By Emmanuel Bonin, Guest Contributor
It is tempting to compare The Clock, Christian Marclay’s behemoth endeavor of a 24-hour-long film entirely composed of excerpts from other films and TV series, to the Benjaminian project of a masterpiece carefully and exclusively made up of citations. Walter Benjamin strived to summarize the whole 19th century through the study of the Parisian Passages in literature (known as The Arcades Project in English translation). Marclay seems at first to achieve something similar for the 20th century through the medium of the moving image.
One has to bow as a gesture of respect for the amplitude of the accomplishment. Any reader of the cultural press will know by now that it took the Swiss-American artist three years of editing on Final Cut to loop a perfect “round the clock,” or be familiar with the fact that the artist himself cannot state the number of clips or films used (maybe only Dustin Hoffman — shortly glimpsed in an excerpt from Rain Man — would know). Such a project needed a strong theoretical backbone to withstand the test of viewership, a thread procured by the eponymous clock and the reflections the movie helps to produce on its conceptual companion, time.
As a whole, The Clock is a sublime presentation of human life in its everyday flow. Between noon and 2 p.m., people are mostly having lunch. At night they sleep, dream, have nightmares or brave the threats of the city’s nightlife. Around 4 a.m. they start to wake up, with a peek between 6:30 and 8 a.m., exemplified by the sheer multiplication of bells and alarms ringing at that time. The film at its best has an effect similar to Nicholas Nixon’s photographic series on the Brown sisters: to see Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson (who seems to have a fondness in his old age for starting the day lying on the floor, next to his bed) at all the stages of their lives creates a dizzying vertigo, the mirror of our programmed deliquescence.
Unfortunately the film falls short of a video or cinematic masterpiece. History is only an elusive guest in a film that behind its anecdotal rationale lacks a rigorous approach to montage. It’s Pop Art at its best, a crowd-pleaser that makes for reasonably attractive entertainment. It has all the referential nods to attract a Hollywood-savvy audience, yet it can be cinema at its worst, with an overrepresentation of the least interesting industrial products of the last 30 years. Both these reasons account for the relatively long lines in front of LACMA when The Clock screened there one weekend in March 2012.
The pleasure of The Clock for the cinephile, not dissimilar to that of a televised trivia game, is to reassure himself on the extent of his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium. Marclay’s montage lacks dialectic, or to put it mildly, when dialectic appears, it’s weak and trivial. Hence when a shot of a phallic revolver follows the striptease of yet another blonde actress, the joke raises cheap laughs that ultimately render a disservice to the work. How remote one feels from Godard’s Histoires du Cinema, or Vertov’s Kino Pravdas, recently screened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
A talented DJ, Marclay leads us smoothly from one shot to the next, and sometimes along many shots, using sound cues the way a musician would lead us from one set to another on the dance floor — but not as a cineaste would create thought and meaning by using not only smoothness, but also confrontation, rupture, friction, abrasion. The result is too unruffled to guide us to any kind of truth; it eschews aspiration and Aufhebung. I was struck after a continuous 10-hour viewing by the blur that resulted in my mind, namely the lack of striking images that would last or stay with me. It is unnerving to feel that even a beautiful shot by Fellini loses its soul in this undifferentiated mass. A collage of commodities, The Clock as a whole only achieves the status of a super- or meta- commodity (worth its $450,000 per copy), with Marclay as its deus ex machina, a supreme being way too obvious, overly present at every cut.
We may question the underlying principle of the work: editing is the art of manipulating time and space to either create the illusion of continuity or raise questions and thoughts in the mind of the viewer by revealing its own artificiality. By defusing the goals of editing, Marclay not only fails to go further than exposing obvious manipulations of time in the common commodities of our culture (i.e., the scenes from Mission Impossible, the TV series), but forbids himself to put his tool to good use. One is left to admire the numerous much more elegant or meaningful cuts that are not Marclay’s, but belong to their original creators and editors, appearing inside the sequences spliced by the artist.
I was not surprised to read in the long and elegiac profile of Marclay in the New Yorker that Marclay is neither a cinephile nor a cineaste and that he has not seen most of the films he uses. Here lies the difference with Walter Benjamin’s opus in literature: you can trust the German philosopher to have read, loved and understood his sources.
If a viewer has 24 hours to spend in front of films and longs for an understanding of cinema and history, he may be more inspired to view, in a row, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Syberberg’s Hitler. And add the Godfather trilogy or Scenes from a Marriage for a true lesson in editing. If less demanding in its running time (a mere three hours), Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, with its dialectically constructed narrative, seems a reasonable antidote to the whirling and drawing void created by Marclay’s deluge of shots.
— Emmanuel Bonin