The Rumpus Review of The Clock

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Moms are full of all sorts of pithy sayings that mysteriously trickle down through time. Being an impatient child—who has grown into a reasonably impatient adult—I remember my mother often advising me that “a watched pot never boils,” meaning that I needed more patience, or to be more distracted, thus, not watching the pot and allowing it enough personal space to find its boiling point. Metaphorical pots of liquid are a bashful lot.

As an adult, I find myself repeating my mother’s words when I’m stuck in traffic, when I’m on hold with a utility company, or when I’m in a hypoglycemic rage and hangrily awaiting pasta water to boil. Patience is always the virtuous thin thread by which sanity remains intact in these scenarios.

Patience is also the way in which you need to approach Christian Marclay’s masterpiece The Clock, a 24 hour film that also serves as a real time clock. The Clock is comprised of thousands of film and tv clips from the 20th Century and is on some level an incredible archive of the Century in film, from the silent era through the 90s. Each clip, whether it is from an episode of The Twilight Zone or a scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie, features a reference—either visual or spoken—to the actual time. So when Harold Lloyd dangles precariously from the minute hand of the clock in a clip from Safety Last! at 2:41pm, you can be sure that it is also 2:41pm in real life.

When I found out that Boston’s MFA was going to be exhibiting Marclay’s brainchild, I knew that I had to commit myself to it. While the Museum isn’t open 24 hours, and therefore I couldn’t go as whole hog into his artistic vision as maybe I’d have liked, I knew that I could at least watch it from the time the museum opened, until closing time—8 hours, with a 30 minute lunch break. So at 10am on a chilly Saturday morning, I bought my ticket, checked my bag, and settled into the dark theater on the second floor of the cavernous museum. I foolishly brought my cell so that I could check the time throughout the day, remembering within the first 60 seconds that it was unnecessary.

As I slumped into the comfortable leather sofa that would be my base camp for the next 8 hours, I found myself chuckling along with the few other audience members each time the time appeared or was spoken on screen. The chuckles were short lived, however. Within the first 5 minutes everyone fell silent and still as it became apparent that The Clock was no inside joke. In fact, it’s no joke at all. Every minute of every hour is consciously registered as The Clock ticks away, creating a hyperawareness of time. Being acutely aware of something that usually occupies a supporting role in life is uncomfortable to say the least. It’s a bit like when Buddhists tell you to be aware of your breath. Being aware of your breathing makes it incredibly difficult to breathe. So it goes with time.

The Clock’s pacing doesn’t help matters. Marclay spliced together so many clips, that none lasts longer than a literal minute, and many only appear long enough for the time to register with the viewer, meaning that anywhere from 2-5 clips barrel through a single period of 60 seconds, forcing the viewer to confront the same minute over and over again within the 60 second span. To compound things, underpinning nearly every “scene” is a sense of panic or urgency. Actor after actor anxiously asks “what time is it” with bulging eyes and sweating brow, answers coming in the form of a cutaway to a close up of a clock—be it Big Ben or the cracked face of a pocket watch—punctuated by orchestral crescendo. Despite the speed of the clips, the constant anxiety with which each minute plays out creates a feeling of dread, of neverending waiting, or at the very least malaise, and after an hour in the theater I began to wonder if I was somehow participating in a Draconian psychological experiment. My palms were sweating, my heart racing, my knee bouncing. Most of the people I arrived with left within the first 30-45minutes.

By 11:15am, I felt like I was watching a simultaneously slow and fast-moving horror film; that something bad was surely on the horizon—a death or something possibly worse.  The 11am-12pm hour did nothing to alleviate feelings of certain doom; the pacing ramps up at 11:30am, rapid cycling through clip after clip of scenes where “time is running out.” People begin running for trains, worrying about trains, and talking about train schedules.

At 11:40am, comes the bizarre scene from Easy Rider where Peter Fonda looks at a wristwatch stopped at 11:40am, throws it on the ground and rides off. Following that is a montage of clips of moments leading up to high noon duels, interspersed with shots of panic-stricken faces. I had heard that at certain hour markers during The Clock an “event” happened, so I nervously sat through the final minutes before noon, despite a visceral desire to flee the theater, assuming the pot would boil at 12 o’clock.

My mother was correct. It did not. Noon came and went, nobody died, the clips relaxed in their intensity, and my sanity remained intact. Barely. No disaster, no doom, no duel, no “event,” no boiling point.

It was time to get a sandwich. When I returned just after 12:30pm, the theater was packed and The Clock had begun its race toward 1pm, though it was less frantic than the high noon build up. This would be the general rhythm of the day—each hour of The Clock would begin slowly, steadily increasing in momentum and intensity, building toward climax until the very last moment of the hour when nothing would happen. The mood would reset again.

This rhythm was infuriating throughout the first half of the day, but after lunch, something strange happened; my patience began to pay off. Once I stopped waiting for something to happen, the hours began to blur together. Unlike the viewers who stuck around 30-45 minutes, after 3 hours I stopped being acutely aware of the wristwatches, sundials, Big Bens, and Koo-Koos. Even the clips themselves lost their individual identities and instead bled one into the next, creating a sense that the day was like any other—with its frustrations, moments of anxiety, humor, and boredom. After the early rush toward the peak at noon, time steadily slowed. The hour between 3pm and 4pm wiled away with shots of siestas, yawns, people shuttering windows against afternoon heat.

I’ve read reviews of Marclay’s Clock that refer to it as a commentary on time. I think that more than that, The Clock feels like a commentary on our often-fraught relationship to time. To be constantly reminded of time’s passing creates a palpable sense of an inevitable, dreaded, final precipice. And so we fill our hours with distractions, with meaning, with art and humor and whatever we’re always filling the minutes with. As well we should. Ultimately, though, time does what it does and that final minute will come. And then it will go—the ultimate climax being less of a precipice and more of a mundane, fleeting minute like any other. When that minute passes, the day will amble along in its rhythms as it always does.

At 5pm, I wandered out of the museum, a little shell-shocked and wobbly, into evening light that could have just as easily been dawn light. I walked hurriedly up Boston’s Huntington Avenue, certain I was going to miss my train back to Providence. At one point, I instinctively reached toward the phone in my back pocket to see just how late I was and caught myself, realizing that I didn’t really care what time it was anyway.  I would miss my train or I wouldn’t. Either way, there would be more trains.


Michael Braithwaite is a freelance writer and culture hound. Her (yes, HER) work has been published the Bay Citizen, Bitch Magazine,The Rumpus, the Boston Phoenix, and SF Weekly's blog The Exhibitionist, to name a few. Ever an optimistic nihilist, she's currently working on a post-apocalyptic travel log. More from this author →