Someone who loves film cannot help but become awash in nostalgia within a few minutes of entering the warm embrace of Christian Marclay’s The Clock. In August I went to the Walker Art Center for a weekend. (Thanks to my wife’s kindness, I traveled alone for a weekend without distraction while she tended our flock). All told I spent 18 hours with The Clock over 2 days. Duration is part of story, nostalgia is part of the story and the circumstances surrounding The Clock is the other part. The Clock may now be Marclay’s best known work but the story started much earlier.
Marclay is polyamorous with media and art form. His work was born in an era where commodification and classification was rightly shunned. Pre-indie, proto-punk and post-pop, Marclay trashed record needles and vinyl for small crowds, made screechy atonal noise and built an entire practice out of bargain bin sounds. Unloved records, or at least the ones discarded for new media, became so much grist for the mill. Then came the collaged records, record sleeves and eventually the blank record Album Without a Cover to be left out, accumulating dust and scratches. It’s canyons of virgin vinyl filling up with found sound, pops and cracks. Orchestration by space dust and finger grease.
Marclay is a collagist, a composer and a sonic democrat. Where Cage often let the viewer become the orchestra, Marclay lets the popular sounds of recent years come back to ears transformed. When my dentist drills my teeth to Genesis and Dionne Warwick, I am confronted with an experience that occupies the same space as Marclay’s performance. This is a compliment (not to my dentist).
In his monograph, Marclay makes a collage / mash-up artist statement, taking quotes from 12 or so catalog essays and interviews to manufacture his words from his own past words. This self-plagiarism is economical and brilliant. Film collage entered his practice later, almost 20 years after ditching MassArt to immerse himself in punk rock in the East Village. Telephones, 1995 is a wonderful brief collage of telephone scenes set up like a game that a film theorist would play with his students.
The Clock is a lumbering beast that eats time and spits out the vision of time in film. The Clock, so heavily dependent upon everything else in the world, is a rare thing. The Clock is 24 hours of film, edited around the central concept that illustrating the passage of time is so integral to the act of making movies larger than their actual length, but exactly enough to remain engaging and with purpose. Better yet, clocks ticking, candles and cigarettes burning and the setting and rising of the sun are the only things that work as visual cues of times passage for an audience of cinema in the last 100 years.
Still, like anything that requires endurance and plenty of leisure time, The Clock is a hobby as much as it is art. Spending 18 hours with The Clock revealed things to me about the work, but nothing about myself. I had no great epiphany, nor did I expect one. What I saw and continue to see, is a brilliant response to the way we watch.
The ebb and flow of The Clock’s tide is relentless, but not humorless. At one points my notes read “SO MUCH (or should it be many) PETER SELLERS!” 4 decades of James Bonds’ use their watches to escape harm, Big Ben explodes and reappears unharmed minutes or hours later and men dangle (always Men, huh) from the arms of massive clockworks on obelisk towers. High noon comes, but late and midnight rings loud and strong for 2 solid minutes. The massive quantity of cuts, sounds and characters fill hours with so much material that the time both slows and speeds up without you noticing. This phenomena of time loss was unbelievable to me considering that I was constantly looking at the time.
Durational performance has been both lionized and attacked in recent years, but Marclay found a way around that. His Clock is neither performance nor pure film object. It is a machine that drives itself. Local time matches the film’s time, people come and go as they please and you choose your level of participation. I watched people sleep through The Clock (I did this often between 2am and 3am, then rallied until 4:30). The category of Durational film includes very few examples at this point: Warhol’s Films, Empire being the most famous, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho and the true documentary object: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Marclay’s is more engaging, more fluid and certainly more nostalgic.
The time it takes to fall in love with the girl, escape the trap, wake up in a strange place only to exclaim some four letter word and then be right back where you started is a blink. The Clock is a nostalgia machine, though Marclay didn’t built it the way we watch it. His general disinterest in film has been expressed and he chose his moments based on Time and context rather than important films, so we are told in his 2012 New Yorker profile. I don’t entirely believe this. I will cite only one example to define my hypothesis; an early scene in Casablanca where Sam brings Rick (Bogart) the note from Ilsa that she will not be making the last train (5pm) out of Paris. Rain falls like tears, washing the ink into the paper and the two old friends board that last train. Bogey’s stunned silence prevails and we are reminded that those 2 minutes are more than important, they are sacrosanct. It is the only long stretch of unadulterated film that stuck with me.
Ben Lerner’s latest book 10:04 is a piece of fiction and near-miss fiction. The now common term “meta” applies roundly to the subject and style. Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation popularized this type of fact/fiction folding in on itself and reforming like a Jacob’s Ladder. He references seeing The Clock here in New York and uses it’s collagist ethos to create his next story, a story then published in The New Yorker (in real life and in the book). That story is sold to the highest bidder as a book proposal and then becomes our 10:04 (a reference to The Clock). This is a long way around to saying that art inspires art, and that Marclay clearly has created a larger whole with his machine.
The Walker Art Center showed The Clock all summer. I went to visit them the last week in August for their final all night screening. Midwestern hospitality prevailed and I was welcomed, my fresh membership card in hand, allowing me early access at 9am Saturday. My AirBnB hosts, themselves documentary filmmakers, were confused about the origins of The Clock. Though I chose their home for it’s 0.9 mile distance from the Walker, they were unsure why I would keep watching a movie for a day. Their combination of southern grit and midwestern aw-shucks-helpfulness took me as a curiosity until I explained the task at hand. They were not outwardly dismissive, but when the subject veered towards their films they explained the trials of their films about helping the deserving communities that lack social services in their area. I got their point.
The Clock is fun, engaging and long. It is a mirror image of us, in the homes and dreams we commit to video and celluloid. Whatever you take from it, The Clock’s power is yours. Every bit of the history that I carry around in my head is tied up with movies and TV and Marclay gets every neuron jumping. The sensory assault of flipping channels is old news, but not dissimilar to this 24 hour film. Like Ben Lerner, my smile grew as Marty McFly raced toward his lightning bolt at 10:04 on that summer day in 1955. Catching lightning, the only way to travel through time back to the future. It may sound cliche, but catching lightning was exactly what happened here.
I want to thank you all for reading. Atlas Newsletter began to start a conversation, so please share your thoughts.
-Jeff Bergman October 2014