Random Notes on a Projection of The Clock by Christian Marclay at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 4:32 pm, July 28, 2011-5:02 pm, July 29, 2011

By Thom Andersen

1. The Clock is certainly dumb: a 24-hour movie made entirely from other movies in which the depicted screen time corresponds precisely to the actual time of the screening with plenty of clock inserts and shots in which clocks appear, sometimes incidentally. I’m sure I’m not the first to ask, why didn’t I think of that? But is The Clock dumb enough?

2. The museum treated this second screening in its large theatre as an event, and it was an event. The museum had to justify its investment in a copy of The Clock. The announced purchase price of $475,000 seems both absurd and appropriate. The screening was scheduled to begin at 5:00 pm on July 28. Admission was free, and there were no reservations. I expected a big crowd for the beginning so we arrived early. There was a line of people waiting by 4:00 pm, but when they let people into the theatre around 4:30 pm, there were plenty of seats. The movie was already playing so that there was no beginning. There was a small exodus around 5:45 pm, but then the theatre started filling up. By 8:05 pm, when I went out to get a light dinner in the museum cafeteria, the theatre was packed, and there was a long line of people outside waiting to get in. I managed to talk my way back in without having to wait in line, but when I went out again at 10:15 pm to meet my wife, who was returning for the midnight segment, I got in line. We waited from 10:20 pm to 11:20 pm to get back in. I discovered that waiting in line was more fun than watching the movie. That’s not a criticism of The Clock (see below). As the hour grew later, the crowd became younger and more enthusiastic. But with people going in and out constantly, it was hard to watch the movie without distraction. At 12:15 am, we decided we had to go home and sleep. I thought I would come back early in the morning, but I was more tired than I realized, and I didn’t get back into the theatre until 10:30 am. It was better during the day. Not so many comings and goings. I stayed until the end, which came a few minutes after 5:00 pm, with a break for lunch and a nap during the afternoon session. How much of The Clock did I see? Probably no more than 11 hours.

3. To pass critical judgment on a movie, you have to see it whole. Since it’s physically impossible to see all of The Clock in a single screening, it is beyond criticism. So this is not a review.

4. The aspect ratio never changes: it’s always 16:9. The tyranny of high-definition digital video, which allows no other aspect ratio? Are standard aspect ratio movies (4:3) stretched or cropped? Sometimes stretched, sometimes cropped, it seemed. Although this Procrustean rectangle is anathema to film purists, I got used to it, and I could see an advantage: it eliminates one possible kind of jump cut.

5. Foreign films are shown without subtitles. That’s fine (it forestalls another kind of jump cut), but The Clock would have benefited from more foreign-language movies. There is only one shot from What Time Is It There? (2001) by Tsai Ming-liang, but it is one of the highlights of the movie.

6. Although the screening began on the anniversary of the Cuban revolution, I didn’t notice any Cuban films, but on Friday morning, July 29, there was a reference to Fidel Castro, in a French film.

7. Within a half-hour, I began to suspect him of cheating. After another hour, I was hoping that he was cheating. My suspicions were raised by a few shots from Kiss Me Deadly (1955) that came around 4:50 pm. Were these shots of Mike Hammer warily re-entering his apartment time-specific? So I checked. I discovered that they aren’t, and an exterior shot that belongs to the same temporal continuity in Kiss Me Deadly is used by Marclay in the morning section of The Clock. So he does cheat. Thank you, Mr. Marclay. I didn’t hang around to see if Marclay used the beautiful clock scene in Kiss Me Deadly (a clock with a black face and luminous neon numerals that moves from 2:10 am to 2:20 am in less than a minute of screen time).

8. Another early observation: there are too many English films. It’s one critical notion the movie proves, intentionally or not. The old cliché is true: English cinema is an oxymoron. And Big Ben is far and away the most filmed public clock in the world. Or did Marclay make a 24-hour Warhol-like black-and-white film of Big Ben so he could stick in a shot whenever needed? But these English films are the mortar that holds the movie together, marking time, so to speak.

9. Marclay seemed to feel obligated to include every film with the word “time” in its title. The excerpts from Nick of Time (1995) around midday were enjoyable, but the 1960 version of The Time Machine in the evening was excruciating. I was glad when its time had passed.

10. Another discovery: movie stars matter. But not all stars are equal. A little bit of Tom Cruise goes a long way. Sean Connery and Michael Caine are in too many English films to make much of an impression. The rare appearance by John Wayne is always welcome. Steve McQueen can steal a scene in his sleep (we see him do it in The Cincinnati Kid, 1965). Charles Bronson always seems half-asleep, but he’s still a commanding presence. Samuel L. Jackson is wide awake, and he’s riveting. You can call me racist for noting it, but it’s true: the movie picks up whenever there are black people on the screen.

11. Marclay must love Crime Wave (1954). It seems that he includes a bit from every time-specific scene in the film. I share his enthusiasm, so I give him a pass on every decision that might seem aesthetically questionable.

12. There are a lot of cheap gags. They derive mostly from a corollary of the Kuleshov Effect theorem, as expostulated by Mark Rappaport in his compilation movie From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995). It’s simple reverse-field cutting. When you show a person looking offscreen, we expect a cut to what that person is seeing, the reverse field. If the reverse field, the cutaway shot, has the right eyeline match but incongruous content, it’s funny. The best gag of this kind came near the end of my viewing, at 4:30 pm, but I won’t give it away. I will just note that it involves a man and a woman looking at a painting in an art gallery and that the cutaway does have a clock in it. You can also have fun with phone conversations by having people in two different films talk to each other. Fortunately Marclay employs this phone gag sparingly. I want to be clear here: when I write “cheap gags,” I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense. The Clock wouldn’t work nearly as well without some broad jokes.

13. There are of course many train stations, but not as many airports as you’d expect. Maybe Marclay prefers older clocks.

14. To his credit, Marclay is not averse to quoting famous scenes. Ilsa leaves Rick waiting at the station at 5:00 pm (Casablanca, 1942). Orson Welles tells a parable about Switzerland and cuckoo clocks, and he dies on the village clock just after midnight (The Third Man, 1949; The Stranger, 1946).

15. There were moments during the evening session when I thought I could watch the whole film straight through with only the minimum physically necessary breaks for eating and pissing. My wife said that I was like a baby watching Teletubbies. They can watch it all day long. But I never lasted more than two hours without a break.

16. My erudite film friends were quite critical. It trivializes all the films, said Lee Sanders, president of the Motion Picture and Video Projectionists Local 150. He added, it’s like watching cable TV with a remote control: 500 channels and nothing worth watching. He’s right, but…

17. There’s an absence of critique and a suspension of meaning. In this sense, The Clock is a post-modern work. Is it a masterpiece or is it a symptom? Because it does offer a critique, a very intelligent and pertinent critique, I will continue to value Noël Burch’s What Do These Old Films Mean? (1985) more highly.

18. It’s a relief when there is a clip from a great director (Kubrick, Lang, especially von Sternberg, and some others whose work I didn’t recognize). In this sense, it is a film about mise en scène. You could learn how to direct films by studying The Clock closely. However, Godard doesn’t register. He needs more time than Marclay will allow him. Showing a ten-second excerpt from the traffic-jam tracking shot in Weekend (1967) is a sacrilege. Or maybe it’s a nasty joke.

19. What, no Ozu? I kept asking myself during the evening session. Ozu is, after all, the great filmmaker of durée, of lived time, and he created the most elegant clock shots in the history of cinema. Maybe I missed something from the morning commute time (Passing Fancy [1933] at 7:15 am perhaps?), but Tokyo Story (1953) does turn up around 1:30 pm. Noriko is on the train back to Tokyo after attending her mother-in-law’s funeral, and she is examining the watch her father-in-law gave her as a keepsake. For me, this was the one and only emotionally engaging shot in The Clock (although if you don’t know Tokyo Story, it doesn’t mean anything). It was the one moment in the film in which I felt the presence of time as durée. But then Marclay immediately destroys the feeling by cutting to some noisy, obnoxious film. I resented him for it, but it provided the key for understanding his movie.

20. There was spontaneous applause at midnight and noon, and sincere applause when the curtain came down (literally) just after 5:00 pm on Friday. As midnight nears, Sid Vicious breaks into a spirited rendition of “Something Else,” a myriad of clocks reach midnight, and then Orson Welles is impaled on a giant cuckoo clock. Noon is actually better. There are only a few, not so iconic shots from High Noon (1952), but its music is used over clips from other films to hold the sequence together. Then there’s a joyous shot of Quasimodo ringing the cathedral bells, from the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I didn’t join in the applause at the end. Just being ornery. But I suspected that the people clapping were applauding themselves for appreciating a difficult movie.

21. The sound editing throughout The Clock is brilliant. Marclay understands very well the basic principle of editing: the image divides, sound unites.

22. It’s a hard movie not to like. My critical friends seemed a little ashamed of their barbs, as if they’d shown themselves up as nattering nabobs of discontent, or worse as movie snobs. You have to admire the amount of work that went into its making. Marclay had help, of course, but it’s still an artisanal production. It took courage. What if he made it and no one cared?

23. I found The Clock mildly entertaining, like most of the movies it quotes. Still it’s a feat to sustain that level of engagement for 24 hours, or even 11 hours. But I remember very little of it. The images cancel each other out.

24. We seem to live in an eternal present. Thus our reckless politics and our reckless destruction of nature. The Clock literalizes this condition.

25. There are more elegant montages in the compilation works of Bruce Conner, Matthias Müller, Christoph Girardet, Peter Tscherkassky, Martin Arnold, Ken Jacobs, Volker Schreiner, Fred Worden, Andrew Gaston, and in some of Marclay’s earlier videos (Telephones or Video Quartet, for example). But if Marclay had been able to sustain this level of artistry for 24 hours, The Clock would be intolerable. At the least, it would create an intolerable desire to see it all.

26. The Clock suspends time. Lived time is teleological, that is, directed to some goal, even if it’s just eating lunch. Movies mimic this experience of time, and they try to intensify it by placing obstacles in the way of achieving these goals. Before you can go to lunch, you have to escape from an alien spacecraft. It is then a time of anticipation, a time of suspense. The characters who appear in The Clock are often obsessed by this vectorized time. Not only must they escape, they must escape within an hour, or ten minutes, or 30 seconds. Steve Martin is stuck in a business meeting with only an hour to catch his plane home. Johnny Depp must assassinate a politician by 1:30 pm or his kidnapped daughter will die. A bank heist will occur in two minutes…one minute…30 seconds. A pizza must be delivered in eight minutes or else the delivery guy will lose his job. But these deadlines pass without notice. The outcome of an event foretold is almost never shown, except for the time-bomb explosion in Sabotage (1936) and the final duel in For a Few Dollars More (1965). We never find out if Steve Martin catches his plane or how Johnny Depp escapes his dilemma. The bank heists are anticipated but never shown. The pizza delivery guy arrives too late, but then he disappears. Does he lose his job? We’ll never know.

27. So there is no suspense. Instead, there’s a cyclical, mechanical, formalized time that loops around on itself. As we watch The Clock, we’re like Bill Murray stuck in Groundhog Day (1993). Marclay creates climaxes every hour, mini-climaxes on the half-hour, and micro-climaxes on the quarter-hour. There isn’t even an effort to establish a diurnal or a nocturnal rhythm, like the kind you get in some city symphony films. There are a few funny shots of people quitting work at 5:00 pm, but that’s about it. Marclay seems particularly attracted to depictions of time-inappropriate activities—drinking too early, sleeping too late—that disrupt natural daily rhythms. Finally, the events depicted could be taking place at any time. This refuge from time becomes oppressive. I began to feel like the angel Damiel in Wings of Desire (1987) who would trade his eternal disembodied omniscience for a limited, time-bound human existence. The desire to get back into time again became overwhelming. But I’m no angel, and I could go out and drink a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette whenever I wanted. When I did take advantage of this freedom, it was a great pleasure. The Clock takes time away, and then it gives it back. Thus it is a very generous movie.

28. Simone Weil wrote, “Time is unreal, yet we must submit to it.” As we watch The Clock, the situation is reversed: time is real, yet we are freed from it.

29. The best parts of The Clock are the first image you notice when you enter the theatre and the last image you catch as you leave.

30. If it shows again, I’m there. I’ll try to make the graveyard shift, from midnight to 9:00 am.

Thanks to my companions at the screening: Christine Chang, William E. Jones, Adam R. Levine.