Everyone I know who saw Christian Marclay’s Clock raved about it. The 24-hour sequence of film clips, most with a view of a clock face, is more action-packed than I’d imagined it would be. The focus is as much on the events surrounding the passage of time as on the instruments we use to measure that passage. In this way, The Clock isn’t about clocks at all, and often is only circumstantially related to temporality. What it’s really about is film technology, the nature of story telling, nostalgia, and the absurdity of life.
First things first: you don’t need to watch all 24 hours. I say this with the arrogance of someone who saw only two hours; and I say it even though I am constitutionally drawn to finishing things I begin, even though I believe there is a qualitative difference between doing something for a little time and doing that same thing for a long time. I recognize the irrationality of my confidence in grasping Marclay’s epic after experiencing only 8 percent of it. It is also true that some people insist that one period of Clock watching—10:00 am to noon, for instance—is qualitatively different from another—4:00 to 5:30 pm; or 1:00 to 2:00 am. Such natural enthusiams are proof of Marclay’s achievement, even if they are tinged, perhaps, with nostalgia; that is, influenced by the memories and narratives we fabricate as a fortress against the passage of time. But there is a way in which every period—whether period equals segment formed from connected scenes, hour, or length of time I sat in the theater—is always the same.
Everyone admires Marclay’s craft. He strings together thousands and thousands of moments from cinematic history, transforming fragments into a whole or, more precisely—since few witness the complete opus—into a series of “scenes” that somehow tell a story none of them originally set out to tell. He invites the sound from one fragment to extend seamlessly into the soundscape of the next. He conjures such segues with images as well, fading not into a double exposure, at least not during my two hours—11:15 am to 1:15 pm—but into a double exposure of associations. (And he goes beyond film editing techniques such as shot-countershot to produce this illusion of continuity from one fragment to the next.) Buttressing the whole composition is the beat, beat, beat of the clock—digital, analog, mechanical (even a sundial!)—whose relentless tick-tock presence comprises not only a visual metronome but also the false sense that we are experiencing the passage of time as linear, as complete, as fully accounted for. What a delightful fictional device! On its face, the clocks prove that time exists; beneath this facade, the seconds don’t add up, revealing the artificiality of the whole overlay of minutes and hours.
But mostly what Marclay achieves is a continuous recollection not of films we remember having seen—although there is plenty of that—but of films that we feel we’ve seen, even though we haven’t, as if the whole history of film comprised our collective (sub)consciousness. You and I are there. It appears to be no accident that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gallery in which The Clock plays through June 2 is a darkened theater, evoking something of what I imagine as the hushed, almost religious, original cinema experience. The ritual begins outside the sanctuary. Here, I experience a different sort of time. That’s part of the Clock experience too, the period of waiting. People wait for hours. Many will wait longer than I will have watched (the price of redemption, I guess). Eventually, I am called and guided by one of the two ushers ministering the sanctum to one of the pre-seating, standing-room places at the back of the theater. I hug the wall for 30 minutes with a dozen other initiates. Before us spreads not only the screen but also the heads of visitors silhouetted against grainy film clips. Finally, having withstood these trials of endurance, I am called for a second time. I shiver as I follow the darkened profile of my usher down one of the two aisles, past row after row of three-seat couches, toward the promise of the epiphany.