Sunday, July 6, 2014

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010

After all the excitement, the lines to get in, the prize at Venice in 2011, the world’s biggest art museums’ rush to buy a print, I was skeptical of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010). Can a collage film be that provocative? Even if it does last 24 hours? It was with some reluctance that I joined the line at midnight last Wednesday at the Pompidou Centre to see thousands of fragments of film, each of which features a clock, a watch, a precise indication of time, edited together to correspond to real time as it passes. It’s a novel idea, but would there be any depth to the Marclay’s installation? What was there beyond the technical wizardry demanded by the challenge of the editing? It’s true, that as an example of film editing, even though it is single channel video, Marclay’s The Clock is a masterpiece. And it’s a masterpiece because it is so much more than a collation of fragments.

All the publicity surrounding The Clock claims that the fragments are taken from the history of cinema. But that’s not entirely true. At least, in the three of the 24 hours I saw, the films were 80-90% American and of those, 90% were Hollywood and 100% were fiction. There were the odd clips from Italy, France, Britain, none from Latin America, none from Bollywood, and only two from Japan out of the whole of twentieth century Asian cinema. To be sure, the choice of clips reflects the video that Marclay makes: everything about the images’ editing is propelled by the logic of a Western narrative. This is not a criticism, it’s an observation, but an important one if we are to appreciate one of the most interesting things about the installation.

Marclay creates desire across the cut in a way that accentuates the very impetus of Hollywood narrative film. Narrative is designed to keep us watching, keep us mesmerized, keep us waiting to see what is going to happen next. It does this through suspense, through unfinished actions, partial stories, through manipulations in time and space that withhold and then reveal information. Classical film editing is designed to give us the illusion of knowledge, but really, it keeps us engaged by withholding, thus stirring the desire to know what happens next, or in the end. Marclay’s reiteration of this across 24 hours is perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Clock: the audience is kept in front of these fragments for hour upon hour. And yet, no story, scene, encounter, conversation, movement is ever finished. In fact, we don’t even see its beginning. We just see the presence of the clock. Often Marclay will tease the audience, further accentuating desire across the edit, by returning to a scene after an interlude of another scene from another film. This return adds to the desire across narrative that is already aroused by his use of the cut away from one scene to another. Thus Marclay never satisfies desire, but skillfully keeps it alive, perpetuating it from one fragment to the next, and ultimately, one 24 hours to the next.

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Another thing I found fascinating, was the cultural differences that were revealed in the three hours I watched. At 1am and 3am American teenagers are having sex, classical heroines are being woken in the middle of the night by absent husbands, or anonymous callers, Italian divas are just arriving home, even going out for the night, while the French are cooking late night dinner. Perhaps people in China sleep at this time which would account for the absence of films from that culture, an absence presumably motivated by the absence of clocks or watches in the films themselves. Of course, Marclay has constructed these cultural differences through editing, nevertheless, they struck me as accurate visions of the different cultures represented. Time in film, so I discovered, is also determined by gender and sexuality: In the early hours, American women are typically at home, irrespective of their age, men are usually in public spaces, unless of course they are Woody Allen having a nervous breakdown or John Turturro trying to write in Barton Fink.

In Marclay’s film, the cinema becomes a clock, reduced to its most basic element of time passing. That said, and this is where Marclay is commanding, the cinema as clock is undone when we remember that the time depicted is real time, that it is the same as the world we are living in. As Marclay’s film does this, the precipice between illusion and reality is removed, thereby questioning the whole medium of film,  its precise status as representation. I am sure that if I were to return to The Clock — if I had time — I would find other elements to hook me, to keep me there, and to bring me back again and again.  

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