“You Can’t Beat The Clock”: Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper
Christian Marclay: The Clock at Paula Cooper Gallery
January 21 to February 19, 2011
534 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 255-1105
The proverbial sign of a good movie is that you don’t notice time going by. In the sublimely bizarre cinematic experience that is Christian Marclay’s The Clock such obliviousness is, literally, impossible. Time is omnipresent. The entire conceit of this 24-hour video sampling is that the passage of time, recorded in myriad timepieces, constitutes the narrative thrust in every filmic moment. And in the 24-hour screenings that take place weekends through the video’s run at Paula Cooper Gallery, the time on screen is the actual time.
The gallery has been transformed to an approximation of a classic movie theater, sans smoke and cigarette girls (though Paula Cooper herself served as usherette during my visit), with plush sofas for the stalls and pleated drapes insulating the sound and isolating the big screen. It was the first time in quite a while that this viewer stood in line for 40 minutes to see a film, free or otherwise. I arrived at 11.15 last night in the company of fellow Review Panelists Blake Gopnik, Elisabeth Kley, and Carol Diehl, making our way from the National Academy where Diehl had mentioned Marclay in connection with the sampling piece in Tracey Moffatt’s show at Tyler Rollins, unflatteringly contrasting Moffatt’s skill, complexity, and profundity to Marclay’s
A platoon of interns culled potential clock face moments from their allotted viewing materials (not a bad way to spend a summer) allowing the director/editor, Marclay, to splice together thousands of film clips that occur in specific minutes of a day or night. Every genre is represented, different historic periods depicted, footage of contrastive vintages (color, black & white, silents) rendered seamless. Although the films are mostly Hollywood, other languages are spoken, too. Movie buffs will recognize many a star and scene (I yearned for a playlist that would magically feed into my Netflix account) but there was little anxious sucking-in of air to be heard in the gallery/auditorium as spectators tried to remember the what or who of each cinematic remembrance. Instead, the montage established its own rhythm, and acceptance set in. And yet, as with any good collage, each element retained the integrity of its appropriated source while learning to operate within its new constituent body.
The reason we had such a wait to get in probably had to do with the fact that, once in at 11.15 pm, few would tear themselves away before midnight, as if waiting for an eclipse. That, however, imposes the logic of a narrative arc, of a climax, on what is, instead, an epic of irresolution. The whole movie has you at the edge of your seat in expectation of what you soon realize is not going to happen, the completion of a phrase. Another thought as to what kept the crowd, keeping us out, in, is that up to midnight the genres would likely entail much eschatological sci-fi, albeit it melded with Cinderella romances; we did get in at 12.05 am in time for pumpkin hour, as lovers begin to wilt, serial killers strike, and late-night heists get underway. I sat it out until 2.05 am, by which time insomnia and conjugality were beginning to take over (on screen only alas), although genre eclecticism was still the order of the day (night.)
There were plenty of moments of humor, some pristine and others contrived via juxtaposition. Woody Allen made hourly wisecracks, telling a countess in Love and Death who congratulates him on his lovemaking skills that he gets to practice a lot on his own, and later, in Manhattan Murder Mystery, complaining to an anti-social telephone caller that not everyone is up at 1am watching the porn channel. But the mood is more often somber or sinister, with stirring music, sometimes dialog too, carrying from one clip to its muted successor.
Telephones, incidentally, are the second subject of The Clock, constantly ringing, at least in my two nocturnal hours, understandably as characters would be trying to sleep, and would need to be rudely awoken lest viewers do the same, as one might in Warhol’s Sleep for instance. Telephones were also, however, the motif in his similarly sampled 2007 video of that title, so maybe he had some left over footage on his digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.
It is weird to stick around wondering what is going to happen next when you know what will happen next—it will be a minute later. That happens in all movies, you might say, only in two senses it doesn’t. Firstly, your mind is on better things than time. Secondly, in “real” movies time jumps all over the place, lurching forward, flashing back, ever subservient to narrative. This Frankenstein monster of a movie (and two versions of Frankenstein clipped their ways into my two hours) is fanatically scrupulous in its minute-by-minute progression, a paean to pace. Correction: not pace, beat. And Marclay doesn’t miss a beat. In instants where it seems he has gone back a minute it is in fact to show the passage on a given clock to the next (we can allow a clock to be seconds late in a movie which isn’t). As a character in a vintage British labor-relations comedy tells his already despondent apprentice, “You can’t beat the clock.”
Marclay’s marathon is a merciless object lesson in Henri Bergson’s distinction of real time and duration. In non-Marclay circumstances, there is an acute difference between time as experienced by moviegoers and time as depicted (compressed, manipulated) by moviemakers. Narrative and mood and investment in the fate of characters and the desire to stay with the stars you love keep you in a place and state where time stands still. Or rather, to avoid clichés as one ought when philosophizing, where time has its own logic – reel time, let’s call it. In Marclay, you lose the actual narratives from which his wrested clips are bleeding chunks. Although unexpected delights of surrogate narrative do offer themselves in fractional compensation, the conceptual purpose of challenging unexamined expectations of time seems the primary purpose of Marclay’s project.
Adopting Bergson, the great if forbidding philosopher of cinema Gilles Deleuze drew a distinction between two temporal conceptions of movement in time, what he calls privileged instants and any-instants-whatever. The bizarre thing in Marclay is that the epitome of the latter, arbitrary but relentless markers of time, become exemplars of the former, moments of poise, drama, accent and focus. The Clock is a minute-by-minute speedball of enervating expectation. Despite its relentlessly cruel denial of narrative satisfaction, the fact that you can only endure it, you get hooked in the moment, as you watch, craving to know, if not what will happen next then at least what will be used next, and how it might relate or contrast with what has happened just before. A door is opened. Which other building will it lead into, and which other character will walk through?