The Clock Strikes Midnight

Midnight. Dozens of watches, alarms and grandfather clocks chime in rapid succession. A corpse falls. Lovers pause in the act. Big Ben erupts in flame. Rhett Butler comforts his child. And Orson Welles is impaled by a clockwork soldier.

Welcome to one of the many climaxes of The Clock, Christian Marclay’s remarkable video installation-slash-cinematic mix tape. There are only a few more days left for Sydney-siders to see it at the MCA. Which is a damned shame, because I wish I could have found a way to watch all 24 hours. I may have to settle for 4 or 5. And I’ll still exit feeling it was time well spent.

A 24 hour video installation may not sound particularly appetising, but as someone who is often bored to death by the experimental films projected on gallery walls, I was besotted. The premise is simple. The film is a clock, telling time through thousands upon thousands of film scenes. The clips may be short – a cutaway to a wristwatch – or involved – a young Johnny Depp chastised by his mother for staying up too late. Each snippet tells time, sometimes through a background clock, sometimes through the dialogue.

And each one tells its own little piece of story. The editing is extraordinary. No allowances are made for age, content or quality. A black and white, 1940s era Ingrid Bergman cocks her head suspiciously at a background noise. Abruptly, we cut to a couple from a modern french film groaning beneath the sheets, legs in the air. They share nothing but a moment in cinematic time, but The Clock reveals that connection is enough to craft something hilarious and often beautiful. In cinema, time is manipulated endlessly – collapsed and extended with every cut in service of a story. Marclay turns the tables. Here, films are cut and transformed in service of time itself.

The installation progresses in real-time, guaranteeing, at least, that you’ll never have to check your watch or phone. Not that I wanted to. It is a strange sensation to arrive at a Sydney Gallery at 10pm and have to line up for over an hour to get a glimpse at a video installation. Once inside, the reason became clear – the experience is utterly addictive. No one is capable of checking it out for ‘a few minutes’. Hours later, it was clear we’d fallen into the trap. It became all too easy to miss the last train or bus home, despite the the exact hour and minute being explicitly shown somewhere on screen every few seconds.

The most wonderful sensation of The Clock is slipping, ever so slowly, into its reality, and being lured into the sensation that all these short clips form one fictional world. Despite being separated by oceans, genres, styles and centuries, forcing Jason Bourne, Freddy Kruger, Joseph K and a nebbish Woody Allen into one temporal space creates the illusion that all these stories are taking place at once. Of course Juliette Binoche doing the ironing at the same time of night that James Bond is blowing up an enemy base. Why not?

The journey through time doubles as a manic, disjointed journey through film history, without any line drawn for importance or quality. Budget thrillers and horror movies are intercut with Citizen Kane. Precious seconds are equally spent watching a scythe-like pendulum swing closer and closer to a man’s exposed torso (time can, of course, equal death) and observing Joan Crawford stare into the rain. The grain-ridden shadows of film noir clash with the garish, digitally-graded colours of yesterday’s blockbuster. And by association, each of them comes out looking kind of magnificent. The result is a world running concurrent to our own, composed of thousands of different stories and yet greater than any single one of them.

An added part of the film for film nerds is identifying the clips themselves. I let out more than a few squeals of glee at recognising a film, a character, an actor. Ricky Gervais in Extras is suddenly set against a morose Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love. A familiar face will appear in a film you’ve never heard of, or an image long forgotten will lurch from memory to the screen. Most clips will be completely unfamiliar, which is part of the charm. All of a sudden, I would jump – “Why is Tommy Caretti from the Wire sword-fighting with Jackie Chan?!” But then the moment passed, swept up with all the other happenings at 12:13am. It reminds you that Marclay isn’t just making an artistic statement – he’s having a hell of a lot of fun. So was I.

The Clock will finish its run in Sydney in a few days. I cannot wait to be back inside, watching a century of film-making converge as the seconds, minutes and hours melt away.

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