PRINT February 2011


Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, stills from a single-channel color video, 24 hours.

IT SEEMS WE GO TO THE MOVIES TO FORGET TIME, or at least to think it differently. There’s good reason Graham Greene considered his four and a half years reviewing films for The Spectator an “escape.” Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010—a twenty-four-hour found-footage montage that pretty much is what it says it is—caulks the escape hatch and terrorizes the spaceship. Until forgetfulness fogs the encounter with the work, no timepiece in a movie will look innocent again.

With The Clock, the movies move from passing time to telling it. The “digits” of Marclay’s clock are made up of scenes containing watches, alarms, hourglasses, employee time clocks, etc., culled from thousands of films made over the past hundred or so years—the course of cinema’s own history. These clips are spliced together so that when a clock image flashes on-screen (or is spoken or sung about or otherwise represented), it gives the time in the time zone in which the video is played. The Clock is a machine that transforms symbols into overdetermined indexes.

Which isn’t to say that this regimented parade of images doesn’t have life. Narrative is subordinated to the time stamp, but its viscera—climax, denouement, motif—are still very much present. The Clock’s mode is anecdotal, a litany of cameos, but a narrative structure develops as Marclay plays off our instincts for storytelling. Anticipation often accrues around the turn of an hour. At 6:56 AM, the halls of John Hughes’s Shermer High School are empty, but as The Clock strikes seven, actors’ hands reach for antique and retro tabletop alarm clocks. An august Jack Nicholson opens his eyes. A Rube Goldberg machine kicks up to rouse Michael J. Fox, aka Marty McFly, and a naked JoBeth Williams leaps out of bed after a one-night stand with Dustin Hoffman, screaming as she runs into a young boy in the hallway. “I haven’t slept that well in years. Is it noon yet?” asks a drowsy Woody Allen. “No, it’s seven,” Diane Keaton responds.

The “spoken” clock is the most fun. “I run my home precisely on schedule,” Mr. Banks sings in Mary Poppins. “At 6:01 I march through my door.” It’s also the most versatile filler: “Dad, what time is it?” a little girl asks, and Fred McMurray responds vaguely, “Oh . . . It’s a little after six.” During the day, The Clock builds around zones of transportation, forming an IMDb map of the world. (Marilyn Monroe carries her suitcases through a bus depot in Niagara; Steve Martin races through an airport in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.)

WHEN I FIRST SAW THE CLOCK, it was late in the evening of its October 14 debut at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, London. I arrived after a long dinner, walked the red carpet, descended the stairs, and sat down on a sofa in the cavernous, makeshift theater: the reflexive trappings of cinema. On the giant screen, restless, sinister bedroom scenes prevailed. People were about to have sex or had just finished having sex. There always seemed to be a bloodbath around the corner. It was a few flicks in before it clicked that the clocks were flashing the real time: 2:29 . . . 2:30 . . . 2:31 AM. The realization was thrilling but also indescribably melancholic. As much as it sucks you in, you’re always mindful of how late it is, or what you might be late for.

The Clock didn’t come easy. It’s a work of pure diligence: more than two years of researching, clipping, stitching, and remastering. The stoner mind—one good idea—relaxes into an Adderall groove. It makes a certain amount of sense: Now that video mash-ups and remixes are the province of clever teenagers, what’s an artist steeped in the legacy of cinematic appropriation to do? You either change the game (which Marclay has done before, with his prescient Telephones, 1995) or you graduate to the level beyond pure invention: muscular, “How’d he do that?” art. (Of course, we all know how he did it, even if we’re not yet sure why.) It wasn’t until the first year of production was done that the artist knew the project was feasible. Six research assistants mined the movies; Marclay made all the edits. Quentin Chiappetta, a longtime collaborator, helped give the piece continuity by overlapping diegetic sound between the disparate clips. The soaring glissando in one excerpt will seep into another; dialogue beginning in one section will last through the next. The acoustic “glue,” as Marclay calls it, is meant to make the cuts more palatable, but it also draws attention to the frequent absence of visual continuity.

“THAT IS WHAT CINEMA IS,” Godard theorized. “The present never exists there, except in bad films.” Marclay’s remarkably bad film is perfectly contemporary. (It is also a time capsule, immediately dated by the latest film it excerpts.) Of course it is its very “badness” as cinema that makes it such a compelling paracinematic—and, indeed, aesthetic—experience. Every movie has its own temporal grammar, and Marclay typically gives us just enough of a film to reveal its particular speed or pacing. By stringing together this panoply of irrational times according to a rational tempo, he makes salient the idiosyncrasies of movie time.

This clock enchants; it is made for watching. Which is a tad creepy, when you think about it, the way it makes train spotters of us. A sense of inevitability inflects the project, as if as the logical apotheosis of CCTV surveillance: Live-feed cameras bear perpetual witness to our comings and goings; now our moving fabulations can keep tabs on our time. Both are modes of a quotidian cinema—one dispersed, another the project of the auteur; they serve as reminders that every camera, every image, can be put in service of the real.

It’s a weird kind of realism. The Clock is the only movie I know of that has to be properly “set” to “work”; whose uncanny effect is contingent on precise, timely installation. First came the moving image, then synchronized sound. Now we have synchronization, period. As I write, I hate Marclay’s work as much as I hate anything that draws attention to the inexorable deadline. I hate it, but I also can’t stop watching: Marclay has left us a product with which we will never be finished.

David Velasco is editor of