No question one of the most fascinating art instillations from last year was Christian Marclay's The Clock. His 24-hour film made up of clips featuring anything to do with time opens today in Ottawa, Canada at the National Gallery. Steve Vineberg of Critics at Large saw a good portion of it in Los Angeles last summer and wrote about it (speaking of time) just before the New Year.
The four-and-a-half-hour chunk of The Clock I sat through a couple of weeks ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts drew on many of the movies you might expect from their titles alone (both versions of 3:10 to Yuma,Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock with Judy Garland, The Big Clock, 88 Minutes, 24 Hr. Photo) or because of the significance of clocks as props in the plot (Orson Welles’s The Stranger; Laura, where the gun used to shoot the woman who turns out not to be Laura is hidden in an antique clock) or because (famously in the case of High Noon, foolishly in the case of the Johnny Depp thriller Nick of Time) the story unfolds in real time. It’s no surprise to hear Christopher Walken deliver his watch speech from Pulp Fiction or Orson Welles’s celebrated cuckoo-clock disquisition to Joseph Cotten in The Third Man, to see Harold Lloyd swinging from the clock in Safety Last or Charles Laughton as Quasimodo ringing the steeple bells in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some excerpts are just as pointed but more obscure: “The Song of the Metronome” from Second Fiddle (sung by Sonja Henie), David Bennent’s scream shattering the glass face of a clock in The Tin Drum. (There’s one moment I wasn’t delighted to relive.) Others belong to the range of suspense-thriller subgenres, in which time is the invisible abstract against which the characters are racing desperately. These include doomsday scenarios like Fail Safe; espionage melodramas like Hitchcock’s memorable Sabotage (where the complacent villain, played by Oscar Homolka, entrusts his wife’s unwitting little brother with a bomb embedded in a movie can, and the audience watches with escalating terror as his journey across London is impeded by one obstacle after another); crime stories like the tawdry but effective 5 Minutes to Live(in which a young Johnny Cash plays a hood entrusted to shoot randomly selected housewives whose husbands don’t come up with the cash to forestall him).
|Angie Dickinson killing time in Dressed to Kill|
The paradox of The Clock is that almost every moment announces the time yet we’re so engaged that time seems to leap forward while we’re watching. The four and a half hours don’t feel like an investment, the way they would in an epic or a miniseries. Partly that’s because of the game you play with yourself of trying to identify (either by recollection or by deduction) as many of the scenes as you can, but mostly it’s because Marclay prompts us to think about the role of time in the movies in so many ways. In two contrasting scenes from the opening half hour of Brian De Palma’s delectable murder mystery Dressed to Kill, we see the elastic quality of time. Arriving at the office of her psychiatrist (Michael Caine), Angie Dickinson’s Kate begs him not to keep her waiting because she has a busy day planned, but what his promptness buys her is an hour at a museum when time treads slowly and she can reflect. (Those who have seen Dressed to Kill can fill in the gap: what Kate is thinking about is her middle-aged sexual malaise and the dissatisfactions of her marriage to an insensitive man – the subjects of her therapy session, and the provocation for her allowing herself, moments later, to be picked up by a stranger at the museum.) Time is a cruel deceiver in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, where the alcoholic writer played by Ray Milland, who has waited impatiently for the pawn shops to open so that he can trade in his typewriter to bankroll his next binge, discovers that they’re all closed for Yom Kippur. Time weighs heavily on the teens in detention in the John Hughes comedy The Breakfast Club, who distract themselves by whistling “Colonel Bogey’s March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai.
|Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca|
Often, when you recognize a clip, it expands in your head to imply a more layered consideration of the role of time. That’s true of the scene from Laura, where the omnipresence of the title character’s antique clock, which lends a sinister classiness to her apartment, is also a reminder that Otto Preminger’s movie is a kind of ghost story in which the hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) falls improbably in love with the spirit of the woman whose murder he’s investigating and wonders momentarily if he’s gone crazy when she walks in the door. (The picture is best in the first half, before Laura shows up in the flesh and the ghost story becomes merely a clever convenience for catching a killer.) In The Innocents, the governess (an indelible performance by Deborah Kerr) happens upon some flowers on the grave of her predecessor and calculates from their freshness that one of her charges, the little girl Flora, has left them there. In this case, a character deduces (relative) time and arrives at an unsettling conclusion from the evidence of nature. But those of us who know the movie, a real ghost story adapted from Henry James’sThe Turn of the Screw, think beyond this reference to time to the way in which Jack Clayton’s unsettling movie suggests time standing still: the children (at least in the governess’s view) are still in thrall to their last governess and to her brutal valet lover, who are using them, from beyond the grave, as pawns in an unholy game.
|Deborah Kerr in The Innocents|
The iconic image of Tatsuya Nakadai, shoulders stooped, dragging his weary body through the Tokyo streets, in Kurosawa’s Ikiru means so much more when you think of the character, a dying bureaucrat, striving to redeem a wasted life with one good deed (cutting through red tape and surmounting governmental indifference to put through a children’s park in a poor neighborhood) before his cancer swallows him up. When Julie Delpy leads Ethan Hawke up the steps to her Paris apartment in Before Sunset, fans of Richard Linklater’s movie and the movie to which it is the sequel, Before Sunrise, recall the significance of time to these reunited sweethearts, who spent a glorious day and a half together in Vienna nine years earlier and haven’t seen each other since. Now he has a plane to catch, back to his unhappy marriage in the States, and if he makes it, any chance that the protagonists’ lives will intersect for more than a few hours will disintegrate. The clip reminded me of my own relationship with time as I watched Before Sunset when it first came out in 2004: since I was aware before sitting down of the film’s running time, I refused to allow myself to check my watch during its duration – I was so emotionally involved in the relationship of the two protagonists that I didn’t want to calculate the likelihood of his leaving her behind in the time remaining.
The clips come from every era. The intercutting between color and black and white, and occasionally between sound films and silents, recall another face of time: the history of the movies, which spans roughly a century plus a decade. (That aspect of The Clock makes it a perfect work for a movie season that brought us both Hugo and The Artist.) Writing in the 1960s about the experience of watching old movies on television, Pauline Kael bemoaned the way in which the disordered jumble removed them from the meaning their eras had conferred on them and seemed to equalize the remarkable and the valueless. But the omnipresence of the movies of our past in a mammoth anthology like Marquay’s can also have the effect of salvaging that past – of reminding us of the ways in which we filled it. (A clip of Julie Harris and Zorro David in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye, from the ethereal gold-filtered print that Warner Brothers withdrew early in its release but which I vividly remember seeing, brought back the face of the teenage friend I’d gone with and the look of the Montreal movie house where we saw it, brand-new at the time but torn down a couple of decades ago.)
|Act of Violence|
Officially The Clock is an installation, though it won the Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival and the Boston Society of Film Critics gave it the 2011 award for editing. The Boston MFA held onto it throughout the autumn; it was extended by popular demand through Christmas, and here, as in L.A. and presumably other cities, on a handful of days the entire film was projected, not just the part that fit between the museum’s opening and closing hours. I didn’t manage to get to it on any of those days (and I missed the full-length screenings in L.A.), so I didn’t get the opportunity to drop in at, say eleven o’clock at night and watch until the wee hours of the morning: the late-late-show version. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to buy our own copies, though at that point Marclay will no longer be able to call it an installation. But it’s already far more – a post-modern documentary on the nature of time, a cross-section of film history, a collage of the dreams of movie lovers.
- originally published on December 30, 2011 in Critics at Large.