Great or Gimmick? Edelstein and Saltz Spar Over Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux; Todd White/Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London; Benjamin Norman/The New York Times/Redux; J?rg Glaescher/laif/Redux

Jerry Saltz: David — I know you were a Clock virgin until today. I’m a Clock junkie. I saw nineteen hours (out of the full 24) last winter and a few hours today at Lincoln Center.

David Edelstein: I spent two hours there this morning, and found The Clock to be breathtakingly unimaginative.

J.S.: Wow. I was sure you’d be as awed as I am — swept up in its strange, abstract contrapuntal rhythms and visual coincidences. Tell me how it failed for you.

D.E.: Obviously, the breadth of Marclay’s (or his assistants’) research is amazing. He has managed to find scenes in which clocks and watches show the exact time in his 24-hour trajectory, and to make them flow together. “Wake up, it’s 10:30!” “What time is it?” “10:31,” etc. I’d never noticed just how many films use the passing of time as an element. But beyond the coincidental temporal associations, I could discern little connection among the clips. It’s just a gimmick. Though there were compensations — like the chance to congratulate myself for having seen maybe three quarters of the movies.

J.S.: For me, The Clock isn’t a parlor game of spot-the-time and name-that-film. Or only a tour de force of research — although the three years’ work is an ever-present buzz of invisible content. After this time around, I think The Clock is even more intentional, knitted together, mysterious, connected, and choreographed from one scene to another, one moment to the next, than I did before.

D.E.: Maybe if I’d stayed fourteen hours, until midnight, I’d have begun to see patterns and crosscurrents as various characters stayed awake into the wee hours.

J.S.: So then what makes The Clock so “unoriginal” and “a gimmick”?

D.E.: I’m fairly sure, unless there are scores of movies in which the time is seen to be 11:48 at a given moment, that Marclay was limited by his source material. He also had to resort to a lot of ticking-clock action-picture scenarios, from the high-toned High Noon on down. Heist movies, time-bomb thrillers, hostage melodramas — the number of them is predictably disproportionate. Marclay returns to the more obvious ones over and over, like the Jason Statham picture Bank Job.

True, there are interstitial bits that bind some of the shots, and moments in which a character looking up at a clock are followed by similar vantages from another movie. Those are witty and brilliantly orchestrated. But it’s all fooling around with found footage, slotting it into place. Little of it is transformed the way it is in, say, the works of Guy Maddin and Terence Davies. From minute to minute (literally), there are delightfully seamless segues, surprising echoes, and excerpts in which I saw the films in question with new eyes. I just can’t conceive of watching it for longer than I did, let alone nineteen fucking hours.

J.S.: I tried to see more! But long lines at the Paula Cooper Gallery last winter precluded my getting in. (I have great endurance for these things. Art critics my age cut their teeth sitting on dirty floors watching long videos of people just walking back and forth.) But I disagree that there are only “interstitial bits.” I think every splice flows from and connects with what comes before and after. Sometimes hours later. An abstract narrative forms. At 1:31 p.m., I watched late lunches served in one country leading to lunches in another to waiters clearing tables in one century to a waitress serving someone in another to people asking if it isn’t too soon for an afternoon cocktail. That all this happens in the space of only a few minutes expands time, shocks, and makes The Clock turn cosmic. Every moment reflects an inbuilt rhythm: What’s happening in the film is actually happening in the world outside the theater, not by coincidence but design. And inside our bodies—I was late for lunch myself being there. That’s pretty trippy to me.

D.E.: By “an abstract narrative forms,” I guess you mean that in clip after clip (after clip), breakfast comes around 7 or 8 a.m. and lunch between noon and two. I’ve only seen, as I said, two hours of The Clock, but I’ll guess that from six to eight (later in Spanish films), people will be at dinner. Expanding and contracting time is a subjective notion, but as we’re both impressionists, I’ll theorize that time expands because you’re never allowed to forget it. Not since high school have I been so aware of the crawl of the second hand. Particularly because once you begin to get immersed, Marclay cuts away, forcing you out of the moment. I’ll admit that being forced to readjust to a new director’s palette and use of space can seem, paradoxically, liberating. Maybe it would help if I hadn’t known so many of the clips, so my mind would click easily into film B instead of remaining a few beats with film A, envisioning how it would have continued.

J.S.: What you call a “gimmick,” I call structure. I love that even with cocktail hour coming at cocktail time and lovers rolling over after afternoon trysts that The Clock is self-erasing. I never remember: Have I seen this part or not? It has longevity, almost like a painting. It’s different every time I see it, the way 1:31 p.m. is different every day. It turns time into something ripening, not just repeating, ponderable instead of inevitable, imagined but also real. I’ve seen zillions of artworks composed of all the chase scenes in The Dukes of Hazzard or thousands of uses of the phrase “Let’s get out of here,” and they just use film. The Clock seems to expand filmness. Maybe you think in terms of wholeness, and I just think in images and short scenes. For me almost every segment and its connection to the next is a work of art unto itself. It’s a distinction between types of arts, between film-art and art-art.

D.E.: I don’t make that distinction. It’s all art.

J.S.: Well, it comes down to narrative, which is where I thought we might wind up. I’ve always thought filmmakers are seriously limiting the use of the medium by being so obsessed with having a fairly traditional story and structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. For an art critic, too many films are just great-looking versions of theater and novels. Which I love: I don’t want films to be all blurry-shaky shots of clouds. I just think that the ways that narrative is generally embedded into almost every film is, as you’d say, “breathtakingly unimaginative.”

D.E.: My bias does run toward narrative, and in its absence I prefer not to have story lines dangled in front of me and then snatched away. I would become absorbed in a scene and then experience a surge of irritation when it was brusquely interrupted. I had many such surges. But I’m not one to devalue anyone’s flashes of revelation, so viewers will have to decide for themselves between my surges and your flashes.

J.S.: Like this one: How do the Spanish eat so late?

The Clock by Christian Marclay.
At the David Rubenstein Atrium, Lincoln Center.

This story appeared in the July 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Edelstein, Saltz on Marclay’s The Clock