53 pm businessmen debark from an airplane; at 5:40 pm a woman whispers “goodbye, Lawrence” as she tosses a packet of letters into a fire.
Cinema employs many conventions to distort time in the service of narrative; it’s partly why the medium is so escapist. Here, Marclay does the opposite, adhering to the staccato passing of each minute to disrupt—or reconfigure—the storyline. Curiously, this exposes the artifice of cinema while making its fiction seem more real: you know that Jack Nicholson patiently waiting for the clock in his office to hit 5 pm on the day of his retirement is just a film, but when the hands of his clock click into position at the exact instant those on your watch do, it gives you pause.
Influenced by Duchamp, John Cage, musique concrète, Fluxus and No Wave, Marclay has plumbed the intersections of visual and audio media through three decades of performance, collage, sculpture, installation, photography and video. Along with the first hip-hop artists, he was among the pioneering turntablists of the late ’70s. Although The Clock lacks direct sonic references, Marclay’s background is evident in the video’s nuanced editing, which lays a more lyric rhythm over the uniform beat of passing minutes. Some clips are long and include multiple shots (the final shootout in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly enjoys ample running time); other clips are short and have just one or two (Angelina Jolie, in Gone in Sixty Seconds, makes only a brief appearance). Marclay often intercuts clips from the same film throughout a series of others—at 5:20 pm, for example, a man climbs out of a building’s upper-story window onto a ledge; after multiple clips from other movies, he reappears at 5:28, hugging the wall as he edges past a large clock mounted on the outside of the building. Cuts sometimes jump abruptly and other times flow seamlessly, and sound is carried over to soften more jarring visual transitions. This looser rhythm choreographs a range of emotions, revealing the dissonance between time felt and actual. As Jane Austen wrote, “I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”
The feverish reception that has met The Clock since its fall premiere in London might be partially attributable to our simple love of movies—a passion the piece certainly fuels. But it may have more to do with the way The Clock brilliantly illuminates the fleeting yet concrete nature of time, situating us, alongside our beloved Hollywood heroes and villains, in a chronology both fabulous and very, very real.
Photo: Christian Marclay: The Clock, 2010, video, 24 hours; at Paula Cooper.