Masterpiece Theater: The Premature Anointing of Christian Marclay's "The Clock"

Masterpiece Theater: The Premature Anointing of Christian Marclay's "The Clock"

I'm glad I saw Christian Marclay’s film "The Clock" in London last October, before reading anything about it, before the rapturous encomiums began to accumulate, before people started quoting Geoff Dyer on the subject, before Bice Curiger announced it would be included in this year's Venice Biennale, before the price of the edition of six became an item for intense speculation, before the director of Paula Cooper Gallery (where the piece was shown last January-February) told the New York Times that "of course" some museums had been rejected as unworthy purchasers. In short, I'm glad I saw it before I could be notified that I was watching a masterpiece.

For anyone who has spent the last nine months holed up in Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, I'll summarize. Aided by six assistants over a period of more than two years (the germ of the idea dates back to 2005), Marclay assembled thousands of clips from thousands of films (and a few TV programs) that feature the face of a clock or other references to the precise time of day or night. The clips have been edited — surgically, affectionately — to accord with the chronological sequence of the 1440 minutes that make up the 24 hours of a day.


The work is meant to be presented to the public in concordance with local time: if it's 3:18 on the screen, it's 3:18 on your iPhone. Occasionally the soundtrack of a given clip continues over the start of the next — an audio dissolve — as if to assert the validity of la durée even as the ceaseless succession of clips represents time as being inexorably atomized. Here and there, Marclay returns to a particular source to sample another clip, and the effect (borrowed from conventional narrative film) is to suggest a concurrent transition from earlier to later that has been happening "elsewhere," apart from the otherwise insistent presentness of the minute-by-minute progression onscreen.

I liked "The Clock." I liked the outrageous disparity between the extravagant labor required to realize the project and the simplicity of its underlying conceit. (It's as if Marclay were embodying that sturdy Hollywood trope of the wild idea that's so crazy, it just might work.) I liked the fact that "The Clock" remains distantly but firmly rooted in the popular ritual of the Oscar-night clip tributes that accompany the bestowing of the lifetime achievement award, and also serve as a visual memorial to each year's dearly departed. For all the talk of the culture of sampling, the Oscar show is where we first enjoyed a taste of "The Clock" experience: distinct yet propulsively related cinematic shards, the mixture of nostalgia and triumph when we identify the source of a clip just before it vanishes, and the underlying message that — in film and life alike — time passes, and the end looms.

The most generous aspect of "The Clock" may be the way it unlocks what we already know about film and time, and then urges us — by the coolest means imaginable — to think and to talk about it. I felt this keenly while reading Zadie Smith's engaging essay about "The Clock" in the April 28 issue of the New York Review of Books. I sensed the energy of Smith's viewership, the appetite for sensation encoded in her observations. I strongly suspect that "The Clock" didn't so much enlighten Smith about the relationship between film time and lived time as give her the best possible reason to write about it.

Perhaps the foregoing will serve as a sort of cushion for the buzzkill that follows. Because I'm profoundly uneasy about the speed with which "The Clock" has been anointed a masterpiece in the press, and by the consistency with which other art works have been excluded from the discussion. This could just be an art historian's reticence in a journalistic world, but the whole masterpiece thing strikes me as premature and detrimental. Masterpiece status was conferred even before the work was completed, in fact. On August 25, 2010, months before the film debuted, an online profile in the Economist proclaimed, "Christian Marclay, a visual artist and musician, is finishing a masterpiece.... He has calluses on his fingers.... He used to limit his editing to five hours a day, but he has been putting in 10-to-12 hours seven days a week for months."


These references to calluses and to hours spent editing recur in other, subsequent accounts. It's an instance of something I call the "Sistine Syndrome," with Michelangelo's nearly four years of frescoing the chapel ceiling being the prototype for the herculean effort that must result in, well, a masterpiece. Sustaining the notion introduced in the Economist, an April 7 blog post by Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian bore the title "Christian Marclay's The Clock: a masterpiece of our times." Weeks earlier, in the shorter of his contributions to New York Magazine on the subject, Jerry Saltz, as if supplying a blurb for a movie poster, trumpeted "The Clock" as "a must-see masterpiece."

I've read additional commentary on "The Clock," and I can't recall ever witnessing art writing taking a turn so consistently declamatory yet personal. The bullet points of these many testimonials remain fairly consistent: (1) the social experience of waiting on line to get in, (2) the individual's total number of visits and hours of viewing, (3) the initial adjustment to the brevity of the edits, (4) the rush to identify sources and name actors, (5) the surrender to the momentum of the compilation, (6) the realization that film mirrors life's daily gifts (morning coffee, morning sex) while reinforcing its own dramatic  conventions (narrative climax at midnight, bad news received at an ungodly hour), (7) the reluctance to leave the ongoing screening, and (8) the exit to...  a world transformed, wherein the power of time is felt as never before, along with an urge to stop and smell the clocks. Did the weight of the hours and the ubiquity of timepieces truly escape everyone's notice before?

Sheer absorption in the experience of watching "The Clock" seems to have relieved most writers of the responsibility or desire to critically consider it in the context of other art works. Amusingly, Bradshaw cites an earlier blog in which he lauded a YouTube montage, running 9 minutes and 28 seconds, which counts down from 100 to 1 in 100 movie clips. He then concludes (Sistine Syndrome alert), "It is now clear that this piece was simply John the Baptist to the Jesus of Christian Marclay's 'The Clock'." Saltz gives a token nod to Warhol’s "Empire" (1964), saying that "The Clock" is just as "strong and strange." But there's no discussion of the piece that Warhol characterized as a way "to see time go by." Warhol filmed a stationary shot of something stationary — the Empire State Building — for a little over six and a half hours and then stretched the running time to eight hours and five minutes by slowing the speed of projection. The last glow of a summer day dies, and electric lights blink on and off. That's all. So, is time fast or slow? Full or empty? Measured or malleable? Who's time is it? It's worth going a few words beyond breezily noting that the films are both "strong and strange."

Most astonishing to me (though I certainly don't claim to have read everything written about "The Clock") is the omission of any mention of Douglas Gordon's works, in particular "24 Hour Psycho" (1993), likewise a day-long film that no "normal" viewer will ever see from start to finish. Gordon addresses several of the issues raised by Marclay — the relationships between film time and "real" time, memory and anticipation, knowledge and suspense — but through precisely opposite means: protracted duration instead of rapid-fire clips, one singularly well-known work instead of a battery of citations, and the frustration of reading canonical scenes instead of an invitation to a game of recognition. This estrangement — the sheer perviness of "24 Hour Psycho" in both its Hitchcock source and its taffylike distortion of time and image — feels calculated to thwart the warm embrace elicited by "The Clock." And then, of course, "24 Hour Psycho" will never live up to the standards of the Sistine Syndrome: no years of arduous labor here, just a guy with an idea and a recalibrated projection.

A few writers have mentioned one distant precedent for "The Clock": Godard's legendary "Histoire(s) du Cinéma" (1988-98), the hyper-edited, thematically layered, clip-based project that runs four and a half hours. Among them is Ben Ratliff, the jazz and pop critic for the New York Times, who — working from the perspective of music — offered a considered yet refreshingly immediate take on "The Clock." "For all its length 'The Clock' is not a work-on-you-slowly kind of film," he wrote. "Its organizing principle remains consistent; within a few minutes you'll know most of the reasons it works.... A 24-hour video composed of nothing but people all over the world, in many languages and from the beginning of moving images to now, tied to time, resenting it, making friends with it, sweating it or ignoring it or dying from it, becomes the mother of all jams."

Perhaps because of his distance from the visual art world, Ratliff can relish the systematic nature of "The Clock" as a composition, along with the film's emotional fullness, without feeling compelled to erect a pedestal for the work or to proclaim that his own life has been changed by it. This is pretty much in line with Marclay's own modest assessment of the piece's broad appeal. As he explained to a BBC reporter, "Anyone can relate to it. You don't have to understand contemporary art. You don't have to be intimidated by it. The attraction of film is so seductive." This is true. On the other hand, art writers do have to understand contemporary art. Did they just forget about all that, in the delightful heat of the Marclay moment?