Friday, December 30, 2011

Movies and Time: Christian Marclay's The Clock

For those of us unrepentant film addicts who can track the passage of our lives by the movies we’ve seen, Christian Marclay’s The Clock provides a unique sort of enchantment. Marclay, a California-born visual artist and composer, has assembled a twenty-four-hour film made up of film (and some TV) clips about time. Most of them actually mark the time: the first time I caught a section of it, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last July, my watch read 3:09 p.m. as I stepped into the projection room and as soon as I’d settled myself on one of the couches, I heard a voice from screen bemoaning the lateness of the 3:10 train to Yuma. Many of the scenes  some are as short as a single shot  contain images of clocks and watches, but Marclay’s day-long montage considers time in every conceivable form and interpretation.

The four-and-a-half-hour chunk of The Clock I sat through a couple of weeks ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts drew on many of the movies you might expect from their titles alone (both versions of 3:10 to Yuma,Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock with Judy Garland, The Big Clock, 88 Minutes, 24 Hr. Photo) or because of the significance of clocks as props in the plot (Orson Welles’s The Stranger; Laura, where the gun used to shoot the woman who turns out not to be Laura is hidden in an antique clock) or because (famously in the case of High Noon, foolishly in the case of the Johnny Depp thriller Nick of Time) the story unfolds in real time. It’s no surprise to hear Christopher Walken deliver his watch speech from Pulp Fiction or Orson Welles’s celebrated cuckoo-clock disquisition to Joseph Cotten in The Third Man, to see Harold Lloyd swinging from the clock in Safety Last or Charles Laughton as Quasimodo ringing the steeple bells in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some excerpts are just as pointed but more obscure: “The Song of the Metronome” from Second Fiddle (sung by Sonja Henie), David Bennent’s scream shattering the glass face of a clock in The Tin Drum. (There’s one moment I wasn’t delighted to relive.) Others belong to the range of suspense-thriller subgenres, in which time is the invisible abstract against which the characters are racing desperately. These include doomsday scenarios like Fail Safe; espionage melodramas like Hitchcock’s memorable Sabotage (where the complacent villain, played by Oscar Homolka, entrusts his wife’s unwitting little brother with a bomb embedded in a movie can, and the audience watches with escalating terror as his journey across London is impeded by one obstacle after another); crime stories like the tawdry but effective 5 Minutes to Live (in which a young Johnny Cash plays a hood entrusted to shoot randomly selected housewives whose husbands don’t come up with the cash to forestall him).

Angie Dickinson killing time in Dressed to Kill

The paradox of The Clock is that almost every moment announces the time yet we’re so engaged that time seems to leap forward while we’re watching. The four and a half hours don’t feel like an investment, the way they would in an epic or a miniseries. Partly that’s because of the game you play with yourself of trying to identify (either by recollection or by deduction) as many of the scenes as you can, but mostly it’s because Marclay prompts us to think about the role of time in the movies in so many ways. In two contrasting scenes from the opening half hour of Brian De Palma’s delectable murder mystery Dressed to Kill, we see the elastic quality of time. Arriving at the office of her psychiatrist (Michael Caine), Angie Dickinson’s Kate begs him not to keep her waiting because she has a busy day planned, but what his promptness buys her is an hour at a museum when time treads slowly and she can reflect. (Those who have seen Dressed to Kill can fill in the gap: what Kate is thinking about is her middle-aged sexual malaise and the dissatisfactions of her marriage to an insensitive man    the subjects of her therapy session, and the provocation for her allowing herself, moments later, to be picked up by a stranger at the museum.) Time is a cruel deceiver in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, where the alcoholic writer played by Ray Milland, who has waited impatiently for the pawn shops to open so that he can trade in his typewriter to bankroll his next binge, discovers that they’re all closed for Yom Kippur. Time weighs heavily on the teens in detention in the John Hughes comedy The Breakfast Club, who distract themselves by whistling “Colonel Bogey’s March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca
Joan Fontaine stalls for time in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, hoping that the aristocrat she’s fallen in love with (Laurence Olivier) during her stay at Monte Carlo will return to the hotel before her impossible employer (Florence Bates) checks out, taking her along and putting an end to any chance she has of seeing him again. Time alludes to the end of life – in the funeral sequences culled from Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Woody Allen’s Interiors; when Goran Visnjic calls time of death in an operating-room scene from the TV series ER; when the last chance of a reprieve (a governor’s pardon) goes down and Susan Hayward (in the role of the real-life figure Barbara Graham, convicted of a murder she probably didn’t commit) is escorted to the gas chamber in I Want to Live! Time comments on character: when fastidious David Niven engages Cantinflas as his manservant in Around the World in 80 Days; when the classics master played by Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version explains drily to a worried pupil taking an exam that “it lacks nine and a half minutes of eleven” in his antiquated, embroidered verbal style; when blind Audrey Hepburn reads the kitchen clock with her hands in Wait Until Dark; when Lukas Haas, as a young man freaked out by the inexorable march of time, smashes the clock in the office of his shrink (Sidney Poitier) in a TV movie adaptation of David and Lisa. Time is a topic in two Twilight Zone episodes, “Time Enough at Last” (with Burgess Meredith) and “Four O’Clock” (with Theodore Bikel). Some scenes contain meditations on time: A Single Man, where Colin Firth, as a man who has just lost his long-time lover, talks to his university English class about growing old alone; Happy Accidents, where Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei discuss the way time appears to speed up and slow down; and of course Hamlet – Marclay includes a clip of Olivier, shockingly blonde as the Danish prince, apostrophizing to Yorick’s skull in the graveyard.

Often, when you recognize a clip, it expands in your head to imply a more layered consideration of the role of time. That’s true of the scene from Laura, where the omnipresence of the title character’s antique clock, which lends a sinister classiness to her apartment, is also a reminder that Otto Preminger’s movie is a kind of ghost story in which the hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) falls improbably in love with the spirit of the woman whose murder he’s investigating and wonders momentarily if he’s gone crazy when she walks in the door. (The picture is best in the first half, before Laura shows up in the flesh and the ghost story becomes merely a clever convenience for catching a killer.) In The Innocents, the governess (an indelible performance by Deborah Kerr) happens upon some flowers on the grave of her predecessor and calculates from their freshness that one of her charges, the little girl Flora, has left them there. In this case, a character deduces (relative) time and arrives at an unsettling conclusion from the evidence of nature. But those of us who know the movie, a real ghost story adapted from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, think beyond this reference to time to the way in which Jack Clayton’s unsettling movie suggests time standing still: the children (at least in the governess’s view) are still in thrall to their last governess and to her brutal valet lover, who are using them, from beyond the grave, as pawns in an unholy game. 

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents

The iconic image of Tatsuya Nakadai, shoulders stooped, dragging his weary body through the Tokyo streets, in Kurosawa’s Ikiru means so much more when you think of the character, a dying bureaucrat, striving to redeem a wasted life with one good deed (cutting through red tape and surmounting governmental indifference to put through a children’s park in a poor neighborhood) before his cancer swallows him up. When Julie Delpy leads Ethan Hawke up the steps to her Paris apartment in Before Sunset, fans of Richard Linklater’s movie and the movie to which it is the sequel, Before Sunrise, recall the significance of time to these reunited sweethearts, who spent a glorious day and a half together in Vienna nine years earlier and haven’t seen each other since. Now he has a plane to catch, back to his unhappy marriage in the States, and if he makes it, any chance that the protagonists’ lives will intersect for more than a few hours will disintegrate. The clip reminded me of my own relationship with time as I watched Before Sunset when it first came out in 2004: since I was aware before sitting down of the film’s running time, I refused to allow myself to check my watch during its duration – I was so emotionally involved in the relationship of the two protagonists that I didn’t want to calculate the likelihood of his leaving her behind in the time remaining. 

Before Sunset

The clips come from every era. The intercutting between color and black and white, and occasionally between sound films and silents, recall another face of time: the history of the movies, which spans roughly a century plus a decade. (That aspect of The Clock makes it a perfect work for a movie season that brought us both Hugo and The Artist.) Writing in the 1960s about the experience of watching old movies on television, Pauline Kael bemoaned the way in which the disordered jumble removed them from the meaning their eras had conferred on them and seemed to equalize the remarkable and the valueless. But the omnipresence of the movies of our past in a mammoth anthology like Marquay’s can also have the effect of salvaging that past – of reminding us of the ways in which we filled it. (A clip of Julie Harris and Zorro David in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye, from the ethereal gold-filtered print that Warner Brothers withdrew early in its release but which I vividly remember seeing, brought back the face of the teenage friend I’d gone with and the look of the Montreal movie house where we saw it, brand-new at the time but torn down a couple of decades ago.) 

Act of Violence
And then there’s the aging process, which The Clock is continually short-cutting and reversing. The random back-and-forth across the years turns up a glimpse of the improbably handsome and fatuous young Richard Gere massaging coke on his gums in American Gigolo and then, perhaps an hour later, there he is again as Clifford Irving in The Hoax, a quarter of a century older, his glossy-magazine-cover looks faded to a silvery elegance. (The happy fact that he looks so much more like a human being at fifty-seven is enhanced by his having become, even more improbably, a marvelous actor in the interim.) Look fast or you’ll miss Michael York in some black-and-white mod-era British picture, looking about eighteen, or Robert Duvall years before The Godfather, or the sumptuous young Julie Christie of Darling, or Joanne Woodward waking Paul Newman – was there ever a sexier young couple in American movies? – in Paris Blues. Perhaps best of all is the way Marclay puts us back in touch with movies we may not have thought about for years. True, some of the movie memories Marclay sets in motion may make you cringe (Brando with Sophia Loren in Chaplin’s swan song A Countess from Hong Kong, Jack Nicholson dancing with Ann-Margret in Tommy, The Last Wave with Richard Chamberlain), others quickly resurrect their forgotten pleasures – Leonardo DiCaprio at twenty-one (looking about fifteen) in The Quick and the Dead, Cate Blanchett and Greg Kinnear in Sam Raimi’s The Gift, Derek Jacobi as Andrei rhapsodizing about his love for Sheila Reid’s Natasha in Three Sisters, Danny Aiello slipping a tape of Carousel into his car deck before killing himself in City Hall. A scene in a ramshackle apartment between Van Heflin and Mary Astor from Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence brings back the whole chilling movie, a neglected film noir (the only one Zinnemann ever made) that by all rights should be a classic.

Officially The Clock is an installation, though it won the Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival and the Boston Society of Film Critics gave it the 2011 award for editing. The Boston MFA held onto it throughout the autumn; it was extended by popular demand through Christmas, and here, as in L.A. and presumably other cities, on a handful of days the entire film was projected, not just the part that fit between the museum’s opening and closing hours. I didn’t manage to get to it on any of those days (and I missed the full-length screenings in L.A.), so I didn’t get the opportunity to drop in at, say eleven o’clock at night and watch until the wee hours of the morning: the late-late-show version. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to buy our own copies, though at that point Marclay will no longer be able to call it an installation. But it’s already far more – a post-modern documentary on the nature of time, a cross-section of film history, a collage of the dreams of movie lovers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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