October 24, 2018 § 5 Comments
I arrived just as a red-haired woman snuggled up to a sleeping Paul Newman. It’s 4 o’clock she said, to my surprise, then, as he woke, she confessed that she’d lied. It was 25 to, which indeed was the time on my watch. The Tate showed us the door at 5:55, just as Cary Grant was edging anxiously through the crush of a railway station, on the run in North by Northwest. In between there was Marilyn Monroe, Romy Schneider, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Alec Guinness, along with Belmondo, Montand , Binoche, Delon, Trintignant, Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight; Bette Davis in All about Eve. There was Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè, each clutching a pocket watch in For A Few Dollars More …. And even more that I’m yet to see, because Christian Marclay‘s The Clock lasts for 24 hours, in sync with real time for its audience.
The Clock dates from 2010 but has been hiding out in the art world (where it has drawn the crowds), seeming rarely to have been reviewed as a film. It’s a montage of clips, from films great and lesser, put together in a tremendous feat of editing that involves creative continuity and painstaking sequencing of on-screen time as it appears on clocks, watches, phones, whether digital or mechanical, sometimes just in dialogue or otherwise intimated.
Clips vary in length: mere seconds, leisurely minutes that deceptively let us settle in, or recurrences (Big Ben; the clock at the old Gare d’Orsay, now the museum; George Chakiris at various stages of a chess game in a French movie – I imagined he’d been loath to leave France after Les Demoiselles de Rochefort with Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve). The cinematic suspense or threat that’s conveyed through minutes ticking away isn’t lost in these swift transitions, but sustained through juxtaposition that sometimes threads a primary narrative with others. It does this with The Stranger, where Orson Welles is a Nazi with a new identity in small-town Connecticut and Edward G Robinson on his trail; both men have keen eyes on the clock tower.
Narrative interrupted is continually revived and re-activated by visual association: a door that opens in one film has someone step through the space of the next; a figure walks along the pavement, its framing or the configuration of angles and light to be echoed in a different setting, maybe shifting from colour to monochrome or vice versa. Events involving clocks themselves (being shattered or shot at) occur in patterned succession. Themes converge. The effect of this incongruous seamlessness can be delightfully comic.
The Clock triggers memory, excites the imagination, offers the pleasures of puzzle-solving (Which film is this? Which actor? Which connections am I making?). And because we can only name the character on screen if we already know the film and remember it, the actors themselves assume primacy. Foreign-language films have no subtitles, incurring another level of enigma. Marclay has clearly tinkered with soundtracks so that background effects intrude less. Sound can overlap between two films, maintaining a beat, while adjusting an atmosphere (he’s a sound artist and musician and in much of his work has used readymades that he reshapes). Certain points in time’s division acquire the momentum of countdown – for instance the build up to the striking of the hour, then the scattered bursts of sound.
Cinema is the most oneiric of the arts. Watching a film unfold on a big screen in surrounding darkness is as close as you can get to dreaming while awake. The Clock’s rich visual fragmentation, its displacing of context, makes for even busier deciphering of the elusive meanings in that almost-dream experience. In the wake of viewing a film we are sometimes directed inwards, but it’s often the case that after seeing in the dark our eyes are sharpened for the world outside, so we leave the cinema with our perceptions heightened. The Clock has this effect redoubled; it stimulates and impels alertness, simultaneously absorbing us and making us acutely aware of time passing. We are immersed in the intense parallel world of cinema while observing its workings.
Memory adds to this experience. A glimpse of one film might bring to mind another. Heists depend on strict timing and a succession of these made me remember Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (1958), maybe the funniest film I’ve ever seen, where Roman petty thieves (Mastroianni et al) plan a robbery modelled on Rififi, the French thriller about a precision-executed jewellery heist. When they reach the point of synchronising watches it turns out that nobody in this down-at-heel gang owns one.
Thinking about how time is foregrounded in The Clock and can’t be ignored, I realised that, paradoxically, it’s also expanded – so many parts, poignantly autonomous, each with its own hinterland of plot and character and setting. According to the precept of Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, the more you fill time the longer it feels, which is why she ceaselessly travels, stretching it with changes of scene, a good antidote to the terrible shrinkage of hours and weeks that comes with ageing. We have day and night and the seasons, but clock time is a construct. Our subjective responses govern the passage of time, as do the laws of physics, something about which I understand little, though I did gain some insights from Carlo Rovelli’s recent and very readable book, The Order of Time (while a great deal was beyond my grasp). We know that noon, when the sun is at its zenith, does not coincide in London and in Cairo, and the same goes for noon in London and Southampton. As well as latitude, altitude creates differentials: Rovelli explains that a person living at the top of a mountain ages more quickly than another at sea level, and that a watch placed on a table will go faster than one lying on the floor beneath it. Gravity has something to do with this. From his perspective as a physicist, there is no present. But the present is where we all wrestle with time and mortality. And time in art has its poetry.
The Clock is a wonderfully exhilarating experience. It feels approximate to watching films serially at a film festival, but accelerated, magically joined up, where time in alignment with our time brings their reality closer to ours. It’s addictive and it acts on the senses a bit like a drug. When I left the Tate the last of daylight was on the Thames, by the time I got to King’s Cross there was a serene blue October twilight, mild enough for people to sit outside at café tables, and it was dark when I got home. London was more alive and beautiful than I’d seen it for a while.