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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2 Comments

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

  1. That sounds so fascinating! I wish I were still in LA — would have loved to go to the screening. The five minutes on YouTube were oddly riveting. Thank you for posting about this. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for future screenings.

    • It is oddly riveting. Someone wrote that this is one of the few long experimental films you will want to watch more than 10 minutes of. Let me know if you come across a screening anywhere.

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