The Argument: Why people around the world line up to see The Clock, Christian Marclay’s cinematic mash-up

The Argument: Why people around the world line up to see The Clock, Christian Marclay’s cinematic mash-up

The Argument: Minute Man
(Image: courtesy The National Gallery of Canada)

Earlier this year, on a trip to Ottawa, my husband and I spent the day at the National Gallery. While he explored the collections, I spent three hours in a dark room, mesmerized by The Clock, a massively ambitious, 24-hour-long homage to cinema by the Swiss-American multimedia artist Christian Marclay. I was aware of the hype surrounding the piece, of the gushing it provoked in art critics and the fact that it had won the Golden Lion prize at the 2011 Venice Biennale. But I was not prepared for the giddy rush of emotions it triggered in me. Nor did I expect to lose most of the afternoon watching it.

Marclay’s masterwork, which begins a two-month run at the Power Plant this month, is compiled from thousands of movie and TV clips that reference time. There are clucking cuckoos and booming grandfather clocks; watches that count down the minutes before a heist or a romantic date; famous clocks like the one in Grand Central Station, and more obscure timepieces, like the watch Christopher Walken gives his war buddy’s son in Pulp Fiction. Some are central to the scene in which they appear, like the clock tower holding a dang­ling Harold Lloyd in the climax of his 1923 silent film Safety Last!. Others are no more than casual props, like Richard Gere’s clock radio in American Gigolo. The movie ticks off the minutes, one cut at a time, and also functions as a real clock, synchronized to local time. So, when Matthew Broderick is shown calling his lover at 4:32 p.m. in a clip from the 1999 black comedy Election, it’s 4:32 p.m. in
real time.

Marclay shows complete indifference to the quality, genre or vintage of his source material—in the universe of The Clock, Orson Welles in the 1946 film noir The Stranger coexists with MacGyver and razor-fingered slasher Freddy Krueger. Tension builds and is released, buildings explode, lovers carry on illicit affairs, there are nightmares and wars. In Ottawa, I shared a front-row seat with two middle-aged women. The first time a gun appeared onscreen, the woman beside me let out a yelp, and she gasped at every act of violence or burst of expletive-filled dialogue. The narratives never resolve, however—there is only the ever-present passing of time.

Subtle themes and commentaries do crop up: over the course of the 24 hours, Nicolas Cage grows paunchier, balder and less discerning about his choice of role. The sight of long-dead or past-their-prime actors living out each minute of the day onscreen gives The Clock the feel of a memento mori. (At times, it reminded me of the annual death montage at the Academy Awards.)

Marclay, who was born in 1955 in California and raised in Switzerland, has been creating these fractured montages for years. His fascination with sampling and deconstruction began in the late 1980s, with a series of performance pieces in which he broke apart record albums and reassembled the shards into discs that played dissonant static and stutters. The musical experiments led to collaborations with Sonic Youth, John Zorn and the Kronos Quartet. Transferring his obsessions to a more visual medium, Marclay created 1995’s Telephones, a pre-YouTube collage of phone scenes from Hollywood films. (He later accused Apple of ripping off the piece for its 2008 “Hello” iPhone ad.)

The Clock was born out of these earlier efforts. He started working on it in 2007, hiring Paul Smith, an editor from Toronto, to help him assemble the raw materials for the new work. Smith headed up a team of assistants who spent months copying and cataloguing scenes from DVDs borrowed from local video stores. As they worked, each hour of the piece became its own discrete chapter. For the hour between 6 and 7 p.m., for example, the team rounded up a multitude of dinnertime scenes. Marclay then edited all the video together himself, a gruelling task that took almost three years and left him with calloused fingers and a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome. The resulting film is too long to fit on a single DVD, so each edition runs on a dedicated computer with a custom-designed software program that maintains The Clock’s synchronization with local time.

During its stints in London, New York and Los Angeles, The Clock drew lineups into the wee hours of the morning, a phenomenon usually reserved for cult films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz (who watched 19 hours of the piece over six visits) reported giving up three times because the line at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery was too long. Jonathan Shaughnessy, assistant curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada (which co-owns a copy of The Clock with Boston’s Museum of Art) says that a recent 24-hour screening at the NGC had a lineup at midnight. “And this is Ottawa on a Thursday night,” he adds, laughing.

The tales of late-night queues have only added to The Clock’s mystique, inspiring marathon viewings by obsessive completists. As part of its loan agreement, the Power Plant is adhering to Marclay’s installation recommendations by providing a private, quiet space with excellent acoustics and ditching the traditional gallery benches for IKEA sofas. The casual set-up eliminates the formality of a gallery and turns the space into something resembling a giant rec room.

The Clock is a relentless nostalgia machine that plays on each viewer’s cinematic memory. I came of age in the ’80s, and so will never tire of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly racing to reach the town’s doomed clock tower, or the teens of The Breakfast Club waiting out the day in detention. At the National Gallery, during the quick-fire sequence of school bells and locker slams that happens at 3:30 p.m., I could feel the audience breathe a sigh of deep-rooted relief.

Some art traditionalists have chided The Clock’s hype and its reliance on pop culture references—during its initial run in New York, posters appeared near the gallery pronouncing, “Christian Marclay: your 15 minutes will be up in 24 hours.” Those anonymous wags have missed the point: what elevates the piece above an epic game of “name that movie” is the way it comments not only on cinematic history, but also on our own desire—now easily satiated—to fill every moment with entertainment and distraction. It sucks you in for hours at a stretch, even while accounting for every passing minute, making it the cleverest, most epic time-waster ever.

The Clock
By Christian Marclay
The Power Plant
Sept. 15 to Nov. 25