The hottest New Year’s Eve ticket in New York, or at least, the hardest to score: Christian Marclay’s epochal installation piece “The Clock,” showing continuously at the Museum of Modern Art, from 10:30 AM, December 31, through 5:30 PM, January 1. (The piece, which is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection and is up at the museum through January 21, will be shown in its entirety on three successive weekends: January 4-6, January 11-13, and January 18-20.)
The great paradox of “The Clock” is that it uses the conventions of commercial narrative cinema (the very stuff of time-killing “escapism”) to tell time in real time and thus create an audience of self-aware spectators. The experience of watching a movie is forcibly literalized. Having seen an afternoon’s worth of the installation when it was at the Paula Cooper gallery in early 2011 (and written a bit about it in “Film After Film”), I availed myself of MoMA press preview to see a chunk of the morning material and make some further observations.
Drawing on decades of movies, “The Clock” is a succession of manufactured privileged moments (or as Film Comment used to call them in its annual year-end survey, “moments out of time”). Getting the references is certainly fun and requires an active viewer. Some connections have to be grasped in an instant — or not at all. In this sense, “The Clock” is the ultimate cult film and, as Umberto Eco wrote of “Casablanca,” it is not a movie but the movies.
There is no narrative (other than that of “The Clock”’s own mechanism) but there is a continual sense of drama. The close-up of a timepiece is in itself a signifier of suspense but, thanks to the logic of the narratives that Marclay appropriates, “The Clock” has a natural ebb and flow. There is an overwhelming cosmic rhythm of anticipation as a particular hour (or half-hour or even quarter-hour approaches) and a flurry of disappointment when that time has passed. The piece has one over determined climax at midnight and another at noon. Waiting for the latter, one cannot help but wonder how the artist will handle “High Noon.” The orchestrated sonic explosion is no less satisfying than the parade of pocket watches in close-up or Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo swinging on the bell chain. You never know what star might suddenly show up.
As a novel way of passing the time, “The Clock” harks back to the proto-cinematic Victorian parlor games that were then known as “philosophical toys.” It is, however, not just a conceptual masterpiece but a cinematic one as well. Seeing a second chunk, I was sensitized to Marclay’s editing, his superb match cuts and particularly his sound bridges. The piece is symphonic in its themes and variations. I was more conscious of the filler, which is not only used to keep the time on time but to introduce further temporal meditations: The grim reaper from Dreyer’s “Vampyr” makes a brief appearance; a non essential image of the child Jean Pierre Leaud in “The 400 Blows” is a set up for a shot, perhaps half an hour later, of the mature Leaud in “Stolen Kisses.”
Another paradox: Predicated on digitalized movies, “The Clock” might be said to dematerialize existing cinema and yet it is essentially an object dependent on the availability of physical DVDs. I do not believe it could have been so drawn down out of the cloud. As au currant as it is in every way, its own technology is head for obsolescence.
Image: Museum of Modern Art