Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Clock

The promotional still for The Clock
Yesterday Sarah took a holiday from her work and we finally got down to the Power Plant at Harbourfront in Toronto to see Christian Marclay's incredible work of visual and sound art, The Clock. (Sarah had already tried to see it once by herself, hoping to catch what is rumoured to be a pretty spectacular set of clips at midnight a few weekends ago; alas, the lineups were too long and she gave up around 1 a.m.) I can think of several words to describe this amazing piece but the one that does it the most justice, in my mind, is "riveting". We had more than a vague idea of the wonders awaiting us as Sarah's Mom, Evlyn, had been to see it quite a few times while it was on display at the National Gallery in Ottawa. But no matter how well she or, indeed, anyone else attempted to describe the power of Marclay's masterpiece, this is something that one absolutely must experience for one's self. On the subject of those attempts at capturing the essence of The Clock, I have read quite a few of them for myself—including the rather mundane blurb in the Power Plant's own program—but the one I found the closest to accomplishing the feat was one written by Daniel Zalewski which appeared in The New Yorker in March of this year. It's a rather lengthy read but it does not simply focus on this single creation of Marclay's; I feel that the exploration of the man behind The Clock broadens and heightens the entire experience considerably. Despite my concession of the futility of attempting to understand the impact of this artwork, I am stubbornly going to proceed to describe my own experience yesterday afternoon, because this wouldn't be much of a blog piece if I just said, "We went to see The Clock yesterday" and left it at that. That's what Facebook and Twitter are for!

Entering the Power Plant at Harbourfront
Save for a few select twenty-four hour "Watch-a-thons", The Clock has been available for viewing predominantly during the gallery's regular opening hours: Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. (Thursdays they are open until 8 p.m.). We headed down to Harbourfront yesterday in the late morning, parking at the Power Plant at around 11:30 and preparing ourselves for what we hoped would be a very short wait. Upon entering the building, Sarah was thrilled to discover that there was absolutely no lineup whatsoever and quickly ducked into the washroom in anticipation of a long stay with the piece. I was keenly aware of the imminent arrival of noon (and excited to see the events of midday on the screen) but kept this information from Sarah so she would be surprised. We entered the dark theatre at around 11:50 and, after a moment to allow our eyes to adjust, chose a spot on one of the IKEA couches at the far left end of the front row, sharing it with a single visitor who had been there for a while (and outlasted us as well). The gallery claims there is "seating for 50 patrons" but that seems rather hopeful at best; I only counted twelve couches in total (to be fair, it was dark and there could have been fifteen) and the most any one couch can hold is three people, I assure you. Nevertheless, we found seating right away which was delightful. While the initial effect was somewhat akin to walking into a movie after it has begun, the non-linear narrative (such as it was) made it very easy to settle in rather quickly and not feel out of sorts. I admit I was very aware of time passing early on in our viewing—possibly because I was anxiously anticipating the arrival of noon—but it didn't take long at all to become so completely immersed in the lovingly and expertly interwoven clips of sight and sound that time began to fly by without my even noticing.

A rifle barrel creating a sundial effect
And that, to me, is the single greatest—albeit ironic—feat of The Clock: every single minute that passes while you are in the theatre is displayed to you over and over and over again through clocks and the spoken and written word; time is referenced directly or obliquely in any scene that does not contain a clock and myriad that do; there is absolutely no escaping the relentless passage of time as the day ticks away right before your eyes....and yet after a few minutes I found I was completely and even blissfully unaware of even the existence of time. I spent minute after minute, hour after hour gazing at the screen trying to work out in what movie or television show (for not all the clips were cinematic) I had seen or heard each clip before. I marveled many times over at the beyond seamless melding of one sound or visual piece into another as I realized that the narrative was much more linear than I had given it credit for at first. The only real, and thankfully miniscule, break in the spell that we suffered was when a couch in the very middle of the front row became open close to 1 p.m. and Sarah and I scuttled over to it so that we would each have an arm rest for support but also because the images were ever so slightly blurry from my original vantage point. Once we had made that move, however, it was nearly impossible to tear away from the piece again. We eventually left around 3:30 in order to beat the downtown traffic, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I could have sat there for the entire twenty-four-hour loop in rapt attention.

IKEA couches present ideal viewing stations
During a very lively discussion we had once we had arrived home from our afternoon—another wonderful gift this glorious piece gave to us—Sarah asked me if I had checked my watch during the presentation to see if it synced up with the timepieces in the film. I had to admit I had not done that at all (she had) but had had rather a different experience: I was so drawn into the activity on the film that it actually became a movie in which "Time" was just another player in the cast. I did start to look at my watch at one point, but only to check the actual time because I had no idea how long we had been there; I stopped myself when I recalled that The Clock itself functions as a timepiece in its own right. That realization, when it came to me, actually stunned me for a moment. I'm not even sure how to process that information about myself; I'm equally not sure I am willing to try.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!
Another of the mighty charms of this remarkable piece is that, even as the audience is swept along in the relentless and omnipresent passing of time, nothing every truly gets resolved on the screen. To me, this serves to almost suspend time, because as we approach what should be obvious climaxes (the top of an hour, for instance, or a deadline imposed within the plot of one of the myriad clips) we find ourselves in the audience becoming more and more anxious and anticipatory (helped along immeasurably by the brilliant underscoring Marclay has added) until the moment arrives....and then passes....and time continues to march on, undeterred. I know it seems strange to say that the marching on of time creates the feeling of the suspension of time, but I witnessed it firsthand while I sat in that darkened theatre. We use time to mark the progression of our lives towards the one absolutely inescapable conclusion of death; when, during the course of a viewing of The Clock, the seemingly obvious conclusions never actually occur, it's as if we've somehow cheated death and we are starting all over again at the top of each hour, or in an entirely new "plot line", with a blank slate and a chance to have another go at it. It's incredibly refreshing for the spirit to continually appear to avoid one's own fate in this way, several times in one afternoon.

Those unresolved plots can lend themselves to some interesting audience reactions as well. In one early-afternoon sequence, a hapless gentleman finds himself bound and gagged and tied to a chair in full view of a clock which is attached to a rather large bomb. There are several clips of him staring at this clock as time marches on toward the anticipated "Big Bang". But the gaps bewteen clips get longer and longer until the audience has virtually forgotten about the poor sap, when all of a sudden there he is again and there's that damned clock, still ticking away. I'm sure in the film from which these clips were taken this "action" takes place in a few compressed minutes and they create great suspense in the viewer; however, the sight of one man maintaining a perpetually-strained and anxious expression on his face for well over an hour with nothing whatsoever happening is cause for snickering and outright guffaws when viewed in "real time". It's a very interesting effect to be sure and one which happened over and over, in one form or another. We watched many clips from each of the two versions of 3:10 to Yuma over the course of the early afternoon as one character or another would check their own watch or ask someone else for the time while waiting for the train to arrive. 3:10 came and went with no note taken of the train until a few minutes later when another scene is presented where this dialogue takes place:
"Where's the 3:10 to Yuma?"
"Running late, I suppose."
"How late?"
"Beats me. Gets here when it gets here."
"Goddamn trains. Never can rely on 'em, huh?"
And that's, as far as I can tell, the last time the 3:10 from Yuma is mentioned. Until the next day, that is, when the whole process repeats. Which is another aspect of the piece that I really enjoyed: the knowledge that, no matter how the "day" you are sharing with your cinematic friends turns out, you will get to repeat it tomorrow note-for-note. It's like living through your own personal Groundhog Day. (Which I really hope appears at 6 a.m. in The Clock.)

This would have been a nightmare for Marclay: all different times
But no matter how the concept of time is imparted to us throughout the piece—whether through a direct image of a clock or someone relating the time verbally; whether through the images of actors at various stages of their lives (such as a younger Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and then, soon after, much older in Monsieur Verdoux) or a much more subtle effect such as Laurence Olivier pouring the sands of time out of "poor Yorick's" skull in Hamlet—the undeniable feeling that is pervasive throughout The Clock is that time is, above all else, quite sinister as viewed by us mere mortals. With very few exceptions—such as at 3 and 3:10 p.m. when we were shown images of children ecstatically escaping the clutches of school—each minute was greeted with something akin to trepidation or unease by virtually everyone who looked at a watch or asked the time. The soundtrack played right into this as much of the music (which was drawn directly from the clips themselves for the most part, so not very much subterfuge there) was foreboding and ominous and certainly neither encouraging nor calming, generally. But because the apprehension was being lived vicariously through the eyes and ears of the actors we were watching, I could not tear my eyes away from the screen for even a few moments at a time. We were there, in those seats, for nearly three and three-quarter hours watching what was, effectively, a "subtitled" (by time) movie, and yet the magic of Christian Marclay was such that I was startled by how low the sun was in the sky over Lake Ontario when we emerged at last.

Even shattered, time marches on
In the article in The New Yorker to which I linked above, Marclay opines that most patrons will find themselves very keenly aware of clocks for several days upon leaving their viewing of his artwork, depending on how long they stayed in the first place. Sarah has mentioned that this has happened to her; however, I haven't found this to be the case with me in my daily life since we got home. This may be because my days working from home are far more circadian and not so clock-oriented; it may be because I have loved clocks in all shapes and sizes for so long as pieces of art unto themselves that I was always very keenly aware of them but not as timepieces. There may be another reason, though: today I watched the second half of Anatomy of a Murder (I watched the first part on Tuesday) and when Judge Weaver (portrayed brilliantly by real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch) stops to look at and then wind his pocket watch while deliberating his response to an objection, I immediately wondered if that remarkable scene had made it into The Clock (it took place at about 9:45 a.m. in the Preminger film). After that I turned on TCM and watched the last little bit of The Postman Always Rings Twice from 1946. At one point, Frank Chambers (John Garfield) takes off his tie and puts it in the glove compartment of a car; when he snaps the door closed we see a clock face upon it. Once again I was jarred out of the movie I was watching and left wondering whether that clip was even considered by Marclay or escaped notice through the exhausting hours he and his team put in curating the collection. And I realized that there is a very good chance that this could mean that I spend more time in a fantasy world than in the reality of every day life. And you know what? I'm more than okay with that. You are cordially invited to join me there whenever "reality" proves to be a little too much to bear some day.

I'll be waiting for you. Under the big clock.


  1. I am so glad that you and Sarah got to see The Clock. It was absolutely the best work of Art I experienced in the last couple of years and I would go to see it again in a heartbeat (another reference to time, and a very primal one). It is a profound piece and I really like your review.

  2. Fascinating review ! Now, when can we expect something on Rob Ford's removal from office ?


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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