“The Clock” gets under your skin. Whether you’re awake or asleep, whether you’re watching or looking away, you can sense its presence, feel its focus. You look at your own clock and wonder, what’s on that screen at this exact moment?
Though it’s been ticking away in its little room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since mid-May, you may not have heard of “The Clock.” Unlike London and New York, where crowds lined up as late as 2 a.m. in the winter cold to catch a glimpse of this wonder, “The Clock” hasn’t intoxicated this movie-centric city the way it should. But if you’re a person who cares about film, you shouldn’t even think of missing it.
Even though Christian Marclay’s art installation piece won the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale, it may be best viewed not through the lens of high art but as an exhilarating and intoxicating moviegoing experience, an unintentional love note to movies, how they work and what they do, that immediately goes to your head and makes you giddy. As with the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
A collage of clips from literally thousands of films, foreign and domestic, silent and sound, with some TV shows thrown into the mix, “The Clock” is structured minute by minute around a 24-hour cycle. This may sound like a trivialization of the cinematic experience, a random compilation of bits and pieces from complex and thoughtful works, but it’s quite the opposite.
Playing every day during museum hours at LACMA through the end of July, with a grand finale 24-hour screening scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. July 28, “The Clock” in fact encourages us, in the most pleasant way possible, to experience the ways the medium draws audiences in, encourages us to think bigger thoughts and examine what it is about film that commands our devotion, our attention and our love.
This is how “The Clock” works. In every city it plays, the screenings are synchronized to local time. At least once in every minute, there is a shot of a timepiece of some type showing that precise minute, both a.m. and p.m. versions. So one way to look at “The Clock” is as the world’s most expensive time-telling apparatus, the only movie ever to keep real time 24 hours a day.
After the hour and minute is shown, what does “The Clock” do with the rest of its allotted time? Mostly it lets the scenes around the clock shot play out a bit, but sometimes it offers quotes about time (“Time sure flies,” “Oh my God is that the time?” “Do you know what time it is?”) as well as scenes that deal with time in a more general way: Orson Welles’ Swiss cuckoo clock speech from “The Third Man,” Laurence Olivier eulogizing poor Yorick in “Hamlet,” the 12-year-old boy unknowingly carrying a time bomb on a London bus in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage.”
It’s for this reason that Jonathan Romney, writing in the British film journal Sight & Sound, shrewdly compared this presentation to another compilation with a specific theme, Thom Andersen’s exceptional “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” Like that film, Romney says, “ ‘The Clock’ is poised between scholarly focus and fetishistic obsession.”
The first thing you react to when you experience “The Clock” is that amazing specificity, a tight focus on time and timepieces. On the most basic level, you’ll be nonplussed at the variety of instruments shown: cuckoo clocks, digital ones, wrist watches, sundials, grandfather clocks, ones in banks, train stations and village towers, even multiple shots of London’s magisterial Big Ben.
Sometimes the clock face takes up the entire frame, enabling us to notice the almost infinite number of brands: Elgin, Hamilton, IBM, General Electric, Benrus, Timex, Rolex, Vedette, Western Union, Patek Philippe and more. Sometimes the clock is central to a scene (Robert Redford’s home run hitting the stadium clock at 4:40 p.m. in “The Natural,” Jack Nicholson waiting till exactly 5 p.m. to leave his office for the last time in “About Schmidt”), sometimes it is way in the back (a scene from France’s “Zazie Dans Le Metro” has a clock on a distant shelf), but it is always there.
Creator Marclay has said he considers his work to be “a gigantic memento mori,” but it also serves to point out how central time is to how movies play on screen. Watching “The Clock” underlines that time is used not only to build tension but to set a scene, delineate character, add urgency to a situation. Time invariably matters to the people in a film, so it matters to the audience as well.
Because none of the films in “The Clock” is identified by name, trying to pick out where those clips come from, for instance recognizing a characteristically languid pan of a wall clock from Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood For Love,” is one of the initial pleasures of the installation. Similarly, among the shocks are glimpses of actors such as Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall and Colin Firth when they were younger than we ever remember them being.
But the more time you spend with the installation, the less that recognition seems to matter. It turns out that not knowing the origin of a particular scene, say the arresting sequence of a young girl throwing a series of ringing alarm clocks out of a window, not only doesn’t detract from the pleasure it gives us, it may add to it.
One of the things “The Clock” emphasizes is that a key joy of moviegoing is the pleasure of surprise, of not knowing what’s coming next. Of course these clips are not thrown together completely randomly, they are linked by sound designer Quentin Chiappetta’s deft work with the original sound, and by the kind of clever editing that has a man look out of a window in one film to catch a glimpse of a scene from another film entirely. But the element of the unexpected is never far away.
More than that, after watching hours of “The Clock” the feeling is inescapable that its most basic lure is precisely its pure movieness, the way it functions as a compendium of the factors that always draw us into what happens on the screen. What we are watching is essentially a seemingly endless series of tiny movies, one after another, movies that we are powerless to resist.
“The Clock” underscores both how central stories are to our moviegoing pleasure and how instantly the requisite incident and character can be created on screen -- how little, frankly, is required to pull us in. All it takes is the merest glimpse of engaged people, the briefest snatch of overheard conversation and, like dabblers in an especially powerful drug, we are hooked.
These sensations are intensified by “The Clock’s” habit of thrusting us into the middle of a situation, with no idea, unless we’ve already seen the film, of exactly what is happening. Caught up in the fragments, we feel the rush of trying to get up to speed, trying to figure out what it all means. Context, as it turns out, is not all that important. Whoever they are, whatever they’re doing, we just want to see what these big-screen people are up to. With the movies, ‘twas ever thus.
With so many stories so tantalizingly told, “The Clock” has the power to overwhelm the unwary. Coming out of the installation just after me was a young man who’d clearly had no idea what he was getting into when he walked in. “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he said to his girlfriend."I’ve just got to come back. This is insane.”
Though LACMA owns “The Clock” (it was purchased by the gift of Steve Tisch), it’s unclear what the museum will do with it in the future. There’s been art world speculation that LACMA might consider projecting it on an outdoor tower, turning the installation into an actual clock.
The museum denies that that is a possibility and that’s a good thing because outdoor projection goes against the innate nature of “The Clock.” We’re talking movies here, pieces of time, and if you’re not showing them in a dark room on a big screen, you’re not showing them at their best. And the best is what this remarkable piece absolutely deserves.
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Noon-8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; noon-9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Wednesday.
Contact: (323) 857-6000 or firstname.lastname@example.org