I didn’t notice that my watch battery was dead until I looked at my wrist as I was heading to the station to catch the 10:29 a.m. train to San Francisco. Why am I telling you this? Because, ironically, I was on my way to see Christian Marclay’s video installation “The Clock” at SFMOMA, a work that edits together thousands of scenes from movies and TV in which the time on a watch or a clock is visible or mentioned, creating a 24-hour, real-time loop charting the passage of time. And here I was, time-less.
No worries, though. “The Clock” is, among other things, an actual clock synced to the local time. SFMOMA opens at 11 a.m, which means that visitors see only the portions of “The Clock” that represent the museum’s regular hours. Hardy souls can see the entire 24 hours in continuous viewings every weekend in May and on June 1, with the exhibit staying open from from 11 a.m. Saturdays to 5:45 p.m. Sundays.
On my visit to “The Clock,” I was seated in the 80-person screening room (filled with comfy three-person love seats for the run) at 11:21, according to the action onscreen. I reluctantly left at around 1:15, and only because I was hungry. “The Clock” is immersive art, hypnotic, mysterious but also weirdly familiar. At the very least, it’s a history of movies and TV; in my two hours, I viewed clips of (among other things) Laurel and Hardy, Montgomery Clift, Joan Crawford, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, Meryl Streep in three different films, John Steed and James Bond, Run Lola Run, High Noon, Christopher Walken’s “hiding the watch up his ass” speech from Pulp Fiction (big knowing chuckle from the audience) and Ricky Gervais in a scene from the British version of The Office (bigger knowing chuckle).
“The Clock” is also a meditation on time, specifically, the meaning of time, and how it’s measured by people in differing situations. Time is running out for Robert Powell in The Thirty-Nine Steps (the 1978 version) as he hangs off the minute hand of Big Ben trying to stop a bomb wired to explode at 11:45. Time has lost its logical structure for Judi Dench as the Alzheimer’s-stricken writer in Iris, lying expressionless in bed in a silent room. Time stands tortuously still and yet pitilessly marches on for Susan Hayward’s condemned murderer as she sits in the gas chamber awaiting execution in I Want to Live. The subtext of all of these scenes is death, the end of time.
You become acutely aware of the time as it’s ticking away in front of you. The top of the hour carries more dramatic significance than the bottom. Noon is a big deal in movies. So is Big Ben. Marclay builds a constant emotional ebb and flow by letting some scenes stretch on well beyond their use as a time-marker, so that you get caught up in myriad stories-within-stories. You recognize the context of some, and those trigger memories of the original work (like the well-known Twilight Zone episode about bespectacled and bookish Burgess Meredith as the sole survivor of global annihilation). Other scenes flash by like the hundreds of fleeting thoughts you’d have in a day, unexamined.
In its patchwork, mashed-up structure, “The Clock” is great storytelling. It keeps your curiosity aroused, even when your stamina is wavering. And it’s hard to tear yourself away, even when the moment is disturbing, dull or sorrowful. “The Clock” makes you wonder what the next minute will bring, and the next, and the next. Just like life itself.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013