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Killing Orson Welles at Midnight

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Hal Roach/Pathé Exchange/Gene Kornman/Kobal Collection
Harold Lloyd in the 1923 film Safety Last, also drawn on for The Clock

This works up into a joke: Marclay can cut seamlessly through dozens of films for the last two minutes without manipulating the sound at all: they all have the same screeching violins, the only difference is the key. At midnight a zombie woman pops out of a grandfather clock and gets a big laugh, but I preferred the clip that came a moment later, when a twelve-foot clockwork soldier, swinging out of a bell tower to mark the hour, impales Orson Welles on his giant sword. It reminded me of Owen Wilson’s memento mori: You’re about to die. You’re on the minute hand of a clock.

Thirst, Taxi Driver, The X-Files, a lot of Kurosawa, Fatal Attraction, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, some Woody Allen, a little Bergman—Marclay’s sources will be very familiar to his New York and London audiences. Maybe if The Clock had been drawn from a more alien culture it would have a different emphasis, but as it is, it’s our film and looks at time our way: tragically. “Do not squander time. That is the stuff that life is made of“—so reads the engraving on an old sundial. We recognize its provenance (Ashley Wilkes’s estate, Gone with the Wind) and accept it as the gospel of our culture. Time is not on our side. Every minute more of it means one minute less of us. Witness Jeff Bridges in The Vanishing (and also some other guy, in the original Dutch version), taking his own pulse and writing it out neatly next to the time. We are tied to the wagon and it’s going in only one direction, whether we like it or not.

Film constantly reenacts and dramatizes this struggle with time: except in film, time loses. We are victorious. Narrative is victorious. We bend time to our will. We tie a man to the floor, put a gag in his mouth, and set the clock ticking—but we will decide how fast or slow that clock moves. ESTABLISH TIME: a note written in a thriller. And this is film’s whole challenge and illusion. Without it there is no story, no film. If we believe Marclay, no shot in the history of cinema is as common as the desperate close-up of a clock face. ESTABLISH TIME! But the time thus established has, until now, always been a fantasy, a fiction. The Clock is the first film in which time is real.

A lot of people speak of a crisis in the purpose and value of the fictional realm. The Clock feels to me like a part of that conversation: a factual response to the fantasies of film. It has a very poor predecessor in the TV show 24, which also promised an end to “narrative time” but instead bent to commercial concerns, factoring in ad breaks, and was anyway, with its endorsement of torture, ideologically vile. With its real-time synchronization The Clock has upped the ante exponentially. Honestly I can’t see how you could up it much more. It’s the art object Sontag was hoping for almost half a century ago in Against Interpretation, which reminds me that this supposed crisis of the Noughties has in fact been going on a long time: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” A very long time. Plato would recognize it.

But what I love about The Clock is that while appearing to pass “beyond” fiction it also honors and celebrates it. Fiction is Marclay’s material; after all, he recycles it. What else is The Clock if not thousands of fictional interpretations of time repurposed to express time precisely. That’s why you don’t feel that you are watching a film, you feel you are existing alongside a film. People even leave the gallery following the conventions of time: on the hour, or a quarter past. No one can seem to stand to leave at, say, 6:07. Most wonderful is listening to people on their way out. “How did he do it, though? You can’t Google for clocks. How did he do it then? Did he have hundreds of people or what?”

The awe is palpable, and thrilling because it has become so unusual. A lot of the time, when standing in a gallery, I am aware of two feelings, one permitted, and one verboten. The first is boredom: usually the artist’s subject is boredom (the boredom of twenty-first-century life, etc.), and my reaction is meant to be one of boredom, or, at the most, outraged boredom. The second is “wonder at craft.” I am not meant to have this feeling. Asking how something was made, or having any concern at all with its physical making, or being concerned with how hard the thing might have been to make—asking any of these questions will mark me out as a simpleton. The question is childish, reactionary, nostalgic.

But The Clock is not reactionary, and manages to reintroduce these questions, without being nostalgic or childish. Marclay has made, in essence, a sort of homemade Web engine that collates and cross-references an extraordinary amount of different kinds of information: scenes that have clocks, scenes with clocks in classrooms, with clocks in bars, Johnny Depp films with clocks, women with clocks, children with clocks, clocks on planes, and so on, and so on, and so on. You’re never bored—you haven’t time to be.

Really an essay is not the right form in which to speak of it. A visual representation of some kind would be better; a cloud consensus, or a spectacular graph. It’s hard to convey in words what Marclay does with data, how luminous he makes it. And if this data were all lined up on a graph, what conclusions would we draw? That life is epic, varied, and never boring, but also short, relentless, and terminal. The Clock is a joyful art experience but a harsh life experience because it doesn’t disguise what time is doing to you. At 2:45 PM, when Harold Lloyd hung off the face of that clock, I couldn’t access the delight I have felt in the past watching that fabulous piece of fiction, because if Harold was up on that screen it meant I had somehow managed to come at the same time again, the early afternoon, despite all my efforts to find a different moment, between childcare and work. I looked around the walls of the gallery where all the young people sat, hipsters, childless, with a sandwich in their bags and the will to stay till three in the morning. I envied them; hated them, even. They looked like they had all the time in the world.

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