Damon Winter/The New York Times
Scenes from Christian Marclay’s video installation at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: July 16, 2012
It’s a bad habit, I know — or maybe a professional vice as a film critic — but at some point during a movie I always check my watch. I also make sure to know, going in, just how long the movie will last. These may serve as reminders that whatever I’m seeing is only a movie.
Time is basic to the particular illusion that cinema creates. With the exception of an occasional stunt like “High Noon” or “Russian Ark,” a film’s running time will not correspond to its narrative span. Decades can pass within the space of a few hours; irrelevant stretches can be pruned away and crucial seconds slowed down. It did not take long for the early film pioneers to figure out that they could jump forward, backward or sideways. And it has always been obvious to spectators that the time up there on screen is not the same as the time down here in the seats. One reason to go to the movies is to escape the tyranny of the clock.
“The Clock,” an installation at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center until Aug. 1, at once celebrates those illusions and explodes them. Concocted by the Swiss video and sound artist Christian Marclay, “The Clock” is a beguiling dream of eternal cinema and also a startling wake-up call, the most literal-minded and also the most abstract use of the medium you can imagine. No need to check your watch or discreetly illuminate your cellphone: the clocks, watches and conversations on screen will tell you the time, with unfailing accuracy. And unlike any movie you have ever seen — even though it is composed of nearly every movie you have seen, and then some — this cinematic object has no beginning or end. At midnight the numbers turn over and it starts again.
Because of certain practical limitations, “The Clock,” first shown in New York at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 2011, will run continuously only from Friday morning to Sunday night; from Tuesday to Thursday, it can be viewed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. After waiting in line, you are ushered into a darkened room where you can sit for as long as you like. And of course you will know exactly how long that is.
To say that you lose track of time would be absurd, since nearly every shot that does not show a timepiece includes one character asking another for the time. And as the top of a given hour approaches, your awareness becomes more acute: that’s when the bombs go off, the trains depart, the executions take place — all the stuff that has the people on screen anxiously glancing over their shoulders or plucking back the cuffs of their jackets.
Then, all of a sudden, it’s too late. On Sunday evening, when I parked myself in the comfortable, makeshift theater in the atrium, it was 8:10. Up on the screen, patrons at opera houses, theaters and concert halls were settling into their seats, their upturned faces a mirror of our own. There was Hannibal Lecter; there was Woody Allen. And here, as the minutes ticked by, were apologies for the late start. Here, too, were late-ish suppers (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung tucking in, courtesy of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”) and early bedtimes (Scout Finch tucked in by Gregory Peck in a lovely scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)
This scrambling of characters’ and performers’ names is a side effect of Mr. Marclay’s cleverly induced cinephile fever. As you watch his deftly shuffled scenes, you can’t help but engage — silently, please! — in a game of visual Name That Tune. This is both stimulating and somewhat enervating. With the wrong friends, a trip to “The Clock” could devolve into an endless film-nerd trivia night.
After a while, though, the compulsion to identify everything and everyone — Jimmy Stewart! Gloria Grahame! MacGyver! “American Gigolo”! — recedes. But a curious and far from unpleasant mixture of excitement and frustration is likely to remain for as long as you stay. Which may be longer than you anticipate, since “The Clock” generates a peculiar kind of suspense. Mr. Marclay’s sources are works of narrative, which means they turn on the expectation of what will happen next.
But what happens next is that you are thrown — or rather eased — into another movie. Film proceeds by means of phantom continuity. The imperceptible gaps between the frames and the smooth cuts between shots fool the eye and the mind into perceiving a steady flow of action. This is enabled by a syntax that after more than a century, we absorb intuitively: A man walks through a door and we will see him on the other side of it.
In “The Clock,” though, it is a different man and a different house, a different movie. The overlapping sound creates a new illusion: that all movies are contiguous, part of a boundaryless second reality that reflects our own even as it obeys its own spectral, magical logic.
There is Big Ben — the undisputable star of “The Clock,” as measured in screen time and sheer charisma. And here are his lesser cousins: on train stations and the walls of banks, in living rooms and next to beds whose inhabitants are usually just about to wake up. After 11 a.m. you witness a rash of late, panicked rising, sometimes in strange company. Those not in bed can be found at work or in church. The hour before noon is also a popular time for funerals, autopsies and preparations for murder. Even in the midday sun, there is no escaping death.
Except, perhaps, in “The Clock” itself, which stops time by surrendering completely and obsessively to its imperatives. Many of the people on screen are ghosts, rendered immortal — or at least undead — by the machinery of illusion. It is hard to walk out of Mr. Marclay’s loop because inside it you are protected from the dreadful inevitability of endings.
Of course you do have to leave — My God! Look at the time! — and re-enter the ordinary tick-tock of existence. The ghosts will keep going in your absence, though, and you can indulge in the fantasy that Mr. Marclay might be at work on a sequel called “The Calendar.”