Extraordinary 24-hour video ‘The Clock’ is absolutely addictive

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Video still from Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” 2010. Single channel video with stereo sound. 24 hours, looped.

One of the best parts of Christian Marclay’s 2010 video piece “The Clock,” now showing at the Walker Art Center, is from a clip from a film I didn’t recognize, a Technicolor potboiler of some kind from the studio era of Hollywood. “It’s the clock,” yells a man accusingly at a woman. “You’re addicted to it!”

The audience at the Walker murmured their appreciation with what sounded like some sympathy. It speaks to the broader idea of experiencing time – the pervasive sense of being marched along by the clock from appointment to errand to meeting to wherever over the course of a day. But it also speaks to the specific experience of watching “The Clock” at the Walker in a darkened room full of people. I am addicted to it.

“The Clock” is a 24-hour-long montage of scenes from thousands and thousands of movies and television shows, assembled by Marclay over several years. Each one contains, if not a clock, than some spoken mention of or reference to the current time. The onscreen action (or non-action, in most cases) is synced up to the actual time, so if you see a shot onscreen of a clock tower showing 4:45 p.m., you know it is exactly 4:45 p.m. in Minneapolis, and outside of the theater, people are doing things appropriate to 4:45 p.m. It’s a way to keep real time, which is why it’s extra funny when you hear someone whisper to their neighbor, as I did at least twice and without any apparent irony, “Hey, what time is it?”

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Video still from “The Clock,” 2010. 

It’s been one of the most extraordinary artistic experiences of my life, and it’s showing for another few weeks at the Walker. It is something that you take with you out into the world once you’ve left the building.

“The Clock” is a movie about time, in both the broadest and most literal sense, but it also makes one think of so much else. It is a movie, as a writer for The Guardian pointed out, about trains – there are so many scenes of trains pulling in to stations, pulling out again, electronic and analog timetables cycling through various departure and arrival times, people chasing those trains down and succeeding or failing. It’s a movie about technology, about the development of the wall clock and the electronic display and finally the cell phone, which turns up over and over in varying guises, flashing the time in increasingly sophisticated graphical interfaces. It’s a movie about public spaces, and how we keep track of time in those spaces – on church towers, banks signs, shop windows. That’s why I bring it up in “The Stroll” this week, because “The Clock” is something I’ve taken with me and a piece of art that’s thoroughly informed my movements through the world in the past week – that heightened sense of playing spot-the-clock, sure, but also noticing how time is measured in public and private spaces.

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Video still from “The Clock,” 2010. 

The Walker has hosted a few extended viewing nights, where one has the option of seeing the parts of “The Clock” outside regular museum hours. I’ve only seen about half so far, and I’m hoping to fill in the rest this month. Over the course of three visits, I’ve seen nearly everything from 2 p.m. through around 2:30 a.m. In terms of the overall narrative arc, such as it is, this means I’ve seen the part of the day where characters onscreen are getting up shamefully late, where people are finishing extended lunches, getting out of school, starting their commute home, catching trains, getting stuck in rush hour, sitting down for supper, putting their kids to bed, getting ready to go out, drinking alone in their homes, getting out of shows, catching trains or cabs or rides again, going to bed, and waking up in the middle of the night, usually by a phone call. There’s quite a few scenes of people answering phones around 2 a.m. and saying, “What is it? It’s two o’clock in the morning.” Watching it is almost an instructional guide for understanding Western norms for what’s appropriate behavior and activities for any given part of the day. The places and times in which children turn up are particularly interesting. During the day, they’re all over the screen. But by 8 p.m., they’ve started being put to bed, and during the overnight hours, their presence indicates something illicit or wondrous – sneaking out of the house, waking up mom, being somewhere they don’t belong after the adults have gone to bed. Watching during the latest hours, I felt a sort of kinship with the children showing up onscreen, bleary-eyed and dimly lit as they were. I shouldn’t be up this late either, kid.

You can only see “The Clock” in-person at a venue like the Walker. It’s not created for private viewing – the copyright issues, obviously, would be almost insurmountable, not to mention the technical barriers. But I hope it’s never available streaming on any device. Seeing it with a theater full of people is part of the wonder of the experience. Marclay’s edits are masterful and beautiful, but they’re also really funny; it’s really enjoyable to hear people around you chuckle at the wittiness of some edits, and gasp at the virtuosity of others. A character will look to the left, and Marclay will cut to a scene from another movie entirely, making a seamless, incongruous reaction shot. Party noises from an earlier scene will carry into a room in another scene from another film. Diagetic music will carry across edits.

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Video still from “The Clock,” 2010. 

Sometime around 9 p.m., there is a brief vignette of Roger Moore and Daniel Craig in their James Bond guises, seeming to interact with one another as they get ready for the evening, decades apart. All kinds of visual puns and shorthand references are hidden in there. Donald Sutherland looks at his watch in the 1970s, throws a glance across screen, and his son Kiefer in “24” is there, appearing to glance back.

Seeing it with a roomful of people serves another interesting purpose, in that it’s a good gauge of people’s cinematic favorites. Marclay draws from the entirety of film history – primarily American and British films, but a large amount of non-subtitled films in all languages. The favorites are all there: Gary Cooper shows up at high noon, obviously, and around 3:00 p.m., Harold Lloyd dangles from the minute hand of a clock in the scene for which he’s still remembered. There were two times I was in there when a mild but very audible murmur of appreciation arose from the crowd, almost breaking into an applause: The scene from “Back to the Future” where lightning strikes the Hill Valley Courthouse clock tower at precisely 10:04 p.m. elicited an actual cheer. The second such scene was when a phone rings, and Steve Martin’s bedraggled character from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” appears in a tight close-up, learning his flight is delayed yet again. Not a full cheer for that one, but certainly a tangible jolt of excitement through the crowd. Being on the Internet, you didn’t really need it, but this was all a great reminder that people adore 1980s comedies.

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Video still from “The Clock,” 2010. 

There’s something so populist and accessible about “The Clock.” It takes 10 seconds to figure out what’s going on, what the basic conceit is, but you can spend hours and hours absorbing it, meditating on it, watching it go by. Very few people I saw in the theater were around for less than two hours, and most were around for quite a bit more.

As for me, I reluctantly pulled myself out after four hours the last time, pretty early in the morning. I immediately wish I’d stayed longer. Walking outside onto Groveland Avenue in the night air, I looked around me and I knew exactly what to expect – a darkened landscape, bereft of people, buses with a few passengers zooming down the street and the steeples of St. Mark’s and Hennepin Methodist silhouetted overhead. I pulled out my phone and saw it was about 2:35 a.m. More or less, that’s what I’d just seen onscreen.

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