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Reel time in real time: "The Clock" at the MFA, part 1 (p.m. report)

Posted by Mark Feeney  September 16, 2011 04:51 PM

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Christian Marclay's video-art work "The Clock" opened at the Museum of Fine Arts Friday afternoon and runs through Oct. 11. Last spring, the MFA bought a half-share of one of the piece's six editions for $250,000. Its "co-owner" is the National Gallery of Canada. Boston and Ottawa are now cinematic sister cities.

Marclay, a Mass. Art grad, spent three years assembling the piece, which consists of thousands of clips from movies (and a few television shows). They all relate to time. The scenes shown either contain timepieces -- table clocks, wall clocks, wrist watches, pocket watches, clock radios, car clocks, clock works (gears and wheels), grandfather clocks, time bombs, and a nifty little number that both tells time dispenses lit matches -- as well as at least three hourglasses, a pendulum (oh, that Vincent Price), and a metronome. There are also references to time ("What time is it, Charlie?," Dorothy Comingore asks Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane," and he tells her) and various allusions to duration or acts related to it. We see people eating at dinner time, for example, or parents tucking children into bed soon thereafter. Equally important to content is a matter of presentation: "The Clock" runs in real time: It lasts for 24 hours and the time being shown on the screen corresponds to the actual time.

A tag team of Globe arts staffers is covering the first showing, which started at 4 p.m. yesterday. My stint lasted from 7 p.m. until midnight, when Geoff Edgers and Wesley took over. I stayed a little longer, though, since no way was I going to leave without seeing what TheStranger-a.jpgMarclay would do at the stroke of 12. Part of the joy of "The Clock" is how the rigid adherence to chronological time lets it be otherwise unstructured. One of the few recurring patterns is a kind of rhythmic and visual crescendo at each hour -- and midnight got special treatment, climaxing with Welles' extremely unhappy experience with a clock tower, in "The Stranger." That's Welles, at left, with Loretta Young and a somewhat smaller clock earlier in the movie. This is the thing about Marclay's piece and clocks: Once you've watched even a bit of it, you start noticing the damn things everywhere. They're like chronological kudzu.

One way to think of  "The Clock" is as the ultimate set of movie trailers -- or, better yet, the purest. No film is identified. Identification isn't the point, since nothing is being sold, other than the experience of moviegoing. You sit there delighted to see a movie you know, intrigued by glimpses of movies you don't recognize, and otherwise caught up in the experience of watching. Does watching some of "The Clock" make you want to see the whole thing? Sure. It does something else, too. It makes you want to see every movie ever made, then see them all over again.

andy.jpg"The Clock" returns viewers to their moviegoing childhood. Part of the pleasure of watching movies when you're young is that you don't know what's coming -- you haven't yet learned the various codes of conduct and genre traditions of movies -- so there's a consistent freshness and unexpectedness to what's up on the screen. Marclay brings that back. Other than knowing there'll be an association with the current time, you have no idea what's next -- or how long a given clip will last -- or whether it will come back. (Several do recur, "The Paper," for example, with its many newspaper deadlines.) Contributing to the constant sense of surprise is Marclay's playfulness. He uses overlapping sound a lot, so the dialogue or sound effects from a prevous clip will continue into the next. There can be real-world segues: A shot of Donald Sutherland in one movie leads to a shot of son Kiefer in another. There are thematic associations: a glimpse of "Strangers on a Train" precedes one of "Shanghai Express." Later on, we see Farley Granger again, in both "Rope" and "They Live by Night." Watching "The Clock" is like visiting a large-sized town where we know a lot of the people, only we keep bumping into them at different ages, which is simultaneously reassuring ("Hi, Farley") and disconcerting ("Farley, what's happened to you?"). We see Andy Griffith in an episode of "Matlock," then he shows up a couple of hours later in "A Face in the Crowd" (above). Maybe there's an "Andy Griffith Show" clip somewhere in "The Clock," too.

Two essential paradoxes underlie "The Clock." The only way to enjoy it -- and if you do this, you'll enjoy "The Clock" enormously, assuming you're a movie fan, of course -- is to surrender to its eddying/inexorable rhythms. If you let yourself do that, this work absolutely predicated on time takes you outside of time. That is, even as you see a constant stream of verbal and visual indicators of time -- "The Clock" is the "Where's  Waldo" of timepieces --  you enter the durational equivalent of a duty-free zone. In a way, "The Clock" reverses our real-world experience: Here you constantly see the passage of time while hardly feeling it at all. The experience is like going to the office and not having to do any work. Marclay punches the clock for you.

The other paradox has to do with narrative. There are two fundamental facts about movies, both of them dictated by physics: They exist in time ("The Clock" is as much a monument to temporal implacability as Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" is) and they exist through the operation of light. Additionally, movies -- or at least features -- exist with narrative. They don't have, too, of course, not in the way that they require time and light. The importance of narrative is something that's been imposed on them by a combination of economic imperative, audience preference, and the power of precedent. Barely a decade after the medium's invention, some kind of narrative format -- in nonfiction as well as fiction -- came to dominate feature filmmaking.

"The Clock" would seem to subvert the ubiquity of narrative. For all that Marclay sets up the occasional interrelationship between discrete films -- or, more accurately, brief moments in discrete films -- he isn't so foolish as to try to create some overarching entity. The effect is cumulative emotionally, but not structurally. Something rather wonderful happens instead. Perhaps it's because we've been schooled to find the arc of story whenever we look at a big screen. Perhaps there's some perceptual connection the human brain can't avoid making when it observes human behavior being represented artistically. Whatever the reason, "The Clock" doesn't subvert narrative so much as break it down to an almost molecular level. Even removed from their original context, the clips remain stories, or seeds of stories. When Victor Spinetti announces in "A Hard Day's Night" that the Beatles are supposed to go on the air in five minutes, George Harrison scoffs at that actually happening. (Truly, George has one of the great, charming deadpan scoffs -- whereas John's is acidulous, Paul's so endearing it's more joshing than scoffing, and Ringo probably doesn't know what the word means.) Anyway, It's your imagination that then gets to decide whether they do go on or not -- and that's regardless of whether you've seen the movie. Marclay tells us what time it is, quite literally, but he leaves the rest up to us.

nightanday.jpgThat sense of anticipation and unexpectedness I spoke of earlier may simply be the result of seeing so many bits of much larger stories presented in this crazy-quilt fashion -- except that there's nothing crazy about this quilt. Who knows? The important point is that, rather than inspiring frustration or bewilderment, that sense provides a large part of the pleasure "The Clock" has to offer. So long as you enter into the experience in the right frame of mind, watching it is most definitely not a hard day's night or hard night's day. It also helps that Marclay's recontextualization can transform a moment from some otherwise lame movie. "Night and Day," the 1946 Cole Porter biopic, is famously flat and leaden. But Marclay's use of the scene showing Cary Grant, as Porter, coming up with a certain line from the opening of the title song -- you know, "Like the tick, tick, tock of the stately clock" -- makes you laugh out loud (all right, it made me laugh out loud) with the wittiness of its pertinence. Marclay turns lead into silver. That's Alexis Smith, by the way, as the future Mrs. Porter, with Grant at the piano.

kerr.jpgMarclay ranges far and wide, from silent movies to "The Simpsons." That's another reason for a viewer watching "The Clock" as a child might. You know the movie codes and traditions perfectly well now, but all bets are off when a bit of silent movie leads to a bit of film noir to a bit of Woody Allen comedy to a very young Johnny Depp to some stock footage (or what looks like stock footage) and, that's just for starters. There are four James Bonds seen; and, no, George Lazenby isn't one of them. Nearly all the movies are American, but there's the occasional French, German, Italian, or Japanese one, too. At least on the basis of the five hours I saw, Marclay has certain discernible fondnesses. He loves "Laura," train stations, Big Ben, Joan Crawford. One of the Crawford clips has her lying in bed while Jack Palance (!) reads to her from the Bible (!!). It's "Sudden Fear," isn't it? Oh, the endless-extra-innings guessing game that watching "The Clock" can be! Yet a fringe benefit of seeing so many scenes taken out of context is noticing things previously overlooked or forgotten. Is sumptuous the right word to describe the shade of Deborah Kerr's red hair? Sidney Poitier in his prime was an extremely good-looking man. Peter Sellers' sang-froid contributed so much to making him so funny. The bit we see from "A Shot in the Dark" of him trying to synchronize watches with his assistant is as much horological heaven for us as it is horological hell for them.

The basic idea behind "The Clock" could hardly be simpler, and Marclay carries it out with a single-mindedness that's almost terrifying to contemplate. Whether you find "The Clock" transfixing, tedious, or both (which is by no means beyond the realm of possibility), you have to concede that it's a stupendous achievement. The amount of research seems unimaginable -- except that Marclay and his assistants actually did it. Even harder to imagine is how much the rights to all these clips would cost. Presumably, he did what Jean-Luc Godard did with his "Histoire(s) du Cinema" -- the only work that comes to mind comparable to "The Clock" -- and that is just go ahead and make it without addressing copyright issues. Of course, the fact Godard took that route explains why "Histoire(s)," which is finally coming out on DVD this fall, has remained unavailable  for so long.

"The Clock" is being shown in the MFA's Loring Gallery, which seats 48. I was shocked to find the gallery only half full when I got there. Around  9 or so, it filled up, and remained that way until nearly midnight. (People can exit whenever they like, and enter whenever there are spaces available.) If ever there was a movie event around here, this was it. Did the MFA not promote it properly? Were people put off by the news earlier this summer that the museum originally intended to charge $200 for those who attended the party celebrating the opening of the museum's Linde Family Wing and wanted to see "The Clock"? Or maybe Boston just isn't much of a movie town?

Whatever the reason(s) -- the historie(s,) eh, M. Godard? -- there's something fitting about a work so caught up in and dedicated to the moviegoing experience not being an event. Like "The Clock," the medium is a kind of environment, a stream, even, like those sprocket-holed pieces of celluloid that go through a projector -- or at least used to, before digital came along. "The Clock," it should be noted, runs on a computer, an Apple G5 Mac Pro. An event, to be an event, needs a clear beginning and end. "The Clock" just goes on and on, like analog hands and digital numerals. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The greatest glory of the cinema, it has been said, is the human face in closeup. Christian Marclay demonstrates that clock faces, in closeup and otherwise, can be pretty amazing, too. 

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