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Mapping 24 hours through cinema's watches and clocks

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A watch read by match-light. It appears at 6:04 in the film. It's one of thousands of images edited together to create a 24-hour-long movie.
Image courtesy Christian Marclay

Summer visitors to the Walker Art Center won't need a watch or a cell phone to know the time. They'll just have to drop into the gallery where the Walker is screening a movie called "The Clock."

  For an entire day, viewers of the film will see in exquisite detail all the ways that timepieces turn up again and again on the silver screen.

  From wooden cuckoos to digital and analog watches, clocks on church towers and those on ticking time bombs play big and small roles in films. Sometimes they play an important part in a plot. But typically they are simply there in the background, often for just a few seconds, to inform viewers who care to know what time those gangsters robbed that bank.

  That's enough for the people who made "The Clock."

  "It's a 24-hour cinematic experience that takes thousands of film clips, clips that you recognize and puts them together in a real clock," said the Sheryl Mousley, the Walker's curator of film and video.  

"The Clock" is the brainchild of multi-disciplinary artist Christian Marclay, who worked with a team of researchers to scour thousands of films for scenes displaying timepieces.

  "He was able to find every minute for 24 hours and see what is happening in that time frame," Mousley said.

  "The Clock" is synchronized to real time, so when the clock strikes 10 on screen, it's really 10 o'clock.  However the film is more than simple collage of grandfather clocks, digital alarms, and Rolexes. Marclay creates a narrative of sorts, blending the clips, sometimes from several films in a single sequence.

  Mousley said Marclay builds the story around the things people do — or at least how Hollywood portrays it.

  "What happens at noon? You go for lunch — or you rob a bank, or other things that are very cinematic," she said. "There are romances in the afternoon. There are romances in the evening. There are lots of other kinds of activities that are happening all day long."

  Making "The Clock" took three years. While the team gathered the material, Marclay edited the entire 24-hour package.

  In doing so, he created something new through the combinations he used, said Siri Engberg, the Walker's senior curator of visual arts.

  "You can almost not see some of the transitions when you are going from one film to another," she said. "You are so completely convinced by his editing and the way he has woven this together. It is really quite engaging."

  Engberg said "The Clock" builds on Marclay's work across several mediums, including visual arts and music.

  "This particular piece in his own career is a real tour de force," she said. "It is the apex of a lot of the issues he's been dealing with in a lot of his other work, including sampling, the idea of weaving together different sounds and images."

The Clock
A view of "The Clock" when shown in London at White Cube Mason's Yard. Visitors can watch from large sofas, or stand around the sides of the gallery.
Image courtesy Christian Marclay

  The final product is quite mesmerizing. Some viewers try to name as many of the movie clips as they can.

  Mousley was particularly struck by "repeats" where elements from certain films return as time passes.  And then there are actors who appear on screen again and again.

  "Catherine Deneuve, there is a section where she is 21 years old, and then a few minutes later when she is three decades older," Mousley said. "Or there are pieces where Jack Nicholson comes back time and again in different films. So you are not only dealing with the 24-hour day, you are dealing with this whole idea of cinematic history sort of collapsed as well."

  Showing a 24-hour movie presents logistical problems, particularly for a museum which closes most days at 5 p.m. There will be a number of all-night screenings including on Saturday night during the Northern Spark Festival.

  Engberg said they have heard from people who are traveling from out of town to make sure they can experience the full 24 hours. She expects most visitors will come in and watch for a few minutes before moving on to other exhibits. But some may plan to come at different times over a number of weeks to see the film in its entirety.

  Mousley said it's hard to watch just a little of the film.

  "You don't want to leave," she said. "And so people will find they come in for 20 minutes, and they will spend two hours easily."