Christian Marclay's The Clock
Smuggle in a Sandwich
Reprinted from For Your Art
I’m usually disappointed when what I am reading has difficulty dovetailing into what is actually occurring in my life. I remember once, in sub-zero temperatures in Chicago, literally hating how little W.B. Yeats had to say to me on the El as commuters shoved elbows and armpits in my face. A more recent insult was reading the deathbed speech of the Roman Emperor Julian while trapped in a Miami Bennigan’s on what happened to be Senior Karaoke Night. Julian’s lovely iambic verse died under an asinine braying of this is ladies night, oh what a night. Grave-turning and indigestion.
While waiting to view Christian Marclay’s The Clock at LACMA, however—and thank whoever there is to thank for this—I not only had Guy Davenport’s essays but also, by happy accident, I had chosen from the collection “Walt Whitman”: an essay about Horace Traubel’s conversations with Whitman over the course of 1,458 evenings from 1888 to 1892. Davenport specializes in plucking mind-altering nuggets from massive amounts of information, and out of mountains of transcripts, he notices, more than anything else, Whitman’s dirty floor. Davenport finds young Traubel surrounded by an ever-growing sea of paper, fragments, notes, and bits of snipped rhyme reaching a point of mass. It was difficult even to find a place to sit.
Little wonder Leaves of Grass went into 6 editions during Whitman’s lifetime alone. If not for Whitman’s death, no doubt, he would have continued his additive promiscuity, still aggregating, still making lists, synthesizing and promulgating themes into his epic. Whitman’s poem grew as the country grew, collecting words as the U.S. collected lands and states, dividing, fighting then moving west, constantly taking in and taking on more of the continent. The best way to get to the “we” of America was by exploring the multitude of the “I,” and Whitman wanted his “I” as big as possible. The floor got dirtier and more personal. Traubel’s record of his conversations with Whitman grew to 9 volumes and took 90 years to print.
However, I had to leave Whitman in Camden. LACMA’s Bing Theater opened and there was The Clock, running on the big screen. I was eager to see it and slipped seamlessly out of the poet’s clutter and collection of American realities into Christian Marclay’s collection of time.
I got my bearings in the dark theater, but I was already in The Clock as soon as I sat down. I’ve always been involved with and always been inside this flowing movie of clips. A Japanese boardroom, all white, with an enormous clock. Two people in bed—she’s naked and he’s late. An effortless turn down a dark hallway, and another turn at its end. A gleaming set of doors with nurses stitching in and out, carrying newborns, white again. A family sits at table. Orson Wells in The Third Man, examining a car crash. Christopher Walken kept the watch, “Up his ass,” only to come here, “little man,” and hand it to you. Back to the family table. Time for grace.
How easy it is to list these events kissed and assembled with Marclay’s poetic touch. With Whitman close at hand and floating in my head, the list could even flow right back into Leaves of Grass:
“The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the
clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs,
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath . . .”
“What living and buried speech is always vibrating here,” Whitman says to close his stanza, and he could as easily be describing The Clock. I imagine multiple servers, hard drives, DVDs, pampas of notes and storage trying to hold Marclay’s big memory—a memory that aims at nothing less than everything—and feel the echo of Whitman’s dirty floor.
The Clock, however, might even be a more elegant synthesized whole than Leaves of Grass, which likes to groan and twist as much as wander into performances of virtuoso union. Neither can be taken in one sitting and both compulsively suck you in. Yet the tastes and gears of the contemporary give The Clock a sort of smuggle in a sandwich and pressure on the bladder addictive nature far beyond books. You push impossibly into the whole of it and are not content to stop. You are constantly in the pseudo-involvement of a film, but cannot pick up the story because there is no story (Isn’t it strange to be unable to leave a story because there is no story?).
Instead, you follow The Clock, are absorbed into The Clock. My eyes twitched and sought, followed each stimulation. Even after I made myself leave The Clock for my car, each billboard and point of ordinary fascination on Wilshire was something I had to have and take in like a bag of M&Ms. The Clock mimics the hungry joy of Whitman and gives it tight entertainment value.
Zadie Smith called The Clock “neither bad nor good, but sublime, maybe the greatest film you have ever seen,” and she’s exactly right. The Clock is a constant sublime apparition, a ceaseless trove of awe-production, at least at the moment. Certain people may have lost their interest in the Grand Canyon. Not so for The Clock, at least not yet. You don’t get bored. You can say you “get it,” that you have the concept of The Clock, but the minute-to-minute dazzle of the film quickly reminds you that there’s more to life than concepts. You are checked only by biological need and the schedules of the day. If you are Geoff Dyer, even the schedules evaporate, for the writer confessed that on seeing The Clock, there was nothing in his day to rival it. Appointments are ignored. Such is the tightly bound but densely fascinating world of The Clock.
The Clock both is and isn’t Whitman’s dirty floor. It has the fragments but not the clutter. It is an aggregation but is fully mature. I think of Whitman and Whitman’s poem and necessarily see a vibrantly bearded madman containing his frowzy America. Equally just is thinking of Marclay as he is: a thin, serious Euro-DJ bent on perfection, turning time in an almost perfect machine.
I find this distinction significant. In Leaves of Grass, life is ever in the process of becoming art and therefore remains life. In The Clock, life has gotten so close to art, so remarkable sown into a whole, that the dramatic difference between the film and life becomes miraculously apparent. While in Whitman, the collective “we” emerges from the dramatically large “I,” in Marclay, the collective “we” and thousands of little “I”s arrive as a seamless whole.
We gasp together in The Clock, we get scared together, we laugh together, and it’s haunting because we discover we are haunted: by an imperfect but ever present past; by various voices that can seem so utterly perfectly like our voice that we forget we come from those very voices. We can, if we get meditative, entertain notions of how we are built and how we are all a population of ghosts—all reflected facets of a thousand faces. In The Clock, we dance with Eisenstein’s and Hugo’s automaton, a creature only half alive. It’s the best we can do before we lose control and become ourselves.
How we are built is the knowledge that we collectively build the significant particulars of each moment of our lives. We start with a shared biology—we eat in intervals, we lose steam in the afternoon, we sleep at night, and frequently because of the popularity of sleep as a nighttime activity, we find that the deep night is often spent alone. These biological details, with consciousness, become metaphoric—dawn becomes a stand in for birth, the early morning a time of youthful inspiration, the adult grind and reality of the afternoon, the soft decline of the evening, death at dark. Certain historical moments try to transcend metaphor—Jesus died at 3 o’clock on Good Friday and Christians believe that at 3 o’clock on that day, they are literally closer to that point in history than at any moment. It is not always a religious impulse though—anyone who has discovered that at 8:46 in the morning it’s easier to feel closer to 9-11 knows this: it’s the moment the plane hit the first World Trade Center Tower. No other moment of the day is closer.
The Clock is built from these significant particulars, which are subsequently built from thousands of sources and authors. It is a collage of art based on what is collectively built by humans out of stories and into movies; out of movies and into other movies. Each instant is the vision of someone else, yet collectively, it is a vision of us, as though a multitude of ants were sent by an unknown impulse out to an array of paths, and when each returned with their individual found, hewn, or constructed pebble, the built mound still looked like a mound. Biology appears, metaphor comes naturally, and historical flash points organize, just like in history. And also like history, Marclay’s The Clock, ultimately, with all of its clips, alternate realities, and mixed music, miraculously is still a day.
And like all perfect art, The Clock brings us to the point where we are all remarkably passive—to the ledge of becoming what we are, which transcends representation, which means being an ambitious actor inside Whitman’s multitude, which means leaving the theater. It will be messy once it starts, and it starts once we leave art and enter life. In my viewing of The Clock, this was the moment, having seen all the tables set and food prepared, I discovered I was hungry. Right on time.