The Clock, Part 1: Introduction

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it is played. Over the next few months, I will be attempting to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

A First Glance at The Clock

Part 1 of this series. This article was written after viewing 13:55–14:30 of The Clock on 16 October 2018.

See also Part 2 in which I watch around 3 hours of the afternoon.

A time to be born, a time to die…

The Set-Up

A few weeks ago, on the 27th September, I discovered (by accident) that The Clock was back. My sister was visiting from New York, and on our obligatory walk along the Southbank I thought I’d show her the architecture of the Tate Modern. I had explicitly planned not to spend much time there, as we were on a bit of a schedule, but just to peek into its formidable space. When I saw posters for The Clock, however, I became very excited, and asked her whether she would be willing to watch it for a few minutes. Naturally she acquiesced, as I had been the one insisting that we ought not to stay long. In the end we stayed an hour. I was excited, and she liked it too. The Clock was back!

The Return

By back, I mean that I had seen an hour or two, circa midnight, when I had first become aware of its existence, sometime in 2011, at the Hayward Gallery. That experience was sufficiently striking that I spoke of it often, but, if I recall correctly, it was a short run, and I went near its end. I wanted to see more, but (like many of its characters) I had run out of time.

Now, in 2018, I had discovered it at the start of a new run. Too late, sadly, to see Christian Marclay himself discuss it — I had missed his talk by a mere three days — but with plenty of time for repeat visits, as it was only September, and I had until 24th January 2019 to watch as much of it as I could.

It took me a few weeks to get back, as well as some time to fully resolve that I was going to attempt to see all of it. This past Tuesday, 16th October, I returned with a friend at 13:55 to the theatre inside the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik building. We had been delayed by thoughtlessly bringing coffees, which were not allowed. We took this time to have a catch-up outside the theatre, before approaching the guards again, empty-handed this time.

Weekend!” I whispered excitedly, referring to the 1967 Godard film that happened to be on the screen as we entered the darkened entrance, where people awkwardly tried to work out whether they could stand there (they couldn’t) or if not, where they might go (it’s none too clear, but you can either seek out seating in the dark, or stand against the side or back walls). This was the first of many mutterings I had, surely meaningless to anyone but myself, as I was bombarded by the fast cuts of The Clock, and struggled to remember whether or where I had previously seen what I was now seeing.

The Frustration

With literally thousands of films featured in quite quick succession, this struggle is a familiar feeling when watching The Clock. It leaves you in a perpetual state of recall, knowing that you have seen this somewhere, before — or have you? Sometimes you instantly recognise an actor, but can’t work out whether or not you have seen the film. At other times the scene is so iconic that you get the instant gratification of knowing exactly what you’re beholding: the pleasure of recognition. However private and (in some hours) rare the experience — and I’ll admit I’ve been sometimes unable to resist whispering the title to myself — it is eminently satisfying, and quite a large part of what makes watching The Clock so addictive. (I don’t, for example, particularly like Weekend. I was just excited to know what it was.)

But recognition is rare. More often, perhaps, for the film buff, is what might perhaps be called the Frustration of The Clock, that certainty that you have seen something before, but cannot place it. Often you are given fewer than ten seconds to work it out; sometimes a cut is less than a second long, which can lead to a feeling of being on a perpetual, sometimes overwhelming, hunt. Most commonly of all, however, the scene, however old, is utterly new. I estimate that about 80% of the footage is footage that I’ve never seen. And I’ve seen about a thousand films in the past decade.

If you find the Frustration as frustrating as I do, you may be tempted, as I was, to scribble notes in the dark. Sometimes I write down the name of a film: “Primer.” Other times I’m less certain: “Fatal Attraction? Gun Crazy? Bergman? Twin Peaks?” Most often, I write something entirely cryptic: “Montgomery Clift in the rain,” “helicopter,” “domestic scenes,” “Matthew Broderick pop quiz,” “How is it possible to lose in seven moves?” or “Don’t tie me up.” At other times it’s a list of names: Steve McQueen, Diane Keaton, Toby Maguire, Peter Dinklage, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Paul Giamatti, Lee Van Cleef. I thought these notes would be instrumental in writing about The Clock, but just as the torrent of sequences overwhelms you as you view it, it overwhelmed my ability to make meaningful notes. Still, it’s less annoying to other viewers than whispering to myself I suppose.

Incidentally, I am not the only one to have faced this wish to document, however inept my attempts to do so: there is a Fandom wiki which attempts to crowdsource the films featured, since there apparently exists no official list of where the footage has been found.

The Suspense

Alongside the Frustration comes the Suspense of The Clock. Although some of the films include clocks only incidental to their action, more often, especially at the half-hour and the hour, the films themselves call explicit attention to the time. A character is racing against the clock, a school bell rings, an alarm goes off, a train departs. This means that the montage has a sort of natural ebb and flow, with the hours, half-hours, and (to some extent) quarter-hours obviously offering a much greater variety of source material from which to pick, and a consequent frenzy of activity, compared to the relative doldrums in between. At 14:17, if a film calls attention to the time, it is precisely because that time is arbitrary — or else a clock merely happens to be in the background of a shot.

Overall, however, the effect of the film, even with its many mundane and leisurely sequences, is one of Suspense. The majority of characters are aware of time and concerned with it, fighting against it, as against a deadline, or trying to prolong it, as in an afternoon affair. Sometimes they are self-consciously trying to freeze it in place: two long sequences that we saw in the short span of the afternoon were the placing of a fifty-year time capsule in the film Knowing, and the playful but harrowing destruction of clocks in Hook. The suspense can sometimes be broken by the humour of the time; while remarking on the time within the source film is unlikely to amuse, within the context of The Clock such a casual remark can become hilarious. But overall the tone is serious. Though the afternoon is less likely to be suspenseful than other times of the day, even at 2pm, The Clock remains riveting and suspenseful.

The Lapse

The Clock has many lapses of time, strobing and telescopic time effects, and plays with them so cleverly that it would be hard to enumerate them all. One is simply the fact that you commonly see a recent mediocre film cut by a timeworn classic, or an iconic scene from a blockbuster fade into the haze of an obscure B-film. It differs from the experience (largely unknown to the YouTube generation) of channel surfing, in that every scene, because artistically selected, and artfully arranged, seems to have some significance. As a result of the volume of mundane or unrecognisable scenes, it never quite feels like a “Best of” compilation, but because several of the scenes are iconic, there is an element of this “Greatest Hits” feeling.

Often the characters race against the clock, or suffer as time ticks by, but because of the principle that The Clock must air any footage only at the appointed time, these cuts are spaced out for the viewer. In other words, a character in a film might be shown awaiting an agonising hour by a series of fades taking ten seconds in the original film; these cuts, however, will be experienced by the viewer over the course of a real hour. Similarly races against bombs or other countdowns are drawn out into a much greater length of time for the viewer of The Clock than they were for the viewer of the original films.

Another way in which the time telescopes in and out is that famous and long-lived actors, whether John Travolta or Isabelle Hupert, may appear more-or-less as they do today, but this may be followed by the same actor in a sometimes shockingly young guise. The ages of famous faces waver and vacillate, gaining pounds and losing years abruptly. One often finds one has forgotten how beautiful they once were, or, conversely, how old they later became. This effect too is disorientating, and amounts to some kind of commentary on the nature of multimedia and reproduction, on which I shall have to reflect more in future instalments.

The Dream

The flexibility of age, and the dissociative effect of frequent cutting, combine with the Frustration at being unable to place vividly familiar scenes. This can lead to a sort of hypnotic surrender to The Dream of the Clock. Because the cuts are frequently put into dialog with one another, or otherwise arranged associatively, the whole experience of watching it often has the hallmarks of a dream. Familiar scenes merge with new ones, in a sort of kaleidoscopic pattern, from which one does not awake until one emerges blinking back into the Tate.

The Flight

A clock reading “Tempus Fugit” (time flies) appeared briefly in one scene that we saw in the afternoon, and this, too, is a fundamental feature of The Clock. Time flies as you watch it. The addictive nature of trying to place sequences, the near-perpetual suspense, its fleeting dreamlike quality, and the beauty and strangeness of the footage all conspire to make time evaporate before your eyes. The effect is so disruptive as to make you wonder how long you have been here.

This, of course, is ludicrous, as literally every scene you see tells you precisely what time it is. Thus there is a paradox within the film: somehow the omnipresence of time, and attention to it, makes it disappear. This effect is something like the one observed in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, “By the Ocean of Time,” which examines how extravagantly one’s perception of time can vary over time, and especially how it can fly or stand still when confronted by different circumstances. “I could have spent hours in there” my friend said as we left, and I felt the same. In fact, that is exactly what I have resolved to do.

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