Saturday, 13 November 2010

Clocking On: philosophy, cinema and Christian Marclay

Like many people who wandered unknowingly into The Clock it was a couple of minutes before I arrived at my Aha! moment. Just as you are puzzling over why the British Art Show 7 is showing a video installation composed of clips from well-known movies, with many of them featuring clocks, it hits you: the time in the film clips is the same as the time on your watch. In the darkened room you can observe such moments of recognition as heads nod up and down between blue-lit phones and the screen, and people begin to wonder if this really will ‘follow time’ for the full 24. 

You bet it does. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which is currently at the Nottingham Art Exchange as part of the Show before moving on to London next year, is partly a celebration of cinema, partly a radical philosophical exercise and wholly a miracle of editing. Marclay seamlessly weaves together moments from thousands of films, with enough of them making some reference to the exact time to enable the montage to be structured against the time zone in which it is being exhibited. The clips vary in length, and often one film can make several appearances throughout a given period; indeed, at one point it felt as if I were watching a version of The Transporter remixed with scenes from À Bout de Souffle and Moonraker. Such celluloid splicing places films from disparate contexts within a surreal dialogue, and has the likes of Paul Scofield and Adam Sandler sharing screentime.    

What is impressive is how Marclay has crafted something so compulsively watchable out of what on paper sounds as gripping as ‘drying paint: the movie’. I sat transfixed for over 2 hours, finally being driven out not by boredom but hunger. Much of this is down to the elegance with which Marclay accomplishes the transitions between clips. Aural as well as visual aspects are often paired, such as the sound of a tapping pencil in one clip being subtly modified by the chugging of a steam engine in a succeeding one. ‘Sound’, Marclay says, ‘is the glue that holds the piece together.’

This does not so much rewrite the grammar of film as make explicit what is essential to the cinematic experience. Fundamentally, we love movies not simply because they tell stories or portray realistic characters (literature and theatre have been doing this quite well for millennia) but because they present us with a rich tableau that records the geography, both literal and emotional, of human life. In many senses, cinema panders to our voyeuristic tendencies, of witnessing but not participating in moments of love and pain, violence and sex. Clock provides us with an undiluted fix of startling and varied images.   

Time is the bedrock. To one extent, our willingness to passively enter into the plights of others is secured by the assurance that the experience has a specific duration. Even at the gloomy Nordic heights of Bergman, we are only expected to give our existential all for the 90-minute running time. But to go deeper, Clock reminds us of cinema’s narrative dependence on time. So many of the clips demonstrate that the real villain of thrillers is the ticking clock, contriving impossible plots for our heroes in their race against time. Elsewhere, from being late for a date to growing old and considering mortality, cinema functions as one of the most thorough and complex meditations on the phenomenology of time. A moment from Clock showing a boy drawing a watch on his wrist that transforms into the real ticking object illustrates how something that is essentially a human invention becomes in the collective consciousness a universal truth around which we plot our lives. Moreover, the status of Marclay's project, a montage of fragments wrenched from their discrete temporal contexts that in turn function to validate our own time zone, seems to point towards a more general constructedness. 

Marclay developed calluses on his fingers from all the mouse clicking involved in the two-year editing process. After leaving Clock I think I developed a form of chronophilia. My heightened sensitivity to time in not just its passage but also its visual forms got me thinking that a world in which the principal means of receiving time is digitalized has lost something. The clock faces that appear in many varied and ornate forms in Marclay’s film have all but vanished from our homes and are fast disappearing from urban spaces. I fear that my generation has lost all reverence for time, reducing it to a purely functional role and commodifying it under the slogan 'time is money'. We want to have second-by-second updates at our fingertips and we can't be doing with the eccentricities of the archaic classes with their cuckoo clocks and other ticking hobbyhorses. Yet I cannot help thinking that time, like cinema, deserves better than the bleeping figures of the digital aesthetic. 

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