It might be reasonable to presume that cinephiles’ every possible appetite would be satisfied by the Toronto International Film Festival. But this weekend sees the arrival of a movie event the likes of which have not been experienced by even the most hardcore rush-line regular. In many respects, it is a holy grail among film freaks: A movie that literally takes all day and night to watch. Even more intoxicating is the notion that this is one they could have made themselves. All the raw material was there at their fingertips—it was just a matter of whether they were willing to put in the man-hours that its creation demanded.
Presented at the Power Plant from Sept. 15 to Nov. 25, The Clock has been a phenomenal success since its debut in London two years ago. The handiwork of New York-based artist Christian Marclay and an intrepid team of clip gatherers, the piece is a 24-hour-long video collage comprised of thousands of film fragments, all of which have one thing in common. At some point in their respective running times, these movies contain an obvious reference to a time of day. Whether that precise moment is conveyed via a piece of dialogue, a shot of a clock face, or any other means, it has been removed from its original context and placed in chronological order alongside similarly temporal-specific moments from other films. From these tiny shards of time—collected from films including Repulsion, Titanic, and, as you might expect, High Noon—Marclay has created an unprecedented movie epic. And though it proceeds from instant to instant with unyielding rigour and includes an unparalleled gallery of stars, it has otherwise dispensed with any of cinema’s usual rules in regards to coherence, character, or continuity.
The New Yorker’s Daniel Zalewski has described the result as “the defining monument of the remix age.” Indeed, The Clock is in many ways the ultimate collision of the art world’s decades-old obsession with bricolage and the mash-up aesthetic that has become ever more pervasive thanks to digital technology. In terms of its magnitude, The Clock far outstrips anything in the existing canon of film and video artworks constructed from thematically linked clips.
Yet despite its high-art pedigree, Marclay’s hit has an equally close kinship with examples more readily found on YouTube. In that respect, The Clock could be seen as a far more ambitious cousin to the “supercut,” the emergent term for the OCD montages that have become a staple of amateur-made online entertainment. Examples include such viral-video faves as the rapid-fire roll call of rogue cops surrendering their badges and guns in umpteen variations on the same cop-movie cliché, or the one in which CSI: Miami’s Horatio Kane continually slips on his sunglasses to say something pithy about a dead guy.
From whichever direction you want to approach Marclay’s monument, one thing is clear: The history of cinema is ours to be dismantled, rearranged, or otherwise messed with. As such, The Clock is a nightmare for those who believe in the sanctity of the medium, in its ability to tell us stories with beginnings, middles, and endings.
But then again, viewers have been trying to break out of their proscribed roles as passive spectators for nearly as long as the movies have been around. In the 1920s, the Surrealists would spend the day going from one Paris cinema to another, leaving films whenever they lost interest and joining the next regardless of whether it was already in progress. In 1936, artist Joseph Cornell constructed a new film called Rose Hobart by splicing together existing film stock. The advent of home video in the ’70s made it much easier to treat other people’s movies as raw material. The latest generation of editing software is so simple, even preschoolers can do their own re-edits of The Phantom Menace.
Given the ease with which we can take control of the movies, The Clock’s transformation of cinema history into a jigsaw puzzle seems as inevitable as it is impressive—all it really took was someone with the determination (and the extra hands and eyes) to find all the pieces. And though the result is indeed monumental, the awe and wonder The Clock evokes comes with a price. It conditions us to regard movies not as artworks with their own contexts and intrinsic powers but as one more stream of data to be used and repurposed however we see fit.