The Time of Our Lives: On Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

By Leo BraudyJuly 14, 2011

The Time of Our Lives: On Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

Promotional Still from The Clock (detail) by Christian Marclay

THE PREMISE OF DAVID THOMSON’S great novel Suspects (1985) is that all the people in film noir either are related to or know each other. He fills out their otherwise abbreviated lives with what happened before, after, and during the film stories they inhabit, mingling the real and the fictional, the actors' present role with past and future ones. Thus Vivian Sternwood from The Big Sleep turns out to be best friends with Evelyn Cross Mulray from Chinatown and, later in life, has an affair with Jonathan Shields, the Kirk Douglas character in The Bad and the Beautiful. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) from Sunset Boulevard marries the Count von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion) after marrying Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stoheim in Sunset Boulevard), and so on.

Christian Marclay's epic work The Clock — the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, showing at LACMA until July 31 — ratchets this narrative playfulness up several notches, with implications for how we see not only visual storytelling (movies, television), but also time itself. The Clock is a film that lasts twenty-four hours, and every minute of the day is accounted for by at least one and often several images of clocks on buildings, clocks beside beds, grandfather clocks that need adjusting, watches on arms, car radios, cell phones, CCTV time codes, video tape recorders, and all other forms of twentieth- and twenty-first century time-keeping. Sometimes the clock is up-front and obvious, as in, say, a shot of the face of Big Ben; sometimes it's unobtrusively placed in the background on a wall or briefly glimpsed on someone's wrist. Its look ranges from the simple numbers of an alarm clock, to the digital, to the antique, to the numberless, with virtually every possibility (and every brand of clock) accounted for. You can come in at any time during the museum's hours, and sit on one of ten large comfortable couches to absorb as much as you'd like of the unfolding array of images. It takes a minute or two to realize that the usual expectations for story will be thwarted, but by then The Clock's unique rhythm has taken hold, and more traditional narrative expectations are replaced by a whole array of new connections.


According to the publicity, Marclay worked with six researchers for several years to pick the films, although the editing is almost entirely his own, with the adroit support of Quentin Chiapetta, the sound designer. The Clock might thus be seen as simply a clever collage (or better, montage) of the various ways in which visual narrative has been preoccupied with time and used the punctuation of the clock face to organize its stories. The film may seem at first a bit mechanical, unlike, say, the montages of great film moments that Chuck Workman pioneered with Precious Images (1986), which covered almost 500 films in eight minutes, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short, and helped launch Workman on a career that included the feature-length The First Hundred Years (1995) for the American Film Institute, as well as the In Memoriam sections of the Oscar telecasts.

But, all due credit to Workman, The Clock does something very different, with its own emotional tug. Yes, its spine is the ongoing minutes of the day and night. But in the approximately 59 seconds before or after the hand moves on, we see numerous fragments of stories, stories that lead up to or follow that moment in time, built from pieces of movies and TV shows we sometimes recognize, sometimes have forgotten until now, and sometimes have never seen before. The serial recognition of those fragments makes The Clock intersect with our own sense of personal time, recalling in some vague way the first time we saw the movies, resonating with our memories. Actors and actresses appear in their youth and their age. In one juxtaposition, an older Morgan Freeman tells Jim Carrey it's 7:00 pm (Bruce Almighty, 2005) and then a younger Morgan Freeman tells Kevin Spacey it's 7:01 pm (Se7en, 1993). In other slices of time, Humphrey Bogart and Jean Gabin, Ann-Margaret, and Jennifer Jones may rub shoulders. Disparate films suddenly connect, as when 12:06 binds together an episode of The Avengers with The Exorcist, and eventually all moving images begin to seem simultaneous, with all places and persons — in silent movies and sound, in all languages — existing in an eternal present, a world unto itself with which we are almost as familiar as we are with our own world, or perhaps even more so.

As it ticks away, The Clock taps into the enormous storehouse of images bouncing around in our heads. Do we remember, however dimly, who we were when we first saw these images? Maybe. Maybe not. But just as Marclay binds his fragments together into a kind of simultaneity, their admixture with our memory does the same to the fragments of our own lives, and makes our personal past feel continuous with the past we share with others though film, video, and digital media. Since so many scenes with clocks in them convey an air of apprehensiveness, that correlation also creates an immediate intimacy with the dimly familiar images and people we see on screen. Binding us even more tightly to each other is the fact that the time on the screen is the time of the viewer in the audience. When the clock strikes 2:00 in an image, you can look at your watch and see 2:00 there as well. (LACMA needs to adjust the projection a little. The last time I was there — my fifth visit — it seemed between two and three minutes off.)


A remarkable number of clock scenes also contain talk about clocks and watches and time, not just in The Time Machine or The Big Clock, but also in countless movies where time is not so obviously important. Airline terminals and railroad stations necessarily feature clocks, of course, as do caper films and war films, where watches have to be synchronized. But often the glance at the clock or the watch is an offhand gesture, here heightened into a grander thematic significance, since with that glance we shift from one film to another: Donald Sutherland about to look at his watch segues into a watch on the wrist of Kiefer Sutherland; Sean Connery as James Bond links to Daniel Craig.

Like glances, gestures also shift context from one cut to another. Food dished out in black and white lands on a plate in color; a door opened in a costume drama leads us into a contemporary office suite. Not only is the normal film world a continuity in time, it is also a continuity in space. And in disrupting and reconstituting those conventions as well, The Clock makes its own continuity.

Marclay began his avant-garde work as a music sampler, cutting up long-playing vinyl records like pizzas and then piecing the disparate fragments together into a new disc. Music plays an important role here as well, bleeding from one shot to another, creating its own continuities and discontinuities. But The Clock goes beyond this now widespread turntablism to create an experience that is emotional as well as aesthetic. Slicing up records undermines the unvarying authority of the coherent disc in the service of a personal artistic vision. So too, amassing and editing together these hundreds and hundreds of film snippets frustrates the viewer who wants to know what happened in any one story, while at the same time enriching one's sense of the grand narrative that is film history. Play with time is nothing new in the modernist and post-modernist avant-garde. Cubism, say, could be seen as an effort to express the multiple perspectives allowed by a moving camera into the static space of a painting, just as the rapid juxtaposition of disparate but linked images in a poem like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land seems to reflect the film editing theories of Sergei Eisenstein and V. I. Pudovkin. Dan McLaughlin's UCLA student film God is Dog Spelled Backwards (1963) took a three-minute trip through the history of Western art so fast that you could barely make out the paintings, but somehow you knew subliminally they were there. A similar project was undertaken by the Czech painter Jirí Kolár, who painted a canvas made up of strips of famous paintings, perhaps a half-inch wide for each, that were similarly recognizable, although they hardly hung together as well as the bits and pieces of The Clock.

All these ventures are predicated on the rapid expansion of visual media in the twentieth century, and the deposits they leave in our brains. We think of films as continuous wholes, but they actually exist as fragments — scenes, performers, gestures, spaces — much like memory itself. The inundation of images we have been showered with for the last century and more has inspired some artists to counter with a slowing down, as in Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and 5 Year Drive By (1995) — a seven-week long showing of John Ford's The Searchers — and Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch (2002), a day-long treated recording of Beethoven's Ninth.


The extreme test of a work of visual art is whether or not it transforms our view of the world. Sometimes that transformation is powerful but narrow. In the late 1970s I went with friends to see George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in the Golden Ring Mall outside of Baltimore. The film features long sequences of zombies attacking a shopping mall, armed with their faint memories of a place where they were once happy consumers. After the film was over, when we walked out into the shuttered mall, the film's satire of consumer culture, generously slathered with blood and gore, invested the dead stores and the bland hallways with the profound creepiness of the film. It was a Hitchcockian moment, comparable to way people were scared of showers after Psycho.

The effect of The Clock on me was both less violent and more pervasive. By denying us one satisfaction — the "and then and then" of narrative that begins somewhere and leads to a conclusion — Marclay has conveyed a deeper pleasure. Unlike, say, Workman's montages of the incantatory scenes of the movie past, the moments of The Clock are for the most part the ordinary, disjunctive moments of life, the casual gestures, the richness that does not coalesce into a recognizable story or genre — what might even be called reality. And so on more than one occasion I walked out onto the lawn behind LACMA, saw some people picnicking, a puddle of tar welling up in the middle of the grass, a young couple holding hands, the line of cars on Sixth Street, the sky, the trees: all the little bits and pieces that make up the world. I looked at my watch, something I must do a hundred times a day, and the pleasures of The Clock flooded back. I've heard that, at the end of the film's run, LACMA might be showing The Clock for its entire 24 hour span. It would be pleasant to be there, at least to hear the chimes at midnight.


LARB Contributor

Leo Braudy is a Professor of English and History at the University of Southern California.


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