Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the essence of film

Almost every critic and viewer has raved about Christian Marclay’s art film “The Clock” — see Roberta SmithJerry Saltz (who called it “maybe the best picture ever”), or this long profile in the New Yorker, just to name a few — but having recently watched 3+ hours of it at the Lincoln Center Atrium I would say the full breadth of Marclay’s spectacular achievement is still not sufficiently appreciated.

The central conceit of “The Clock” is compelling: Marclay has edited together scenes from other movies in which time is depicted (clocks and watches abound, but sometimes this theme is interpreted more loosely) and then assembled them into a 24-hour loop such that movie time and real time are in sync; so, for example, if a timer on screen shows it is 3.42pm and a bomb is set to explode then it will be 3.42pm outside the theater wherever the viewer is watching it.  This is interesting enough, so it is no surprise that most critics (see Roberta Smith, above) engage with the work largely as it relates to the question of time, with all its attendant anxieties and portents of death: in scene after scene, people are kept waiting or are running late, danger is ticking ever closer, life is passing and people are dying.  It is for this reason that Marclay has called “The Clock” a cinematic memento mori.

I believe “The Clock” is something else as well: the most powerful demonstration since Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (from 1925) of the way in which editing creates narrative meaning, which is the essential distinguishing feature of film as a form.  “The Clock” is an assemblage of scenes from other films but these are not edited together merely to reflect the proximity of the time in which they took place; instead, at least one and sometimes several other layers of connection are to be found.  Marclay draws out these interstitial meanings by the skillful editing of sound, which at times will end on the image cut but at other times will carry over into the following scene, blending with or entirely displacing its sound.  As a result, while “The Clock” is made of disparate parts and therefore has no single overarching narrative, so much meaning emerges from the juxtaposition of shots that the middle-aged couple next to me in the theater kept laughing or gasping or exclaiming aloud at each connection that Marclay found across scenes: impossible phone conversations constructed between actors who were not even alive at the same time, a joke set up and another punchline delivered, a young actress giving way to her older self — one gasp even reminded me that Donald and Kiefer Sutherland are related.  Sergei Eisenstein, in the famous Odessa steps sequence (above), created dramatic tension by using edits to extend the duration of the descent down the steps; Marclay has achieved the same effect by editing cinematic time, which is usually compressed, so that it unfolds in real time.  In this way, he has created nothing less than an exploration of the very nature of film.  No doubt, semiotics courses will be using it as a touchstone for generations to come.

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Here is a pirated video of a small section of “The Clock” though it hardly does it justice.  For one thing, given that it is an exploration of the nature of cinema actually watching it in a cinema is essential part of the experience.

Here is a legit video of a much earlier work by Christian Marclay called “Telephones” (from 1995) in which he began the exploration of film assemblage. It, too, hardly does justice to the much deeper and more layered experience of “The Clock.”

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One Response to “Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the essence of film”

  1. Venkat says:

    Loved how you reviewed his work! And especially the connections with editing as a narrative form.

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