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Finest hours

In 'The Clock,' thousands of movie clips make for a film that's worth every minute.

July 08, 2011|Kenneth Turan

"The Clock" gets under your skin. Whether you're awake or asleep, whether you're watching or looking away, you can sense its presence, feel its focus. You look at your own clock and wonder, what's on that screen at this exact moment?

Though it's been ticking away in its little room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since mid-May, you may not have heard of "The Clock." Unlike London and New York, where crowds lined up as late as 2 a.m. in the winter cold to catch a glimpse of this wonder, "The Clock" hasn't intoxicated this movie-centric city the way it should. But if you're a person who cares about film, you shouldn't even think of missing it.

Even though Christian Marclay's art installation piece won the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale, it may be best viewed not through the lens of high art but as an exhilarating and intoxicating moviegoing experience, an unintentional love note to movies, how they work and what they do, that immediately goes to your head and makes you giddy. As with the Eagles' Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

A collage of clips from literally thousands of films, foreign and domestic, silent and sound, with some TV shows thrown into the mix, "The Clock" is structured minute by minute around a 24-hour cycle. This may sound like a trivialization of the cinematic experience, a random compilation of bits and pieces from complex and thoughtful works, but it's quite the opposite.

Playing every day during museum hours at LACMA through the end of July, with a grand finale 24-hour screening scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. July 28, "The Clock" in fact encourages us, in the most pleasant way possible, to experience the ways the medium draws audiences in, encourages us to think bigger thoughts and examine what it is about film that commands our devotion, our attention and our love.

This is how "The Clock" works. In every city it plays, the screenings are synchronized to local time. At least once in every minute, there is a shot of a timepiece of some type showing that precise minute, both a.m. and p.m. versions. So one way to look at "The Clock" is as the world's most expensive time-telling apparatus, the only movie ever to keep real time 24 hours a day.

After the hour and minute is shown, what does "The Clock" do with the rest of its allotted time? Mostly it lets the scenes around the clock shot play out a bit, but sometimes it offers quotes about time ("Time sure flies," "Oh my God is that the time?" "Do you know what time it is?") as well as scenes that deal with time in a more general way: Orson Welles' Swiss cuckoo clock speech from "The Third Man," Laurence Olivier eulogizing poor Yorick in "Hamlet," the 12-year-old boy unknowingly carrying a time bomb on a London bus in Alfred Hitchcock's "Sabotage."

It's for this reason that Jonathan Romney, writing in the British film journal Sight & Sound, shrewdly compared this presentation to another compilation with a specific theme, Thom Andersen's exceptional "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Like that film, Romney says, " 'The Clock' is poised between scholarly focus and fetishistic obsession."

The first thing you react to when you experience "The Clock" is that amazing specificity, a tight focus on time and timepieces. On the most basic level, you'll be nonplussed at the variety of instruments shown: cuckoo clocks, digital ones, wrist watches, sundials, grandfather clocks, ones in banks, train stations and village towers, even multiple shots of London's magisterial Big Ben.

Sometimes the clock face takes up the entire frame, enabling us to notice the almost infinite number of brands: Elgin, Hamilton, IBM, General Electric, Benrus, Timex, Rolex, Vedette, Western Union, Patek Philippe and more. Sometimes the clock is central to a scene (Robert Redford's home run hitting the stadium clock at 4:40 p.m. in "The Natural," Jack Nicholson waiting till exactly 5 p.m. to leave his office for the last time in "About Schmidt"), sometimes it is way in the back (a scene from France's "Zazie Dans Le Metro" has a clock on a distant shelf), but it is always there.

Creator Marclay has said he considers his work to be "a gigantic memento mori," but it also serves to point out how central time is to how movies play on screen. Watching "The Clock" underlines that time is used not only to build tension but to set a scene, delineate character, add urgency to a situation. Time invariably matters to the people in a film, so it matters to the audience as well.

Because none of the films in "The Clock" is identified by name, trying to pick out where those clips come from, for instance recognizing a characteristically languid pan of a wall clock from Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood For Love," is one of the initial pleasures of the installation. Similarly, among the shocks are glimpses of actors such as Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall and Colin Firth when they were younger than we ever remember them being.

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