Reviewers like to say that this or that work of art is ‘demanding’, but unless they’ve watched Christian Marclay’s The Clock, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The Clock makes demands beyond any art I’ve ever come across: it demands the viewer be awake all night; it demands unwavering attention, hour after hour; it imposes hunger, thirst, exhaustion, an uncomfortably full bladder. Twenty-four hours of movie with no beginning and no end, The Clock is a strange sort of masterpiece.
To see it, I’ve got out of a perfectly good bed at six a.m., three a.m. and 12.18 a.m. on three consecutive Friday mornings and cycled half an hour in the dark to the screening room. And I’m not done: I have plans for the five-to-ten p.m. shift this week, and a ten-to-one a.m. session the following week, plus various daytime viewing slots. I’m determined to see it all, in whatever order it comes.
I never set out to see the whole thing; I popped in at two one afternoon, I thought for half an hour, but after five minutes I knew I had to see it all. Now, the fact that there are ‘only’ about a dozen viewers at five a.m. bewilders me: isn’t Melbourne a cinema-loving city? Aren’t we up for a White Night-style all-nighter? Shouldn’t the room be packed? And this is from someone who does not function without sleep. Someone, also, with a full load of other responsibilities: my trysts with The Clock are illicit and guilty.
I want to write about it, but it’s impossible to ‘review’ The Clock. To review a work of art is to imply a repeatability of experience, and The Clock offers no such thing.
The Clock is 100 per cent pastiche, but also 100 per cent original. The entire thing is composed of clips taken from movies and TV, and every shot shows or refers to the time. The film is precisely synchronised to real time: at 8:25 a.m., Marty McFly in Back to the Future is shown freaking out about the fact that it’s 8.25 and he’s late for school. And yes, High Noon screens at high noon. The Clock uses about 12,000 such shots, some for only a second, all brazenly lifted without authorisation from film history. (Partly because of this, the exhibition is free.) Watching it is like seeing all the films you’ve ever seen, and all the ones you haven’t.
It’s that synchronisation with real time that makes The Clock more than a clever thought bubble. Marclay (and a team of researchers) put countless hours into finding and editing the clips; it wasn’t easy for him, and it won’t be easy for you. By imposing strict viewing conditions, he has forced the audience into a new relationship with time and place. It isn’t just about time: it is time.
At four a.m. I’m watching the screen, but also watching the audience. In front of me, a young man is curled up on an IKEA couch, eyes barely open, while on the screen a young man is curled up in bed, fast asleep. Just after four, a different man on the screen answers the phone and a voice taunts him: ‘There’s nothing as lonely as not sleeping.’ There’s also nothing quite so ironic as missing sleep in order to watch people sleeping on a screen.
When Marclay made The Clock in 2010, he issued only six copies (and two artist’s proofs). The only way to see it is to sit in an exhibition room; not just any exhibition room but the one place it’s screening in the entire world, which, until March 10, is Melbourne, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. (Before that, it was at the Tate Modern in London.) In an age of endless digital copies and pocket screens that can shift our field of vision to anywhere in the world at any time, The Clock refuses to concede the uniqueness of time and place. Food, drink and phones are banned: you’re supposed to pay attention. The not terribly comfortable couches are standard too. Wherever you see it in the world, you’ll be seeing it under the same conditions. It’s like a moving Groundhog Day, repeating itself endlessly and exactly: the only variable is the viewer.
The clips are far from being random shots with clocks showing the correct time. Themes emerge and fade away—just before seven a.m. a series of quirky automated breakfast devices pour coffee and burn toast—and a dawn shot of New York’s twin towers is followed, a little after nine, by documentary footage of the towers streaming smoke into the sky. Unanswered phones ring in scene after scene, until finally someone picks one up. Characters talk about time, run out of time, kill time, look at watches, wind clocks, hang off the hands of clocks.
Where movies compress time, The Clock’s real-time conceit returns time to its true shape by making the viewer wait. The 1958 movie I Want To Live! rushes through a woman’s last day and execution in two hours; The Clock returns to that day again and again over hours from her dawn awakening to her eventual death. In a siege scene, a cop calls out ‘Ten minutes and we’re coming in. 600 seconds to live. Think. Think about it son!’ But we never do get to see if he lives or dies.
The movie deconstructs cinema’s artificial narrative drive even as it exploits it; how many scenes are there in movies of people rushing for trains, asking ‘What time is it?’, clocks ticking down to a bomb blast, alarms waking people to face the day? (A specialty theme in The Clock is the destruction of alarm clocks in ever more original ways: they are smothered under pillows, smashed, thrown out of windows.)
Star power is wryly referenced with flashes of super-recognisable faces. Less wry are the revelations about real human time: Robin Williams is young and brash in Good Morning Vietnam, then middle-aged and disappointed in the world in One Hour Photo. Our idols age just as we do, and the juxtaposition of fresh faces with the same faces at 50 and 60 remind me that these aren’t just characters in a film: when we watch actors on a screen, we’re watching moments they actually lived through.
By carrying the sound from one shot over to the start of the next (or vice versa) Marclay knits the film together, despite jumps between colour and black and white, between saturated 1950s film stock and grainy vision from the 1930s, and between settings. Precise edits undermine our learned expectations of film grammar. A person opens one door; another person enters a room through a different door. A woman looks out of the window of a country house, apparently seeing a city street with a lone pedestrian. It’s not always clear whether continguous shots are from the same or different films, and there’s no plot at all, but after a while it doesn’t seem to matter. The more I watched it, the more sense it seemed to make. After hours of viewing, the world seemed to be made up of women in improbably sheer night-dresses and square-jawed men holding guns. Somehow it all seems to become the one film, a narrative of discontinuity.
An hour or two’s viewing is mesmerising enough, but the effect is cumulative and dependent on the physical presence of the viewer, their commitment of real time. Back to that paradox of watching people sleeping onscreen when I should be asleep myself: at 2 a.m., as I watched actor after actor say ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning’, I had the strange feeling that because this was, after all, only a movie, it wasn’t really 2 a.m. for me. The world on the screen becomes a stand-in for the world outside, or maybe a replacement: I miss seeing that particular Melbourne dawn, watching instead Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy seeing in the day in Before Sunrise.
The Clock is a compendium of what movies say about our world: movies say that the hour between two and three a.m. is the hour of insomnia; that at seven a.m., plots are laid, factory workers punch time cards and the machinery of commerce begins to whirr and grind; that between twelve and two p.m., we all eat lunch. Movies say that at night, city streets are always wet and glistening, and everyone sleeps with their curtains open to admit the moonlight and the shadow of a stalker. They also say that at 4.05 a.m., apparently, an emu may wander elegantly through one’s bedroom. The Clock, like any day, has its share of the absurd.
When I emerged into the light after viewing the period between 4.08-10.10 a.m., I had a little trouble with reality at first. Not only did everything look and sound like a movie (the dappled summer light coming through the trees on the street; the sound of a plane overhead; fragments of overhead conversation), I also kept expecting the scene to change, to jump-cut to the next thing, the next chunk of time. By the time I’m done, I will have spent an entire day of my life out of a one-month period telling time by The Clock. I don’t just feel like I’m living inside a movie. I sort of am.
My viewing strategy (I’m halfway through) has been to catch short segments in passing, then return to fit four and six-hour marathons around those segments, using the already-viewed moments as much-needed breaks (it may or may not have been deliberate cruelty on Marclay’s part to include regular shots of people urinating). Almost everyone who’s seen the whole thing would have done it in a similar fashion, somewhat out of sequence. It is never the same movie twice any more than any two middays are the same. After viewing 1.05-4.08 a.m., I dozed groggily for two hours and awoke feeling jetlagged and disconnected. I scribbled in my notebook: ‘The circularity of it … it can be viewed in any order and still be a whole … like looking back on an entire life?’ Its 24-hour cycle isn’t Marclay’s conceit at all, but a given fact of our biology and the planet we live on.
Jean-Luc Godard said that ‘the cinema is something between art and life’. Marclay’s achievement is to make a piece of cinema that insists on being cinema, art and life all at once.
Jenny Sinclair’s is the author of Much Ado About Melbourne and A Walking Shadow. She tweets at @jenny_sinclair