May 17, 2011

Tick tock

Be honest - hearing the phrase "24-hour video installation" makes you recoil a little. It sounds like work, not fun - something you experience because it's "good for you," like medicine or exercise. But if you're lucky enough to see a part of Christian Marclay's The Clock, it may be one of the more fun and exciting cinematic experiences you can have this year or any other.

The Clock is a 24-hour film that assembles thousands of movie clips to create a cinematic clock, with shots of timepieces and/or characters stating the time. It also corresponds to real life - when a clock in the film shows 2:37 pm, it's really 2:37 pm. Now, that might be a bit of punishing exercise if that's all there was, but Marclay also lets most clips run a little longer, letting viewers in on the action, suspense, comedy, romance, or horror that made the source film compelling in the first place. Additionally, at least half the clips feature a clock in the background where you'd never notice it otherwise, meaning the primary focus is elsewhere. LACMA (LA's primary art museum) played the film in a good-size theater for an uninterrupted 24 hours, and I managed to head over and watch an hour and a half's worth. In that time, (5:30-7:00 pm), I watched Derek Zoolander and Hansel puzzling over files "in" the computer, Bernstein reminiscing about Charles Foster Kane, George Wells explaining his time machine, Roy Munson making out with Claudia, Guy Haines playing tennis, Rose Loomis getting a refund on a now unnecessary train ticket, Margo Channing taking a car ride, Troy and Gabriella running down the hall, Mr. Banks singing about the consistency of his life, and more. It's the ultimate movie montage, starring every actor and actress imaginable. (Plus, you never need to check your watch!)

I think that's why it's such a hit - when it screened in a tiny gallery in New York, people waited for hours in the cold to catch a glimpse. It doesn't talk down to you. It's egalitarian. It gives equal weight to undisputed classics and throwaway B-movies. You can ponder what its structure means about the passing of time, or you can just have fun trying to identify the clips. You can watch as much or as little as you want. There's truly something for everyone, and as an LA Weekly piece noted, it's rare that a single work generates this much interest.

Anything popular receives an inevitable backlash, however, and many in the art world scowl that it's mundane, unoriginal, or - gasp! - too accessible. I say that anyone complaining about people coming out in droves to experience art is way off base. If nothing else, you can make the Harry Potter argument - "hey, maybe the books aren't masterpieces, but at least it's getting kids to read." To me, The Clock has the earnestness and transparency of, say, an 18th-century portrait; the artist in both cases is saying "I used my skills to produce something aesthetically pleasing that I hope you enjoy."

And lest you think Marclay is merely a passive curator, let me stress that his editorial skills are indeed stunning. With grace and humor, he intercuts clips to create themed sections or new meanings. Characters from different films have telephone conversations, eyelines match, someone opens a black and white door to a color world, various cinematic train stations are cut together as one. The audience loved, for instance, when crosscutting made it appear that Helen Morse in Picnic at Hanging Rock was flirting with Kurt Russell (in some film I couldn't identify). A surge of chimes, shrieks, and whistles often signal the change of an hour. I'm also told that it gets really exciting at midnight, but I can't verify that personally.

So why am I telling you this, since it was a one-day only engagement that has just ended? To gloat! (Kidding, kidding!) Seriously, though, if you live in LA, you still have a chance to catch The Clock, at least partially. Apparently LACMA formally acquired the piece, and will have it playing in some capacity in their Art of the Americas wing through the end of July. Unfortunately, it will only be during regular museum hours, so the 9 pm to 11 am portions will remain a mystery. And don't hold your breath for a DVD release - holy rights issues, Batman! I could see it having sort of a roadshow presence in years to come, however, in a similar fashion to the similarly clip-laden Los Angeles Plays Itself. Basically, if any opportunity arises to see it, GO! Even the most modest of cinephiles will get a kick out of it.

Angelenos, New Yorkers, or Londoners: have you had a chance to check out The Clock? Or would you want to?

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