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Tick-tock: A watched ‘Clock’

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September 20, 2011

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For 24 hours, starting last Friday at 4 p.m., the Museum of Fine Arts screened Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,’’ a video made up of thousands of clips from the history of cinema and TV, each clip containing an indication - by timepiece or verbal reference - of the real time as the screening takes place. The dazzling work by Marclay, a Massachusetts College of Art grad, won a Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale and is at the MFA through Oct. 10. At the opening, Globe writers, in shifts, joined museum-goers. Here’s what we saw. SEBASTIAN SMEE

SEBASTIAN SMEE FRIDAY, 4-5 p.m. Fraud that I am, I had to leave “The Clock’’ after just one hour. I had booked a train to New York to see the De Kooning show. At least there was no risk of losing track of time and being late.

It was De Kooning, of course, who described content as “a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash.’’ The insight applies perfectly to “The Clock,’’ which is, among other things, a relentless parade of glimpsed content.

The relentlessness is important, and is, I suppose, like life: The clock, ho hum, is always running down. But what makes “The Clock’’ so great is the freedom Marclay carves out for himself - and by extension, for us - within this cruel and ineluctable system. His editing overflows with wit, exuberance, heartbreak, repose, and reprieve.

All these emotions are not simply borrowed, secondhand and desiccated, from the original movies he quotes. They’re created anew by Marclay’s editing, his use of rhymes, tautologies, dissonance - visually, verbally, sonically - and by his delight in playing havoc with the very system he’s enslaved by.

Some of it is obvious: a grandfather clock crashing to the floor. More often, however, it’s gorgeously subtle: A guy selling knockoff watches absent-mindedly uses one of them to beat the time on a bridge railing. A suitor, just before 5 p.m., tells a shop girl, “I’ll be back at 6. I’ve got something to tell you’’ - content not so much glimpsed as deferred.

JAMES H. BURNETT III FRIDAY, 5-7 p.m. I’d love to say that watching “The Clock’’ was a spectacular time (no pun intended). But 20 minutes into my shift, right about the time Ben Matlock in his time-worn (pun intended) seersucker suit tells a client he believes the man’s alibi, I was driven from the screening room to the MFA’s New American Cafe for an emergency dose of double-shot espresso.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t boredom that sent me speed-walking toward the coffee. It was fatigue. Watching “The Clock’’ was like tasting something new and delicious. The film touches multiple emotions the way such a dish touches more than taste buds.

The kid in me was tickled that every time I checked my watch it matched the time on the screen. The sleep-deprived new dad in me was worn out trying to keep pace with the rapid scene changes. The movie lover in me delighted in recognizing classic films but was saddened each time a great scene was cut short for the sake of clock continuity. And the journalist in me was frustrated over not recognizing a majority of the works used to piece “The Clock’’ together.

I spotted “Some Like It Hot,’’ “MacGyver,’’ “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’’ “The Man With the Golden Gun,’’ and “One Hour Photo.’’ Not bad for a guy whose parents were barely more than gleams in their parents’ eyes when much of this footage was made.

MARK FEENEY FRIDAY, 7 p.m.-midnight Think of “The Clock’’ as the ultimate set of movie trailers - or, better yet, the purest. No film is identified. That’s not the point, since nothing is being sold, just 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 act of watching. Watching five hours of “The Clock’’ makes you want to see the whole thing. It also makes you want to see every movie ever made.

“The Clock’’ returns viewers to their moviegoing childhood. When you’re young, you never know what’s coming next. You’ve yet to learn the movies’ various codes and customs. 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 actual time, you have no idea what’s next.

A paradox underlies “The Clock.’’ The only way to enjoy it - and, if you do, the enjoyment is immense and luxuriant - is to surrender to its eddying, inexorable rhythms. If you can 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 time checks - “The Clock’’ is the “Where’s Waldo’’ of timepieces - you enter a durational duty-free zone. You constantly see the passage of time while hardly feeling it at all. It’s like going to the office and not having to work. Marclay punches the clock for you.

GEOFF EDGERS SATURDAY, midnight-4 a.m. I found “The Clock’’ mesmerizing. That was for the first hour. As the morning wore on, I began to wonder if it was worthy of the intense praise that has come the artist’s way - and cash, at $500,000 for each edition of “The Clock’’ - or if, in a way, the piece is a one-trick pony.

The mania surrounding the work forced me to think too much rather than just get swept up in the swirl of clips. Sitting in back, where I could tap away at my laptop, I glanced at the wall label. Marclay’s crew was big enough to work the Indy 500. Drat. For me, part of the pleasure was imagining this nutcase surrounded by DVDs, Beta tapes, and laser discs in his endless search for time references. I didn’t want to think of “The Clock’’ as the farmed-out video equivalent of a Bob Timberlake print.

Another distracting thought: How on Earth did Marclay get such wonderful picture quality if he didn’t license these clips? (He didn’t.) Only those who go legit - and pay serious money for licensing - are provided with nice, high definition tapes.

Eventually, I stopped thinking. I nodded off, tweeted, and dozed some more. It was a relief, the next day, to review the Twitter transcript and see no fireable comments. And if I still wasn’t sure where I stood on “The Clock,’’ I did know one thing: I would be back, soon, for another viewing.

WESLEY MORRIS SATURDAY, 4-9 a.m. Of all that Christian Marclay’s horological odyssey achieves, the boldest feat is a simple matter of etiquette. If a movie’s got you, you don’t want it to end. So what do you do when a movie’s lost you? You check the time. For 24 hours, “The Clock’’ subverts that. It turns a form of judgment, of rudeness, of exasperation, of basic temporal orientation, into an event. Every shot of a clock or a watch, whenever someone asks for the time, you’re made aware of how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go.

When, at about 4:11 a.m., Tom Cruise comes home from his “Night Gallery’’ orgy to Nicole Kidman, I felt the urge to curl up alongside them. The movie is “Eyes Wide Shut,’’ and I still don’t know what that title means, but its poetry neatly applies to five hours with “The Clock.’’ By 4:23, there were eight of us in a theater that can seat 48, and two were sleeping. What were we doing here? Should we be watching movies as our bodies cry out for sleep?

This is one long montage, and it’s frequently exhilarating. But a conventional montage lasts, at most, a minute or two. Here the compounded euphoria of experiencing disparate images compressed into a kind of unified story eventually starts to wear you out. A good montage is like good sex, and Marclay is asking you to have sex all day. As irresistible as that sounds, it’s a demoralizing task. Marclay can go all night. I, as it turns out, cannot.

ALEX BEAM SATURDAY, 9 a.m.-noon I suppose the story of my life is to be dragged kicking and screaming to events I end up enjoying. That would certainly be the case with “The Clock.’’ I assumed it would be a pompous meditation on the nature of time, but instead it was a beautiful, often humorous meditation on movies and the many tricks they play.

I monitored the 9 a.m. to noon shift. I learned that in the movies, many lovers rise after 9, stretch, canoodle a bit, and then call for room service. Likewise, many, movie characters glance at an alarm clock, scream “Oh, [Expletive]!’’ and scamper off to work, or to rob a bank. I also learned that, contrary to Bob Dylan’s assertion in “Desolation Row’’ (“the Titanic sails at dawn’’), Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic sailed at the stroke of 12.

“The Clock’’ does pose an important question of time, meaning how much of your time is worth spending on this day-long piece of video art? I wasn’t often bored, but I twigged to what was going on after about an hour and a half. Why not stay 112 minutes? That’s the length of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 thriller “Time After Time,’’ a movie that I didn’t see sampled in “The Clock.’’ Perhaps it was before, or after my time.

REBECCA OSTRIKER SATURDAY, noon-2 p.m. Sprinting from the parking lot, I made it to “The Clock’’ just at the clanging stroke of high noon in the screening room. But where was Gary Cooper? I must have missed him. Instead, here was sad old Quasimodo, swinging on his giant bells.

Then came a river of movie faces: Michael York, Charles Bronson, Johnny Depp, Marcello Mastroianni. Kathleen Turner when she was beautiful, Ronald Reagan when he was paid to be an actor, Laurence Olivier when he was Hamlet. A stream of hairstyles, gangsters, grandfather clocks, top hats, shootouts, car chases, Nazis, train platforms, surveillance cameras. Hey, there’s the clock radio I had when I was growing up!

Every emotion was on view - anxiety, boredom, panic, lust. Every action, woven into a tapestry and locked in time. There is no new thing under the sun, “The Clock’’ affirms, but here is a new arrangement.

In the end, what stood out? Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express,’’ drenched in black coq feathers, gleaming like a revolver, coyly buying her man a watch. And Orson Welles in “The Third Man,’’ drenched in cynicism, casting his ultimate verdict on the value of keeping time:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance,’’ he says. “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’’

CATE McQUAID SATURDAY, 2-4 p.m. “The Clock’’ is like a dream of time. You cannot escape its relentless progression, yet every moment abounds with pleasure. For almost any viewer, it’s lush with personal associations: Robert Redford walking into a diner and ordering a blue plate special in “The Sting,’’ the first movie I vividly remember seeing; Peter Falk as Columbo, prodding a suspect about why he keeps checking his watch. But they’re interlaced with unfamiliar clips, prompting the viewer to ping-pong between the intimate and the unknown, making new links. All as “The Clock’’ unfurls generously against a steady beat, with the precision and emotional voluptuousness of music.

For me, the denouement came before the actual end at 4 p.m. - although with time, and “The Clock,’’ there is no end, it just goes on. At 2:45 p.m., Harold Lloyd fell out of a high-rise window and hung for dear life from the minute hand of a clock face in the iconic scene from the 1923 comedy “Safety Last!’’ Marclay dwells longer on this scene than most, and for good reason. It’s captivating: the history of film, viewed through the lens of time, telescopes back to this seminal moment. Does the filmmaker see himself in Lloyd, scrambling for safety by grasping on to the one thing that will never fail him - as embodied by the clock - time’s passage?