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.