Watching The Clock

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the clock.jpgYou may already know about “The Clock” - apparently it’s been all the rage for the last couple of months (Venice Bienalle, exclusive Canadian booking at the National Gallery, etc.) But I was talking to a film-maker friend today who had never heard of it, so perhaps it may be new to some members of the Dawg House as well.

When “The Clock”it was first described to me, it sounded like a clever gimmick, and not much more. The film is twenty four hours long, and its showings are synched to real time. The time shown on the screen is the time shown on your watch: when it’s 2:21 am in “The Clock”, it’s 2:21 am wherever you’re watching. And you’re never in doubt about what time it is.

The film is composed of literally thousands of clips from three thousand movies and TV programs, and virtually every one of those clips includes a reference to time. Sometimes it’s direct- there are clocks in every second or third shot, from full screen images of Big Ben (obviously filmdom’s most popular timepiece) to a quick glimpse of a wristwatch on Marcello Mastroianni’t arm, a sundial in the background of a shot, or a PA announcement in a subway station. Sometimes the reference is subtle - a faint background chime signalling the quarter hour at the end of Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” monologue. But literally every minutes is counted off in this film, marked by an onscreen reference.

This yields two immediate pleasures - delight at the cleverness by which the minute by minute passage of time recorded by a century of film-makers has been assembled here, and a film buff’s joy at this treasure trove of clips. It’s an encyclopedic montage of world cinema, from the first Méliès brothers frames to Tarantino, incorporating shots from every nation, era, and genre - highbrow to pop, schlock to masterpiece. The clips aren’t identified; I think I recognized about a quarter of the films - and I know film.

All reflect the theme of time in one way or another. The longest clip I saw, about 45 seconds, was excerpted from Christopher Walken’s hilarious monologue from Pulp Fiction. Remember this?

“This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. He knew if the gooks ever saw the watch it’d be confiscated, taken away. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slopes were gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy’s birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.”

So at the simplest level The Clock is a terrific stunt and a hugely enjoyable banquet/Trivial pursuit game/master class for cinéphiles.

But it’s a lot more than that.

a) It’s an artful technical demonstration of the ways in which films create meaning and continuity from a sequence of images. The clips are not simply organized by time. They’re linked visually and thematically through every editing device that filmmakers use to create a sense of flow. A character in a 1928 silent film will hear a phone ring and glance off to the right of screen (in the background is a clock showing 3:13). The film cuts to a hand in a 1954 Hitchcock movie picking up the phone (wristwatch clearly showing 3:13), then pulls back to a wider shot of James Stewart, cautiously answering “Hello?” Then an intake of breath and a aharp “Where ARE You?” Cut to a medium shot of Orson Welles as Harry Lyme, fairground clock visible in the background at 3:14, slowly hanging up a pay phone and moving on. A little imaginary piece of narrative built on nothing more than clever cutting. The six hours I’ve seen so far flow effortlessly through cuts on motion, composition, character, action or dialogue.

b) In the same vein, the playful and ingenious use of sound to create artificial continuity is a treat. Shots are bridged by characters’ reactions to the sound of a train arriving in the NEXT shot, or a teakettle hissing from the last shot, or (of course) the chimes of a clock, sounds used to create an entirely confected sense of unity.

c) While its obvious theme is time (what WAS your first clue?),”The Clock” develops and explores dozens of other themes, which emerge out of a sequence of clips and fade back into the flow of the film. This is done without narrative, without transitional linkages or explanation, but solely through the juxtaposition of sound and image reassembled and resequenced to create new rhythms and meanings. It was not a surprise to learn that the filmmaker, Christian Marclay, was originally a collage artist.

While the sheer variety of filmmakers and styles is nearly overwhelming, some directors tend to appear more than others - and those are the ones for whom the passage of time - often as a device to heighten suspense - is a recurring theme. Thus we see a lot of Di Palma, Hitchcock, and Frankenheimer (and quite a few snippets of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone). But you’ll glimpse Ozu, and De Sica, and Sembene, as well as the better known directors. The catholicity of the selection may be a response to the challenge of finding twenty four hours of clips that cover every minute if the day.

I won’t go on: smarter and more articulate people than me have written about this at length. I am working my way through it in three hour blocks - this Friday I think I’m going to try to do 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. There’s an obvious problem with the concept - because the film is linked to real time, we’ll never get to see the hours that occur while the National Gallery is closed. The Gallery held a couple of all-night screenings earlier this year - maybe if enough of us ask they’ll do it again.

I haven’t done this wonderful piece justice: but trust me, it works. If you decide to go on Friday, I’m the fat guy sitting alone and occasionally laughing at the wrong spots.

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on May 16, 2012 9:16 PM.

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