Monthly Archives: August 2011

Movies That Could Make Me Hate Movies

I don’t walk out of movies. Nor do I start one at home and throw in the towel before the end, no matter how worthless, no matter how bad.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a fact. I don’t understand my fidelity to finishing even the trashiest garbage, but there is something about leaving a theater or turning off a DVD that makes my skin crawl. It just feels wrong, like shooting kittens or mugging little old ladies. I walked out of a movie once at the urging of a friend and I’ve regretted it ever since. Yes, the movie was rotten (and no I have never gone back and finished it), but once I left I felt like it was an act of moral cowardice. Not quite on the level of Red Badge of Courage, but something along those lines.

Thanks to Thomas Pynchon’s last book I have finally given up this personal obligation to finish with books. Somehow I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading and not getting anything meaningful out of it, I could put the book down and move on to something else. No sense in wasting countless hours indulging Pynchon in his nonsensical garbage.

Why can’t I do the same for movies? Of course the time commitment is much less, but I have been frustrated, angered, and made miserable by countless movies. Why is it OK to be tortured for two hours? Why put up with any misery even if it’s only two hours worth?

I’m beginning to suspect my movie love is obsessive. I feel the need to see everything (except The Human Centipede – I’m doing just fine without that) and part of seeing everything is seeing all of everything – warts and all. How can I tell what was wrong with a movie if I don’t see all of it? Or how do I know there won’t be something worth seeing in the last reel?

So I compiled at list of movies that have caused me the most displeasure. I won’t go so far as to say these are the worst movies ever made since I haven’t seen everything, especially largely reviled movies like Frozen Assets and Ishtar (and Jerry Lewis still won’t let me see The Day the Clown Cried). Plus I’m largely giving a pass to low budget pieces of crap.  It’s easy to rag on incompetence. I prefer to highlight the worst movie made by supposedly competent filmmakers. Those who made Manos: Hands of Fate, Black Ninja, or Monster a Go-Go didn’t have a basic understanding of the world around them or the people in it, let alone basic cinematic grammar and ragging on them would be like picking on the retarded girl in the playground.

So here is a collection of movies that I wish I had been able to walk out on, movies that have no redeeming qualities, movies that were conceived, developed, filmed, edited, and screened with no vision, creativity, or aesthetic. They are, in a word, excrement.

In no particular order:

Zardoz (1974) Dir./Wr. John Boorman

In fairness to writer, director, and producer John Boorman, he did have a vision with this one, though it was so misguided I can’t believe no one pulled him aside and asked what the deal was with the giant flying head that vomits guns. This is one of those post-apocalyptic pretensions that trick filmmakers into believing they are saying something profound about contemporary society. There’s a lot of goofiness about immortality, mind control, and Sean Connery dressed in … well, I’m not sure what he’s dressed in, but it surely wasn’t flattering. If you’ve never suffered though this one, here’s a trailer:

I hope that doesn’t delude you into thinking it will be a campy good time. It isn’t. It’s deadly dull, taking all the worst of Planet of the Apes and mashing it up with the worst of 2001. The trailer is incomprehensible and the movie doesn’t clear much up.

The Scarlet Letter (1995) Dir. Roland Joffe, Wr. Douglas Day Stewart

Watching this incarnation of The Scarlet Letter I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a colossal joke. It seems more like the product of a movie that’s satirizing the way Hollywood bastardizes art for commercial success, like Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty, than an actual movie that people thought was a good idea. I kept waiting for the camera to swing around and catch the battles behind the scenes to maintain some fidelity to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. But that never happens and Joffe packs in one embarrassment after another: Indian attacks, witch trials, anachronistic feminism, and, worst of all, Rev. Dimsdale’s heroism and even a happy ending! Blech.

Hollywood: Making Complex, Thoughtful Literature Shallow and Titillating Since 1915

Just because they say it is “freely adapted” from the novel doesn’t excuse the corrupt process that brought this monstrosity into being. Here’s an idea: If you don’t like the story of one of the greatest American novels ever written, don’t use it as the basis for your movie. Make up an original story. But would that have been too hard? I guess so. While they’re at it they should re-do The Great Gatsby and instead of that downer ending, why not let Jay and Daisy live happily ever after? Or they could “re-imagine” Moby-Dick where Ahab learns the evils of whaling and teams up with his new pal Moby to battle an evil whaling conglomerate in the style of Flipper or Free Willy.

Movers and Shakers (1985) Dir. William Asher, Wr. Charles Grodin

So bad I couldn't even find a decent picture or video clip for it.

Sometimes you see a bad movie and think that it must have looked like a good idea on paper, but somewhere along the production line it fell apart. I can’t imagine how Movers and Shakers looked good on paper or any other material. Charles Grodin, often a very funny actor, wrote the abysmally unfunny screenplay about a studio executive (Walter Matthau) who makes a promise on his best friend’s death bed that he will make a movie out of his favorite book: a how-to sex manual. Matthau spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out how to make the movie. Unfortunately it is painfully unfunny. Steve Martin pops in for a misguided cameo as an aging screen idol. He’s not believable or funny. (And Penny Marshall is his girlfriend?!) Nothing in the movie is remotely funny. It’s just dull, dull, dull, which is strange with so much good talent attached. Gilda Radner is in it for God’s sake! You know it sucks when Gilda Radner can’t make me laugh.

This material could only have been funny if it was grounded in real life, if we believe that there actually is a movie they could make, no matter how bad it would be. How about a promise to re-make a Swedish sex film? That could have been funny. Or how about making The Scarlet Letter with a happy ending … oh, wait.

Jud Süss (1940) Dir. Veit Harlan, Wr. Veit Harlan and E. W. Möller

OK, this is a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda piece, so was I even expecting to like it? Originally I would have said no, but a friend of mine urged me to see it. It is, he insisted, a good movie if you can get past the anti-Jewish stuff. I figured he must have seen something worthwhile in it so I checked it out. I’m now convinced my friend stands as another exhibit in the case against film school. He spent too much time there looking at pretty pictures and not learning about life. For some reason he thinks it’s possible to separate the anti-Semitic text from the images.

I’ve been lenient on lots of movies for racism. You have to judge them by the time they were made, so it isn’t fair to condemn Gone with the Wind for its racist depictions of blacks. But the difference is Gone with the Wind could have existed without those characters. Jud Süss cannot exist without the conniving, money grubbing Jew manipulating the state for his and his peoples’ own needs at the expense of defenseless gentiles.  Jud Süss argues a point that ultimately justified the Holocaust for many Germans. I can’t get excited about that. Oh, and objectively speaking, even if I was able to ignore the hooked noses and raping of the pure gentile girl, it’s still a shockingly boring movie. Just look at this clip. It should be filled with tension: a girl appealing to the Jewish finance minister for the life of her husband, but he only has one thing on his mind. It’s paced at about the same clip as my 94-year-old grandmother’s stories about spilling tea on Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Happening (2008) Dir/Wr. M. Night Shyamalan

I’ve always like Mark Wahlberg so it hurts me to say he delivers one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture in this clunker. I’ve never, however, liked M. Night Shyamalan so I feel justified laying the blame for Wahlberg’s terrible performance at his feet. It was the director’s job to curb Wahlberg’s habit of ending every statement with a question mark, but for some reason the hack Shyamalan just patted him on the back and moved on. Shyamalan got lucky with The Sixth Sense, a pretty bad movie that relies on a gimmick to impress people. And Shyamalan has made one piece of trash after another since then, making The Sixth Sense look more and more like Casablanca. As much as I hated The Last Airbender, even that was a step up from the utter failure that was The Happening. The set up has possibilities but, as usual, Shyamalan, fumbles them. Large groups of people begin killing themselves along the eastern seaboard. Are terrorists releasing toxins in the air that make people kill themselves? Of course not! It’s something much sillier than that. RiffTrax, Mystery Science Theater 3000 in their new form, lampooned the film brilliantly in this clip:

Well, it wasn’t really fair. I mean Wahlberg actually says to himself, “Be scientific, douchebag.”  It’s as if Shyamalan wrote the gags for them. (Though it isn’t as bad as my favorite Shyamalan example of bad writing. From The Last Airbender: “We have to show them we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” Yeah, OK.) Can we stop pretending that this guy ever had any talent?

The Sting, Part II (1983) Dir. Jeremy Kagan, Wr. David S. Ward

You know you’re in trouble when the director of a sequel goes to great pains to assure everyone that his movie isn’t really a sequel. Instead it’s “inspired by and a continuation of” the first, highly successful film. How something can be inspired by and a continuation of a film without being a sequel isn’t all that clear, but the studio had to know they had a momentous flop on their hands. Mac Davis, whoever that is, just can’t fill Robert Redford’s shoes. And I love Jackie Gleason, but he should have known better when he was offered a role originated by Paul Newman.

Not even the poster is all that interesting

And this is where the producers get tricky. They knew Davis and Gleason weren’t exactly Redford and Newman so they slightly changed their names and said, “Ta-dah! They’re not really playing the same parts. It’s completely different … but the same.”

I think The Sting is a fine movie, but years of far better grifter movies have diminished its stature. That said, The Sting Part II is rotten, lifeless, devoid of any creative instincts that weren’t plundered from another source, that watching it makes The Sting look like the classic everyone seems to think it is. I wish I could find a clip of the movie somewhere so you can see for yourself how everyone is wooden, especially Terri Garr putting on a crummy French accent. I guess the incompetence of the accent was supposed to be funny but, like everything else in the movie, it just comes off as incompetent.

The Haunted Mansion (2003) Dir. Rob Minkoff, Wr. David Berenbaum

Eddie Murphy in a haunted house could have been funny in 1983, not 2003.

It’s sad when movies don’t fulfill their genre requirements. When romances aren’t romantic. When thrillers aren’t thrilling. When dramas aren’t dramatic. They’re all sad. But there is nothing sadder than a comedy that isn’t funny. I grow increasingly embarrassed when someone is trying ever so hard to be funny, but ends up being as funny as a stroke. There are few comedies I’ve seen that are as wretchedly unfunnny as The Haunted Mansion, a crude attempt to cash in on the success of another film based on a Disneyland attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Haunted Mansion has long been one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland. As a child I always looked forward to the stretching room, the ballroom filled with dancing ghosts, and the crowded cemetery. I had no way of knowing that crass studio executives would get their hands on some of these beloved scenes and try to pervert them into a cash cow movie franchise.

I don’t have a problem with them making it into a movie, so long as the movie isn’t terrible. But all they saw were the dollar signs of Johnny Depp’s franchise and didn’t want to be bothered with the hard work of developing a creative, funny script. They rushed out a bore of a script filled with punchlines that wouldn’t make a first grader laugh. To turn a disaster into a catastrophe, they then cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Now I love a lot of what Murphy has done in the past, but he hasn’t been on his game in years (decades maybe). I would say that casting Murphy in the part is a clever attempt to subvert the old movies where black actors are comically afraid of ghosts (“Feets don’t fail me now!”), but I doubt that much though went into it. Murphy is just as terrible as the written material and what we end up with is a mess that Murphy, Wallace Shawn, Terrence Stamp, and everyone else associated with it are probably more than happy to pretend never happened.

And now we learn that Guillermo Del Toro is out to remake the movie and, hopefully, erase the memory of the terrible film that preceded it.

If all movies were as bad as these seven I would have renounced film and buried my nose in books years ago. Luckily they aren’t. What are some of your cinematic horror stories? I’d love to hear about the movies you hate with a passion.



Filed under Thoughts and Comments

Bette Davis (The Little Foxes) – Best Actress of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Joan Crawford (A Woman’s Face), Greta Garbo (Two-Faced Woman), Olivia de Haviland (Hold Back the Dawn), Olivia de Haviland (The Strawberry Blonde), Irene Dunne (Penny Serenade), Joan Fontaine (Suspicion), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), Wendy Hiller (Major Barbara), Deborah Kerr (Love on the Dole), Vivien Leigh (That Hamilton Woman), Margaret Lockwood (Quiet Wedding), Ida Lupino (High Sierra), Ida Lupino (Ladies in Retirement), Michèle Morgan (Remorques), Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire), Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve), Margaret Sullavan (Back Street), Diana Wynyard (Kipps)

Bette Davis as Regina Giddens in "The Little Foxes"

Bette Davis made a career out of playing women not only discontent with traditional female roles, but actively contemptuous of them, shredding them to pieces with only a withering glance. Her characters were often strong (though not always – Now, Voyager and The Old Maid come to mind) and sometimes vicious. Few of the parts she played, however, were as vicious as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the icy schemer in The Little Foxes. Sure Mildred in Of Human Bondage was nasty, but she isn’t nearly as smart, not remotely capable of thinking through the long term consequences of her misdeeds the way Regina is. Mildred hurt men for petty and immediate gain; Regina would sacrifice her family for long term riches.

Director William Wyler wanted Davis to interpret the role differently from Tallulah Bankhead who originated it on stage, so he had her, against her will, watch Bankhead play the part. Bankhead’s Regina isn’t the master manipulator, but a victim of her brothers’ contempt. She is a fighter because she’s been treated so rotten that she can’t get anything any other way. In her autobiography Davis claims that Bankhead delivered the definitive interpretation of Regina Giddens. In fact, according to Davis, Lillian Hellman clearly contoured Regina as a victim in her play and there was no other way to do it. But Wyler insisted. There had to be another way.

Davis managed to discard Bankhead’s definitive interpretation and craft a new definitive interpretation. Her Regina is no victim; she’s a primal force of avarice. She has had less opportunity to enter into business shenanigans than her brothers, but that doesn’t stop her from grabbing what she wants, even if it means stabbing a family member (or several family members) in the back. Davis’ Regina could never be a victim; she just has more obstacles to overcome because of her sex, but she doesn’t let social restrictions limit her made grab for money. If her dopey brothers can succeed in the con games that they pretend is legitimate business, so can she. She’s smarter, brasher, more determined. She has everything anyone would need to succeed – except a penis and she isn’t about to let that stop her.

But she isn’t a total monster. I love how she plays the scene where her husband, who is standing in the way of entering into a lucrative deal, has a heart attack. All she has to do is get his medicine and he will be fine, but she freezes, letting the weak man struggle his way to the stairs. The tension on her face is amazing. She can kill him by doing nothing, but she is terrified as well. You could read it as being terrified of being caught – after all he could recover and rat her out – but I prefer to interpret it as the terror of realizing she is crossing a moral line that she has not crossed yet. There would be no going back once she lets her husband for whom, not incidentally, she does have some affection die. It’s an expertly played scene. Watch it below. I love her reaction to his dropping and breaking his medicine bottle. She immediately sees her opportunity:

I hesitated with this choice since this is the third time I have chosen Davis for best actress (Of Human Bondage in 1934 and Jezebel in 1938). After all, shouldn’t someone else be honored with my imaginary, meaningless, and as of yet nameless awards?  Barbara Stanwyck tears it up in Ball of Fire. Greta Garbo charms in the otherwise terrible Two-Faced Woman. And Wendy Hiller is superb as a woman’s whose faith is shaken in Major Barbara. But I had to relent to my first instinct. I always hate when awards are given because it’s someone’s turn, or given to honor their entire body of work (unless, it should go without saying, it’s a lifetime achievement award). This is supposed to be about the best performance, regardless of what came before and what came after. I can’t pick someone just because they haven’t been chosen before and aren’t going to have a chance again like Garbo. It has to be about who gave my favorite performance of the year.

I’m picking Davis both for what she did on the screen in The Little Foxes and the challenge of working against what was written on the page to mold a strong, smart, and devious woman. What she pulled off is like asking someone to play Scarlet O’Hara, but come up with something completely different from the text and, more importantly, Vivien Leigh’s iconic performance. I can’t even think of an example of how to pull that off, but to do so would be revolutionary. The challenge of Regina Giddens illustrates that Bette Davis didn’t just have iconic eyes or a trademarkable voice, but serious acting skills.


Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Performances

Humphrey Bogart (High Sierra) – Best Actor of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon), Charles Boyer (Hold Back the Dawn), James Cagney (The Strawberry Blonde), Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones), Gary Cooper (Ball of Fire), Gary Cooper (Sergeant York), Jean Gabin (Remorques), Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Cary Grant (Suspicion), Will Hay (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Chojuro Kawarasaki (The 47 Ronin), Laurence Olivier (That Hamilton Woman), Walter Pigeon (Man Hunt), Michael Redgrave (Kipps), Edward G. Robinson (The Sea Wolf), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Robert Young (H.M. Pulham, Esq.)

Humphrey Bogart goes on the run as Roy Earle (with Ida Lupino) in "High Sierra"

Humphrey Bogart played the tough guy better than anyone (with the possible exception of James Cagney). He had played a series of mostly supporting roles throughout the second half of the 1930s at Warner Bros., usually as a mindless goon mucking up the elegant plans of Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Nineteen forty one was the year Bogart finally broke through with two roles that established the manly Bogie persona and him as a bona fide star: The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra.

The Maltese Falcon is the movie more popularly remembered, and rightly so. It’s a better film, but Bogart’s performance in High Sierra is layered and nuanced in a way that his Sam Spade isn’t. Roy “Mad Dog” Earle has vague memories of the ferocious tough guy he once was, but years in prison have smoothed him out. He uses violence, brutality, and intimidation, not because he is so irredeemably vicious, but because he doesn’t know how else to get what he needs. Bogart translates the moral conflict that rages inside Earle in a way that we are able identify with. We want him to get what he wants – not the jewels, but the quiet, decent life he longs for but has no ideas how to make a reality.

That is what distinguishes Earle from other tough guys we’ve seen, even those who want out. The kindness and sensitivity are close to the surface and when Earle does use violence, we understand it isn’t because he’s a monster, but because it’s what people expect and it’s all he knows. Earle’s connection with the young girl with the club foot and her folksy Midwestern family kindles his burgeoning decency, but his prior instincts usurp them. He steals jewels so she can get an operation. A bad deed followed by a fine outcome. But how else was he supposed to help her? Even if someone would hire the notorious ex-con at a legitimate job, it would take years to save enough to help her. He is a man essentially consigned to a life of crime by a society that will never trust him, no matter how badly he wants to change.

It’s a truly masterful piece of acting by a man often dismissed for playing the same roles over and over. Of course he didn’t play the same roles (though even if he did, he still played them better than most so-called actors). He may have specialized in the tough guy with a streak of compassion, but he had a range that his filmography shows was much broader than that. I still say, despite arguments to the contrary, that he gave one of his best performances late in his career as the paranoid Navy commander in The Caine Mutiny (1954). But High Sierra was the first truly great performance he committed to film with many more to come over the next fifteen years or so.


Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Performances

Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming) – Best Supporting Actor of 1941

Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell watching his prey sleep.

Other Noteworthy Performances: Yoshizaburo Arashi (The 47 Ronin), Edward Arnold (Meet John Doe), Walter Brennan (Sergeant York), Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane), Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley), Charles Dingle (The Little Foxes), Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve), James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Charles Hawtrey (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy), Walter Huston (The Shanghai Gesture), Gene Lockhart (The Sea Wolf), Robert Morley (Major Barbara), Tatsuo Saito (Ornamental Hairpin), George Sanders (Man Hunt)


Laird Cregar oozes menace in his role as the obsessive police detective Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming. I’ve already talked about this early film noir gem so I won’t get into specifics of the plot. It is, however, important to note that Cregar steals the film from its two leads, Victor Mature and Betty Grable. Mature and Grable weren’t spectacular actors, but Cregar’s ability to conjure such a convincingly creepy character opposite the limited ability of these two is a testament to his skill.

Cornell’s contempt for the pair of young lovers is written for Cregar, but maybe he used his own personal jealousy for the two stars to focus his character’s contempt. After all, he could act circles around those two, yet they were stars.

This is all irresponsible conjecture of course. Cregar had just broken into pictures that year when Twentieth Century Fox plucked him from the stage and signed him to a contract. I Wake Up Screaming was one of his first assignments and he proved he had an impressive range after playing a sycophantic bull fighting critic (they exist?) in the Tyrone Power vehicle Blood and Sand. He just beginning to establish himself, but it is romantic to think of him being frustrated by the success of lesser actors and using that to fuel his approach to a rotten character like Ed Cornell.

Cregar faces off against Mature in "I Wake Up Screaming"

In I Wake Up Screaming, Cregar sheds the frivolity and superficiality of the bull fighting critic from Blood and Sand in favor of the cold relentlessness of Cornell, a man consumed by his obsession for pinning the murder of a young nightclub singer on promoter Frankie Christopher (Mature). Like I wrote in my original essay on this movie, initially it isn’t clear if Cornell actually believes Christopher is guilty, or if he doesn’t care one way or the other. All we know is he is after Christopher for the crime. He sadistically harasses his suspect with a deathly calm. He isn’t outraged by the murder, but by Christopher, who he is and what he stands for.

Why is he so certain? Because he isn’t above manufacturing evidence. Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil also planted evidence against suspects, but we knew he actually thought they were guilty. We aren’t so sure about Cornell.

Laird Cregar plays Cornell as a quiet and determined man. He doesn’t have to threaten with words; the menace is in his eyes and body language. I love the way he delivers casual, throw-away lines so deliberately but with a hint of playfulness, that they could only contain a threatening subtext. It’s a contained, economical performance. Cregar rightfully eliminated any theatrical flourishes, understanding that quiet and persistent evil is scarier than cheap tricks.

It’s safe to say that Cregar would be better remembered today if he hadn’t died of a heart attack only a few years after this movie was released. He left behind an impressive resume of fine work in the few years he made films. He was assigned mostly supporting roles in his short career, but had broken into a couple of leading roles at the end. I’m sure he will be mentioned at least as a noteworthy in future years that I will consider. As it is he gave the best supporting performance by an actor in 1941.


Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Performances

Time Keeps on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’, Into the Future: Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at LACMA

Big Ben makes several prominent appearances in "The Clock." The star?

Thursday afternoon I strolled into the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for an event. There aren’t many movies I consider an event, but Christian Marclay’s The Clock certainly qualifies. This is the kind of movie to which people bring pillows and picnic lunches and within a two or three radius of seats small groups of strangers can socialize and bond over the experience. The Clock is a 24 hour film that edits together scenes from hundreds of movies that have one thing in common: time. Or, more precisely, the presence of a time telling device.

The Clock is the only movie I know of in which you don’t have to check your watch. You always know what time it is because Marclay scrupulously culled scenes from the movies (and some television) in which a clock or watch or even a sundial are shown. Or maybe someone just tells another character what time it is. The film is meant to be played synchronized with the actual time in the theater so there is no beginning or end, just a progression of scenes where characters ask the time or check a watch or interact with a clock looming behind them.

There’s a certain giddiness you feel when watching the movie. I giggled at some of the editing tricks. Marclay edits together some footage to make it appear characters from different movies (often from different decades) interact and respond to each other. That isn’t a terribly difficult or creative maneuver, but it produced some worthy chuckles when Myrna Loy says something and Will Smith responds. What is even more impressive and makes anyone paying attention smile (in the beginning anyway) is the careful attention Marclay paid to getting the time right.

It’s remarkable how precise Marclay is. Whenever I decided to check the accuracy of the movie’s time, it was right on the button. If a character said it’s 10:31, I’d check my watch and it was 10:31. Some of the biggest laughs come when a clock is off, sometimes by several hours. After sometimes a few minutes of dialogue, as we become increasingly agitated by the apparent error, one of the characters will check his watch and then more the hands of the clock to the correct time: 6:07. Everyone laughs, the nonsensical tension relieved. And that is what passes for tension. Will Marclay get it right or will he slip up?

Often the time is prominently displayed....

Sometimes the clock is prominently displayed....

This is fun for a while, but after a few hours I settled down and just watched time move on. It’s amazing how omnipresent time is not just in movies, but in our lives. How it dictates where we are or what we do. Of course we don’t have to watch a 24 hour movie to get that, but there isn’t another experience that highlights this fact so pointedly. Also I don’t think the movie is intended to be watched in its entirety. This, I believe, was a passion project for Marclay and he intended it for everyone so he structured it in such a way that you can file in and out whenever you want, without fear of missing anything.

Of course I didn’t stay for the entire 24 hours, though I know there were several people there who intended to do so. (I don’t know if they succeeded.) I did, however, make it through 14 hours – an all night ordeal. I got there at 4:45 in the afternoon and left at 6:45 in the morning. (You don’t need to ask. Yes, I’m a bit loony.)

I was stunned at how many people showed up. The theater was nearly full when I got there and by 7 the theater was packed with a line around the building. It stayed packed until sometime after 12 when a slow but steady stream of people left. By two or three there were only about 50 people left, some awkwardly splayed out in those small, uncomfortable seats trying to get some sleep. In the morning more people showed up again, some of which left the night before, went home to get some sleep and came back.

.... and other times it's hovering in the background.

This mash up of unrelated movie clips should have been a bore, but hardcore movie lovers are entranced by it. You never know what’s coming next. One moment we will be seeing something from Halloween III and the next we see something from 8 ½. From The Awful Truth to Cocktail. From Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to In the Mood for Love. From Suspiria to I Am Legend. From Julie and Julia to Twin Peaks. From Murder on the Orient Express to Matlock. From Mrs. Miniver to Donnie Darko. All with one thing in common: making us hyper-aware of time.

This is something movies are meant to avoid. We aren’t supposed to care what time it is in a movie. We’re meant to forget and get caught up in the artificial world and its manipulation of time to suit its story. There are a few of scenes that Marclay reedits to actual time – so, for instance, if Steve McQueen is waiting for a suspect at the airport for 45 minutes, we periodically check in over that period of time, a scene that happens in about 30 second in Bullitt.

There is a structural irony to The Clock that I found delicious. On the one hand it is a series of short scenes, many no longer than a few second, none longer than a few minutes. This structure is well-suited to a populace with a short attention span. On the other hand it last 24 hours, a length of time that tax even the most attentive.

Checking watches: a common sight in "The Clock"

I’ve seen it suggested that someone should create a phone app that would play the movie on a constant loop under the clock of your phone. That sounds like a great idea (despite the legal and technical issues), but I think it would take away from the experience of the film. Watching a clip on your phone of on You Tube isn’t the same experience as seeing it with a large group of people in a theater. While The Clock succeeds in making its point about the oppressive presence of time, it also makes a stronger point about how much richer a cinematic experience is with a crowd. Watching a few of the clips from The Clock on You Tube doesn’t have the same impact as seeing it with a crowd of people laughing and cheering. The Clock shouldn’t be watched at home on DVD (the horror). It needs people and perfect synchronization. Otherwise it’s just another mash up of movie clips. (But if curiosity is killing you, you can see a five minute clip here.)

Yes, it’s a conceit, but it’s an ambitious conceit that has the potential to get people excited about movies again. Some call it a masterpiece, but I suggest it’s a masterpiece of ambition and obsession. What balls it takes to make a 24-hour movie and expect people to watch it. And then they do! Marclay has to get credit for just for that feat, but that it also turns out to be eminently watchable makes it closer to a masterpiece than I am willing to concede at this point.

Time: the real star of the film.

(Note: The Clock tends to be screened at museums and galleries, but I have no idea if there are any plans to show it anywhere in the near future. LACMA owns a permanent copy and this was their second screening, so hopefully Los Angeles will get another chance to see it and I’ll get a chance to see the daytime footage. I’ve checked online for screenings in other cities, but I can’t find anything. If anyone knows of an upcoming screening, please let us know.)

Alain de Botton did a nice piece on The Clock for BBC2. You can see it here.


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