Between the hours of 6pm on Saturday March 5 and 6pm on Sunday March 6 2011, cinephiles, art lovers, masochists and anyone with a little too much time on their hands were given the opportunity to take a lengthy gawp at Christian Marclay’s magnificent, 24-hour film collage, ‘The Clock’, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank.
Put simply, 'The Clock' is a meticulously crafted edit job comprising of thousands of painstakingly researched and culled movie clips, all of which display some indication of the time at which the on-screen action is occurring. The footage is then edited into a 24-hour timeline starting and finishing at 6pm, so when it’s, say, 11.35pm, the film gives us shots – in most cases just mundane cutaways or innocuous scene-setting moments – ‘occurring’ at that exact time. It's a chance to live a day of your life in Movieland.
I caught three hours of this extraordinary work, which plays like a super-sized amalgam of Thom Andersen’s smash-and-grab clip reel essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, and the nightmare of Warhol’s intentionally unwatchable Empire, an eight-hour, slo-mo capture of the Empire State Building at night. In basic terms, it’s like block-booking an afternoon off to muck about with YouTube’s shuffle function. Like the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, part of its beauty is the sheer difficulty of trying to pin down just what it all means.
But is it art? Your gut instinct is to say, well of course it is: it’s being shown predominantly in gallery spaces, it’s constructed like a big, moving assemblage of found footage and it asks us to reflect on how the mundane episodes of daily life are filtered through the mind of the filmmaker then writ large on the screen.
But at the same time, part of its success is that it’s also extremely cinematic, especially in the consummate way that Marclay seamlessly splices together footage, often having the soundtrack from one clip bleeding over into others, and sometimes even building mini-narratives or thematic riffs (one segment I saw collected together shots of people hitting alarm clocks). It’s constructed so smoothly that it even adds to the illusion that this mountain of film fragments was actually destined at one point to come together in a single work.
The clocks may show us what time it is in the world of the film, but the various styles of the clock faces themselves offer a neat shorthand for those wanting to date and (to a lesser extent) place the source clip. And from the bit of the film I saw (though this may need to be confirmed by someone who’s seen more of it), it also gives an idea of how filmmakers across the globe deal with the notion of time on film. English-speaking titles tended to offer a more literal representation, with characters looking at watches, or filmmakers subtly placing a timepiece within the frame to root the action in a basic context. Perhaps the dearth of clips from older Asian films (within the segment I saw) is suggestive of the muted, more intangible way those directors deal with time, perhaps through discussions of age or loaded visuals.
'The Clock' also acts as a great leveller in the way it honours all genres and styles of cinema. Shots of scratched sepia silents segue into John Candy forced into an awkward bed share with Steve Martin in Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Film fans are even given the option of disconnecting themselves entirely from trying to figure out the meaning of this madness and just playing a long, long game of 'Guess the movie'. It even offers the ultimate challenge to those hardened cinephiles who have ticked off such labour-intensive titles as RW Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (931 mins), Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (451 mins) or Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (773 mins).
'The Clock' will screen at the MCA Mar 29–Jun 3, including 24-hour screenings every Thursday.