“The Clock” as a Meditation on Time

by Christina Yglesias


Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a twenty-four hour found footage art film made up of clips that directly or indirectly reference time. Characters talk about perceptions of time, look at their watches, ask others for the time, rush to finish tasks before deadlines, and so on. Time fulfills certain narrative functions on screen, which The Clock draws attention to. These segments on time come from a wide range of sources that create a disjointed mapping of film history. The formal editing elements allow the huge range of sources to come together under the unifying element of time in a way that suggests.  A successful Hollywood film often hopes to make viewers simply forget about the time that is passing while they are sitting in the theatre, but The Clock, as its title suggests, becomes a sort of omnipresent clock, constantly reminding the viewer of what time it is, and what time is like, both on screen and in ‘real life’. The Clock shows that even though measurable time is such a driving force in the modern experience, experiential time and filmic time are still malleable and subjective phenomena that are unbounded by clock time.

For reasons of clarity, I will first define the terms I will be using in this paper to discuss time. Conceptions of time in this paper will be broken into three main types: measurable time (or clock time), perceptual time, and filmic time. The first of these is the easiest to define. Measurable time is time as a clock sees it; time in hours, minutes, seconds, and so forth. Perceptual time refers to the ways that humans experience time passing. For example, time seems to slow down or speed up based on emotional states. Filmic time is the way that time is treated on screen in filmic realities.

Films often reference time for narrative functions, but a film that strives to be entertaining tries to make the viewer forget what time it actually is, off-screen. In other words, mainstream films want to suck viewers into a sort of time warp where the perceptual time of the viewer speeds up and the need to check one’s watch is unnecessary. One sign of a ‘bad’ or unentertaining film is one that seems ‘slow’. This kind of movie comes across as boring because it fails to make the viewer forget about time until afterwards, when she can think something like, “Wow! Is it really eleven o’ clock already? That two hours went by quickly!” The world outside of the filmic world being portrayed should ‘disappear’ for that period of around two hours. With the ‘real’ world outside forgotten, measurable time is irrelevant and only the perceptual time of the viewers and the sense of filmic time on screen is what matters.

The Clock never allows such a forgetfulness of measurable time to occur. If a viewer feels the impulse to check his watch or cellphone for the current time, either out of boredom or because of the need to be somewhere else by a certain hour, he will remember that there is no need. Every few moments The Clock, as its title suggests, reveals the exact time. The clips are edited into a twenty-four hour chronology that is always synced up to the local time of its screening location. Therefore, if the time is mentioned or if a clock or watch is shown on screen, that time will match the time on the viewers’ watches. Even though most of the original sources probably created the time warp effect mentioned earlier, The Clock repurposes them in a way that creates a new impact on perceptual time. If time seems to speed up or slow down for the viewer out of interest or of boredom, The Clock will point out this phenomena of perceptual time by contrasting it with measurable time. Perceptual time is always changing but measurable time is a constant. Perceptual time is somewhat realigned with measurable time every instance that clock time is seen or mentioned on screen.

Rather than sucking us into a filmic world so that we forget where we are and what time it is, The Clock draws the viewer into a filmic world so rooted in time that we can’t ever forget what time it is. It reminds us not simply what time it is in a utilitarian sense, it brings forward the idea that time is always present. No matter what factors affect one’s relationship to time, measurable time remains a constant. In that sense, time is inescapable and constant. This can have either a reassuring emotional impact or a nihilistic one. Time, in its trusty measurability, can offer feelings of security. On the other hand, the incessant and ever repeating cycle of the clock can cause feelings of monotony and of having a lack of control over the world around us.  The lack of adherence of perceptual time to the rigid clock world is an alternative way to think about time that can make one feel as if they have agency and control over the way that time affects his or her life.

 Furthermore, The Clock shows that time is an essentially universal phenomenon. This is demonstrated through the usage of a variety of foreign movies (shown without subtitles). There are Spanish-language films, plenty of samples of French cinema, and a few clips from Asian cinemas. The lack of subtitles makes these films and their worlds seem, on one hand, inaccessible and foreign. It creates the impression that there are so many different people in so many vastly different places but that measurable time is one thing that they all have in common. Perhaps The Clock creates a somewhat humanist effect in this way.  Even if everyone experiences time in vastly different ways, clock time is a constant.

Critics have been championing The Clock as a ‘real time’ film, but this is not accurate.  While it is synced up to local clock time, it is by no means a real time filmic experience. In film, twenty-four hours of real time film would include what happens in an entire day (of a character, in a place, etc) with no mediation. Nothing is left out in real time film.  The Clock represents measurable or clock time, but measurable time is not the same as ‘real time’. In fact, The Clock is actually quite the opposite of real time. It a massive montage that, while referencing time, is still compressing it in the usual sense of filmic time.  For example, in non-real time film, even the simple and short action of opening a door is compressed into its most essential parts.  The sequence may begin with the character turning the doorknob, then cut to the character walking through the door, and end on a shot of the door closing. Full actions are not shown unless necessary for narrative or pacing in most films. Since The Clock draws its sources from non-real time films, these conventions apply to each clip that is shown. Each of these scenes already utilizes time compression and since The Clock only uses portions of these original scenes, real time is further fragmented and compressed. Further, since so many of these segments are montaged together, time fragmentation in The Clock becomes almost exponential. In the twenty-four hour run time of The Clock, many more events occur on screen than could actually occur in a ‘real’ day. 

In some film sequences, time is further compressed for dramatic and/or emotional impact. For example, a very short sequence might give the impression of a character’s deep depression by showing shots of the calendar months passing or seasons changing while the character remains relatively motionless, staring out of the window. Or the final few days of election campaign will be compressed into a few minutes of film to portray the rushing chaos of it. Very so often, time is actually slowed down in an attempt to mirror the phenomena in perceptual time where extremely important moments seem to go by slowly with great clarity. Filmic time is not bounded by ‘reality’ so it is very different from the way that time is experienced off-screen.  Time in film knows very little rules: time can be manipulated, compressed, and rearranged in ways that could never occur in ‘reality’. Perhaps filmic time presents another alternative concept of time counter to un-malleable clock time.

Although filmic time is compressed, the ways that time functions as a narrative device can sometimes mirror the way that time affects our lives. Although measurable time never wavers (and nor does the accuracy of The Clock) experiences of time can take on a vast range. These time-related narrative devices become very apparent in The Clock. Sometimes, characters have to ‘race against the clock.’ One such sequence in The Clock is when Peter Parker of Spiderman is late to his pizza delivery job and then has to make a delivery by a strict deadline in New York traffic. He delivers the pizza only a minute too late, and is subsequently fired from his job. Other such clips from action movies include ones where ransom money must be delivered by a certain hour. In romantic movies a common ‘against the clock’ trope is men running down the street to reach their lovers in time. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman runs to the church to stop the woman he loves from marrying someone else. In Manhattan, Woody Allen runs down the city streets to reach his young lover before she leaves for college. (Both of these clips find themselves in the clock.) These narrative events are certainly more dramatic than the ways that people normally rush in their daily lives. However, rushing is a shared experience of the modern world. With clock time governing our days, we must rush to get to work and school on time, to reach deadlines, to beat traffic, to catch the bus, etc. Rushing is a battle against measurable time that never wavers and The Clock reminds us of this futility.

Other times, characters must endure the ‘ticking of the clock’ in periods of waiting. In one such clip, Sarah Michelle Gellar gets impatient waiting for her late friend. She hails a taxi, about to leave without her, when her friend arrives in a frazzled state. In other clips, women recline on their bed with their phone on the nightstand, awaiting their lovers’ call.  In another segment, Joseph Gordon Levitt waits by a payphone for a seemingly important anonymous call. Again, the ways that we wait may not always be as dramatic as for a secretive payphone call, but waiting is a common way that we become aware of time. We wait for classes or meeting to end in periods of boredom, we wait for the person we like to text us, or for our potential employer to email us and tell us if we got the job. But again, no matter how much we will time to move more quickly, the clock works on its own volition. We can only change our perceptions of how quickly or slowly time is moving. The Clock montages these rushing and waiting segments together in a way draws our attention to the subjectivity of our perceptual experiences of time.

Other times, characters reflect on this phenomenon of experiential time. In one sequence, Vincent D’Onofrio sits with a woman on a park bench and talks about how the speed of time seems to change based on mood. He mentions that enjoying yourself or being in love seems to make time move more quickly. In other words, perceptual time is extremely malleable and easily shaped by our emotional states. This gives us a certain level of control over the way we experience time. If we can adjust our emotional and physiological state, we can have control over our time experiences.

 During portions of The Clock the presence of time is not as obvert and is seemingly less important to narrative. Sometimes, clocks simply exist as a sort of prop. For example, clocks are almost always present in courtrooms, classrooms, and the like. One such clip is from The Sixth Sense. The scene opens with a wide shot of a grade school teacher in front of her classroom with a clock on the wall behind her. In other instances, the importance of watches and clocks becomes the focus, rather than the time that these devices measure. These types of scenes occur several times in The Clock. In one scene, Robert de Niro sits in a bar booth with his girlfriend when she notices that there is blood on his watch. She wipes the blood from his watch with a napkin, asking whose blood it is. In an early James Bond film, Sean Connery gives a woman her brother’s dog tag and watch. Without Bond telling her explicitly, receiving these objects signifies that her brother has died. In a similar clip, a young man knocks on a family’s door to return the watch of their possibly dead son. This handing over of the watch serves as a sort of olive branch gesture. Perhaps watches hold such significance to those who wear them because of the importance that measurable time plays in the modern experience.

It is interesting to note the lack of digital time telling devices in The Clock. Today, more and more people are foregoing analog clocks and watches. Cellphones and computers with their digital clocks have begun to replace these older devices of time telling. Since most people don’t go anywhere without their cellphones, and always have their laptops handy at home, watches and clocks seem unnecessary. Laptops and cellphone clocks are (theoretically) always accurate and update automatically in the case of daylights savings of travel to a new time zone. Therefore, these devices are objectively superior to analog clocks and watches. However, The Clock never once shows one of these devices, even though there are a handful of contemporary films. Perhaps clocks are favored in cinema for their aesthetics and for their emotional impact. For example, seeing a grandfather clock ticking creates a much more dramatic effect than watching the minute change on a cellphone clock.

The conceptual parameter of time creates a linkage for all of the sources to come together into fragmented view of cinematic history in The Clock. The sources cover about one hundred years, ranging from 1920’s silent film, contemporary movies, and seemingly everything in between. Although in no way chronologically, The Clock maps out a stylistic history of cinema by holding these films up against one another. One notable scene from early cinema is Harold Lloyd’s precarious clock stunt from the 1923 film Safety Last. The jerky frame rate and quality of the black and white film, when shown along side movies from the 2000’s, draw attention to the amount of technological advances that have occurred since the early days of Hollywood. Many aspects of the film sources place them in their respective decades. These aspects include the clothing and hair choices, the diction of the characters (the transatlantic accent being the most notable), the quality of the film (color, contrast, amount of detail), the score, the quality of sound recording, the cars, etcetera. The Clock reflects on cinema over time, showing what has changed and what has stayed the same. Certain shot conventions and narrative devices seem to occur over and over in cinema history (including the ones mentioned earlier, such as a man running down the street, women waiting by the phone, etc) even when the stylistic aspects change drastically.

The editing techniques in The Clock allow these many elements to flow together into one massive film. Editing conventions are used in a way that trick the viewer’s brain into thinking that there is continuity in the usual sense. Some such conventions include editing similar shots in sequence together. For example, shots of men running down the street from different movies are edited seamlessly together. Another such example is when a character from a black and white classic film talks on the phone in one clip and then we cut to Maggie Gyllenhall from the 2003 movie, Secretary, slamming the receiver of her own phone. This creates the impression that she had just hung up on a character from a movie that was made about sixty years prior to her own movie. Similar to the phone conversation editing technique, careful eye line matchups create the impression that characters from movies are looking at characters from movies that are from a completely different decade.  Other editing methods include sound bridges, synthetic continuity, and cutting on the action. The editing is so seamless that the viewer is hypnotized in a way. By the time she realizes that she is now watching a clip from a completely different, she has already been tricked into thinking that the subsequent clips fit together.

The Clock is an in depth meditation on the relationship between perceptual time, measurable time, filmic time, and cinematic history. It shows us the inescapability, stability, and universality of the twenty-four hour cycle of measurable time. At the same time, it draws our attention to the variance in perceptual time in comparison to clock time. The Clock makes us compare and contrast the ways that time functions in film and our daily lives. Time is a rich and nuanced idea to conceptualize, and The Clock creates a rich platform for reflecting on it.