Sunday, September 18, 2011

How We Finally Saw "The Clock"

The story of our encounter with The Clock goes back to last winter, when we stood on a snowy curb in Chelsea with at least 60 people queued ahead of us. The front door of the Paula Cooper Gallery was so close. It was the last weekend that Christian Marclay's film would be shown inside.

The line was not moving. Perhaps once every 20 minutes, a single person was brought in from the cold to gaze at the masterpiece for as long as he or she wished. We passed the moments imagining the theater inside, crowded with people who couldn't tear their eyes away and had no pity for us. (Jamie recounted this episode in February.)

Jamie had heard about the film through the grapevine. It is a colossal montage of clips from the entire history of cinema, each of which contains a clock somewhere in the frame. When screened, it is synched so that the time you see on screen is always the actual time, in reality. And the film is 24 hours long.

This is the kind of project that is so vast and impressive that it has the power to delight before one has even seen it- the mere fact of its existence is enough.

Needless to say, we never made it into that gallery. But last Friday night, we caught up with The Clock at the MFA here in Boston. It was a powerful evening. Ordinarily, the journey to get to a movie theater and place yourself in front of a movie is forgettable- a walk through a mall, a sticky floor, some loud, pointless advertising, and then at last the movie begins. This was one of a handful of movie-going experiences in my life during which I felt a dramatic seamlessness between that journey and the mood of the film itself.

We approached the museum around 10 PM. After trying two entrances and having security turn us away, we found our way to the Fenway entrance. There was no traffic, almost no other humans in sight- certainly none who were headed for the screening- and almost no lights on, other than the one lighting the rear door. An 8x10 sign in a metal stand was at the top of the stairs, which read:


This sign was the only indication that something might be happening inside the museum at this hour, let alone the Boston premiere of an international critical sensation.

Inside the museum, a security guard directed us up a flight of stairs, at the top of which was another guard, who pointed down a hallway, and to another pointing guard, and another, and another. The museum was dim, fast asleep. Christ looked at us from an enormous old canvas, and our footsteps echoed as dramatically as you'd imagine.

At the end of a corridor with a glass case of Chinese pots was a black wall with the entrance to the theater, over which had been painted:


…the object of our quest. Waiting behind an utterly silent door.

The most thrilling thing of all was that the theater was full. The event wasn't being ignored. Who were all these cool people who had found this?

After about 5 minutes, the concept of the piece, something that I was already so familiar with from hearing about it, had come to life in front of me and in my imagination. I was startled by how it made me feel. To watch a film, even one that attempts realism, is to enter a dream that is separate from your waking reality. You bring yourself to the activity in a film and escape into it; your mind leaves your body behind a little; you enter the time and place you've been presented, and the character's lives, hopefully, become your life.
I couldn't enter this film in the same way, nor was I expected to. It could never act as a portal of escape, because it was itself a timepiece, relentlessly referring to the proper reality of the audience. It was trying to participate in our world, rather than demanding that we accept its own. It was the chilling sensation of being watched.

Jamie and I wondered if Marclay had used only clips that he'd remembered or found personally, or if he'd hired assistants to help him. The majority of them were unrecognizable, at least by me, and I'd guess it would take someone like Leonard Maltin to recognize 80% or more of them. For every clip of Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows, there were 10 more from films that might have been quite obscure, or in some cases, perhaps not even very good; the context this piece provides for a clip gives it great power, whether its source was competently made or not. Even from the most cynically made, awful film you can think of, one could excise a choice ten seconds, and depending on how one placed it, could unlock some previously unseen potential. Everything is welcome in this montage, and part of its grandiosity comes from its reference not just to the great and memorable films, but to the whole wide world of film, every single frame of it.

Some of the clips are tantalizing, long enough to make you want to know more about where they came from just as they lead into the next one. Other clips are less attention-getting and blend into the tapestry. I was surprised that I wanted to keep watching it after an hour, but every passing minute became an event- and every future moment in time became a source of suspense. What would happen at 11:15? What would happen at midnight?

When we finally emerged- we had to leave at some point- I felt the same way that I imagine most people do after they eventually turn their backs on the screening: I sensed the film still running as I walked away, I sensed it when I went to bed, and I sensed it the next day up to 4 PM, the time when the screening finally ended. I wondered what happened at the end of the film. Was there any finality in the last moment? Or did it just suddenly switch off?

Jamie- thank you for hearing about this and finding out that it was going on at the MFA. I am grateful to you for so many things- this is one of them. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

George Kuchar 1942 - 2011

When Jamie and I went to his last screening at Harvard, when he joined the audience via Skype, we could tell that George Kuchar's health had taken a serious hit; he was in a hospice, which he gamely joked was a "one-way door," and he was surrounded by his family and friends.  None of this suggested that he was going to recover.
Even so, it's somewhat of a shock for us to hear that he passed away last night. It was only about three weeks ago that we saw him, and he was as sharp as ever, his mind squarely in the soup of ideas from which crawled so many films, comics and paintings that nobody knows for sure the full extent of it all, a mystery you learned about if and when you saw It Came From Kuchar (if you didn't, it's a solid documentary, and a fine introduction and tribute to the Kuchar Brothers). And he was still repeating the same refrain he's probably been saying ever since he finished his first movie: "I want to make another one."


Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Sweet Old Days of Summer

The "Porchlight Cinema" series continued last night with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. It was silly and sweet, but without very much of a plot, and so people felt less required to stay in one spot and actually watch it (although Jamie, who missed a great deal of it while socializing in the kitchen, now regrets missing out and wants to see the whole thing again).

People came and went, and that was more like an actual drive-in experience anyway. Some of the attendees materialized on our lawn- late-comers, and our neighbors, who were just returning from a trip, and whom we reeled in. It was an unpredictable and fun event, much like the film. Sadly, no pictures this time- sometimes when the party's good I just don't get around to it!

The feast inside included an elderflower grape fizz punch, a homemade salted caramel sauce for apples, a pistou for making canapes, fancy cheeses, cider, beer, champagne, scallops, pastries, this cake, and, of course, popcorn.

M. Hulot is quite special. There are many films that attempt to portray an easy pace of life, but this film effortlessly incorporates you into its own, the life of a rambling summer village, a place that in today's world would be improbable both in its human scale and in its accessibility by the likes of these characters. I'm not writing anything original here, but it feels so lived in and real that while watching it, you feel like you're taking a vacation yourself.

It made me think of our own beach hideaway.

There's a cottage in Rhode Island that's been like our Hotel de la Plage for at least three summers now. It's a quirky little place, and I suppose I am fated to keep going back.

It's interesting though, I don't think I would want to watch M. Hulot if I were actually at the beach. It's supposed to make you wish you were at the beach. When we are actually at the beach, we usually watch some kind of dark mind-effer like The Prestige or Shutter Island. What will it be next year? Yikes, I should be getting back to work on the lesson I have to teach this week- why am I already planning next summer?

DOOR and me

I didn't think about the future in art school. After graduation, I figured I could work in television, and that notion was about as far as I ever planned it. I ate and breathed animation and loved it more the more I studied it, and a job in tv would, nominally, have been a job in my field, but as my senior year approached I began to realize how little connection there was between what I really loved so much about animation and what was actually happening in entertainment. I never had any real interest in working for "Daria" or "Sheep in the City" or "TV Funhouse." All I wanted to do was make my own work, and to get inspired by the kind of art my professors were steering me to- Red Grooms, Robert Breer, Ub Iwerks. I wanted to figure out how they had made careers, or at least lifestyles, out of what they did, and emulate them. Instead of figuring this out, I spent the rest of college on Door. All I wanted to do was finish this film. After that, who cared. It was much easier to just put my head down and draw all night. 

Not that this project was purely a means of escape. I genuinely cared about it, and I remember walking along Waverly after too little food or sleep when I realized I was just on the brink of finishing it, and the rush of excitement made me break into a run. And I remember the horrible vacuum that opened up when I did actually finish it, and the months I spent grasping for jobs and direction.

As for the product, the film itself- I try not to think about it too much. I watch it and sometimes I think it's great and sometimes I cringe. And at one time, I think my opinion of it was completely controlled by the people I watched it with and how they reacted. One festival audience was nearly silent during it and I could hardly stand it. Another time, I went back to my old elementary school and showed it to a large group of 12-year-olds who enthusiastically analyzed it with me, and that was outstanding. Then there was the festival where the woman sitting behind me said, "You know, I liked the door...", and the guy next to her exhaled and groaned, "No...", and my own feelings about it went up and down with these comments like a cork on the waves.

In a way, I hate it, because it's so deeply flawed, yet it's the closest I've ever come to expressing myself in a piece of art that I actually finished. It torments me with questions. Can I make another film I care about like this? Do I have to live in it and deny the rest of the world, or can I reconcile it with everything that is important to me right now? Do I even need to struggle with this whole process to be happy anymore, or is that who I used to be? Who am I, anyway?

And so on.