In our Yearbook series, Double Exposure contributors share lists and essays that attempt to define their year in film. In this entry, David Beal examines his favorite film of all time.


2012 is over, and my mind is whirring with a collage of dense images, careful sounds, and curious faces from the past year at the movies.  But I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about a different, readymade collage that I saw this year: Christian Marclay’s The Clock.  Over a few years, Marclay and a team of interns relentlessly combed through thousands of DVDs looking for any shots or sequences that included a ubiquitous machine: the clock.  They assembled the clips they found into a movie that will hopefully last as long as time goes by: for a full day, the time displayed by on-screen clocks corresponds perfectly with real time.

That’s the simple conceit of The Clock (it’s screening at MOMA through Jan. 21).  Marclay’s real triumph, however, lies not just in his idea — constructing a real-time, functional clock based around artificial movie-time — but in the fact that he made a delightful movie to boot. The Clock is much more than a collage of brief clock shots from the vast back catalogue of film history; it’s a formal collage of everything that makes movies what they are — sound, music, performance, theatricality, costume, architecture, and maybe even a little truth.  Bringing together the disparate strands of his source material into an immersive and unified space, Marclay creates a massive piece of investigative journalism that burrows deep into the lively nooks and crannies of movie-land, and visualizes a cinematic collage that all filmgoers have held in their brains since they saw their second movie.

Marclay’s instinct as an artist is to voraciously consume and elegantly recycle. He’s shown this in the past — whether through his previous video collage works like Telephones or Video Quartet, or through his experience as a turntable-manipulator collaborating with musicians like John Zorn, Sonic Youth, and the Kronos Quartet — but he’s never done anything on quite the same scale as The Clock.  I attempted to match the brazen ambition of his work and watch it for a full cycle, and I’m proud to say the operation was successful (thanks to partner-in-crime Max Nelson for taking the plunge with me).  One of the reasons it’s interesting to watch The Clock for 24 hours is because you don’t really have to — in fact, the risks might outweigh the advantages.

The struggle of staying awake for a full day eventually threatens to eclipse one’s attentiveness and sensitivity to the rhythmic intricacies of Marclay’s creation — circadian rhythms often trump movie rhythms.  Part of the appeal of The Clock also lies in the notion that it can be thousands of different movies for thousands of different people.  Just as Marclay is making minute-by-minute decisions about the boundaries of each clip, viewers have the power to make the ultimate decision about the boundary between The Clock and their lives — in other words, when to enter The Clock, and when to exit The Clock and return to their own clocks.

However, if you spend at least four or five hours with it — and especially if you reach dazed euphoria at hour 22 — The Clock has a peculiar ability to manipulate your perception of time after you leave the theatre, and this distortion bleeds into subsequent days.  It’s as if you’ve just come out of a temporal Rotor: time is literally dizzy, both compressed and elongated.  Even stranger, your daily experiences have phantom alibis in the world of The Clock (“What was I watching at 3:26 p.m.? 3:27 p.m.? 3:28 p.m.?” I kept asking myself throughout the next day).  It’s magical.

If The Clock is riffing on a theme, it’s exploring how humans situate themselves in relation to a mechanical system.  In The Clock, the mechanisms are the various ways we measure time: analog or digital clocks, watches, sundials, daylight, or other people.  Sometimes the time-telling devices are prominent, and other times the viewer has to play a kind of Where’s Waldo to seek them out.  Occasionally they are nowhere, or only inferred — a clip’s dramatic potential is, at the end of the day, more important than exact time.  Whenever they are present, they are accurate to a tee, but Marclay seems more focused on stringing together the small performances of the day: waking up, cursing your alarm, sitting in traffic, getting home late for dinner, settling into bed, dreaming.  After a while, measured and perceived time both end up receding, while Marclay’s cutting knife magnifies minute behavioral gestures into absurd cosmic spasms.

But one of The Clock’s main attributes is also its simplest: it might be the most watchable movie ever made.  Marclay’s experience as an improvising turntablist not only informs The Clock’s brilliant sonic flow, but its bewitching sense of cadence.  During the day, Marclay mostly edits within an even, 4/4 meter.  By the time 2 a.m. rolls around, however, the pulse has imperceptibly disappeared in favor of a jazzier rhythm, and the time signature lilts like a dream.  No matter what time of day it is, the hours fly by and The Clock induces a kind of hypnosis — but it’s a hypnosis that depends on our constant awareness of time rather than our suspension of it.  By trapping us in a ticking clock, The Clock saves us from time.

When The Clock screened at Lincoln Center this summer, its run overlapped with another mechanically-minded exhibition at the New Museum, Ghosts in the Machine.  On display was Robert Smithson’s 1964 installation “The Eliminator,” which consists of four mirrors reflecting jagged, red neon lights that flash on and off every second, creating a consistent visual beat that always seems one step ahead of itself.  Each flash overloads the senses, and a viewer can’t do much to avoid falling into a trance.  “Memory vanishes, while looking at ‘The Eliminator,’” said Smithson.  It’s “a clock that doesn’t keep time, but loses it.”

If “The Eliminator” loses time instead of keeps it, The Clock keeps time and loses it.  Watching it was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had at the movies, this year or any year.