My nominee for Best Picture of the year -- maybe the best picture ever, because it’s essentially made up of and is an ecstatic love letter to all other movies -- is Christian Marclay’s endlessly enticing must-see masterpiece The Clock. This elliptically simple, spectacularly dazzling 24-hour film is made up of thousands of scenes and snippets from films, all marking the passage of time, minute by minute, sometimes second by second, on clocks and sundials and people speaking the time and, in one case, a child drawing a timepiece on his arm. It's all synchronized so that whatever time it is onscreen is the actual time in New York, and it has played to packed audiences at the Paula Cooper Gallery since Jan. 21, 2011. A metaphysical tour de force of untethered meaning and involuting interlocking contrapuntal rhythms, The Clock is more than a movie or even a work of art. It is so strange and other-ish that it becomes a stream-of-consciousness algorithm unto itself -- something almost inhuman.
The dark gallery is filled with a dozen couches. It's almost always packed with people sitting, crouched along walls, or standing in the back. Slow-moving lines often snaked outside. I never saw anyone cut ahead -- something about the integrity of the Paula Cooper Gallery or the film itself brought manners to the hierarchical and impatient art world. I stood next to bigwig curators, famous artists, a Russian super-collector, a movie star and one well-known movie director who later told me that she was thrilled to see a bit of her film included in The Clock. The only misbehavior I heard about was an unconfirmed rumor that a major megadealer was demanding privileged access for his clients.
I got in six times and failed on another three tries (the line too long, the weather too cold). In all, I saw nineteen hours of The Clock -- every minute from 6:50 a.m. to 1:23 a.m. It makes sense that I’ve never seen the sequences from 1:24 to 6:49 a.m., since that stretch is pretty much a blank in my life anyway. On my first viewings, I was simply flabbergasted at the fact that someone had had the squirrely perspicacity to do this -- the endless hours of preparatory research that went into this gigantic thing constitute the ever-present invisible content of The Clock. Then it gradually dawned on me: There are so many film scenes about time that there are probably many possible versions of The Clock -- all different, just as some scientists say there are simultaneously parallel realities.
By the last time I left The Clock, at 10:05 a.m. on a Sunday morning -- having just seen the jarring sight of one of my employers, Sarah Jessica Parker, marrying “Mr. Big” in Sex in the City -- the film no longer seemed to mirror the world. Instead, I had the uncanny sense that life was mirroring the movie. Everything going on around me on my way home seemed suddenly inseparable from the rhythms of time. Every action I saw that Sunday morning -- every dog walker, jogger, person hurrying to breakfast, coming out a subway, or going to church -- seemed less individualistic and more entangled in a built-in, beyond-our-control, deeply cosmic structure.
I thought of Walt Whitman, who wrote of being “a phantom curiously floating.” That was me -- nomadic, drifting in this atmospheric flow, part of something but hovering above it, disembodied, witnessing. In the spirit of Whitman, then, here’s a piecemeal fragmentary diary of what I saw over six hours -- roughly one-quarter -- of The Clock.
At 6:50 a.m., my wife and I walk into the half-full Paula Cooper Gallery. I see couples canoodling on couches, a few people asleep and scattered junk on the floor: beer cans, popcorn, candy wrappers, a few bourbon bottles. Someone nearby is snoring. It reminds me of Chelsea in the days when sex mattered more than the art business. The room smells musty. The first scene I see is a yummy, randy moment of Charles Aznavour waking up and spanking a lover in bed. Soon more lovers begin waking up. Michael Caine puts his wedding ring back on. Men and women are sleeping alone, creeping secretly back home, carrying clothes, ducking into doorways, their clothing strewn on floors. Shelley Winters snores in Lolita, and I feel Humbert Humbert’s revulsion. Darkness begins turning to light, both onscreen and outside. I hear birds chirping, see scenes of empty office buildings and quiet cafeterias. Joggers start appearing; people fetch papers and milk bottles from stoops.
At 7 a.m., Marty McFly's Rube Goldbergian alarm clock goes off. Suddenly people in scene after scene are awakening to alarms, hearing radios, throwing clocks across rooms, rolling over back to sleep. Marlon Brando puts on cold cream; Willem Dafoe already looks haunted. The young Paul Newman curls up. I hear bells and watched people peeping into their new lovers' medicine cabinets. At 7:09 a.m., Brando again, staggeringly bloodied and battered, victoriously goes to work at the end of On the Waterfront. Just then, James Bond looks over Pussy Galore; Johnny Cash stakes out a suburban home; a woman and man have morning sex. People soon start catching trains and buses. Coffee rituals begin -- scooping beans, boiling water, adding sugar -- all over dozens of movies, every single one with a clock in the background. A woman turns from a lover and puts on her bra.
At 7:23 a.m., Tom Hanks, in The Terminal, shaves in an airport bathroom as another man asks, “Ever feel like you’re living in an airport?” Prisoners start going into prison yards; convicts plan breakouts; someone waits on death row; a woman prepares to go to the gas chamber. At 7:30 a.m. Michael Douglas gets home to a phone message in Fatal Attraction (it's Glenn Close who tells him she’ll “call back soon”). Tracy and Hepburn wake up and have breakfast in bed. There's tooth-brushing, vitamin-taking, curtain-opening. Single dads pack kids off to school, and when the children ask, “Where’s mommy?” the fathers go silent. At 7:48 a.m. a woman says she wants to have “12-second sex.” A few minutes later, Woody Allen wakes up with Diane Keaton and says, “I have not slept that long in ages. What time is it?” She says, “7:58 a.m.”
At 8 a.m., more alarms go off; more scenes of the gas chamber; a man says to a woman, “It’s 8:05 a.m. I’m going to fuck you by 10 a.m.” Then Robert Duvall, a.k.a. Lieutenant Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, looks at the carnage all around him, and says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” You've heard it a thousand times, but here, when the camera pulls back, you notice that his watch says 8:09 a.m. Alex, the ultraviolent protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, appears as he's awakened by his feckless mum -- and then we get John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, covered in blood, having coffee as Quentin Tarantino lectures them about the potential peril of "a Bonnie situation." At 8:20 a.m. John Candy and Steve Martin wake up in bed together; Candy kisses Martin’s ear. Martin asks Candy where his hands are; Candy says, “Between two pillows.” Martin shrieks, “Those aren’t pillows!” and they both leap out of bed in homosexual panic.
By 8:35 a.m., we’re seeing traffic jams. At 9 a.m. we get a split second of Jack Woltz, The Godfather's uncooperative Hollywood movie producer, just an instant before he realizes there’s a horse’s head in his bed. Minutes later, at 9:11 a.m., Marclay gives us a shot of the first World Trade Center on fire on TV, and time seems to freeze. Soon we see kids in school taking tests, businessmen taking meetings, people punching time clocks. At 10 a.m., lines wait for Willy Wonka to open up the Chocolate Factory. This goes on and on. At 10:22 a.m., Molly Ringwald casts The Breakfast Club's cute boy a glance. At 10:53 a.m., a funny moment: It's a scene from an old Bible movie, and Marclay has noticed that the actor is wearing a wristwatch.
At 11:38 a.m. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper sit atop their Harleys at the edge of the desert, as Fonda throws his watch away. Next Stan Laurel breaks a grandfather clock. At 11:45 a.m., we return to Pulp Fiction for one of the stranger scenes about time in any film: Christopher Walken, as Captain Koons, holds up a watch and tells a young boy, "Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. . . I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. . . And now, little man, I give the watch to you."
Leonardo DiCaprio wins two tickets and scrambles aboard the Titanic. Then comes noon. Gunfighters walk in deserted towns; Gary Cooper waits for something to happen; Henry Fonda pulls his gun; Charles Bronson challenges outlaws. Suddenly we see Laurence Oliver as Hamlet, at noon in the graveyard delivering his “Alas poor Yorick” speech. A moment later, we see an incredible extended pathos-filled scene of Charles Laughton, wildly clinging to a clanging bell as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man drones about the time: “It’s 12:21. It’s definitely 12:31.” At 12:45 p.m. someone asks Harpo Marx what time it is and he pulls a huge clock out of his overcoat. At 1:05 p.m. the boy in The Tin Drum screams at the top of his lungs and breaks the face of a clock.
I could go on forever, but then again so does the film, because it covers the entire 24 hours. I finally left after a scene of two lovers having afternoon sex in which we see the woman looking at her watch as the man grinds away. (Maybe it made me nervous.) The Clock is up through Saturday, and I will be there as much as I can. So should you.
Christian Marclay, "The Clock," Jan. 21-Feb. 19, 2011, at Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.