Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Do not squander time. It is the stuff life is made of. –The Clock, 3:38 PM

Why, my son asked me recently, does time fly when you’re playing a really cool video game, but when you’re stuck in Spanish class, it just drags on forever?

our kitchen clock, which we're pretty sure is 18 minutes fast (that way, we're usually on time)

Having a child (and perhaps also a dog) is one of the few activities that cause adults to live in the present moment, at least if you care to stop and experience the world with them. It’s a bit sad to realize when the children in your life stop living purely in the moment and start fretting about things like Mondays and the start of exams and Christmas holidays, instead of simply enjoying where they’re at. Children in western cultures are programmed early on for the terrible tendency to perpetually crave the Next Best Moment.

If linear time is an arbitrary human construct, why are we so obsessed with its passing?


Christian Marclay’s movie The Clock, now showing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts until December 31st, is the ultimate infinite loop of the mundane and profound. I’ve been popping into the MFA every chance I can get to catch it. And while it’s hard to tear yourself away for fear of what you’ll miss next (even though there’s no plot!) you always know when it’s time to get up off the long leather couches and stumble back out into the real world.

The Clock plays out as a 24-hour continuous movie in real time, synchronized to the very minute you’re watching it—so if you walk in at 2:32 PM like I did the other day, you’ll see clips from some 70 years’ worth of film and TV from around the world that take place at exactly 2:32 PM, then 2:33, and so on (in case you’re curious, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is at 2:32 PM—one of my favorite movies of all time).

Featuring segue upon segue of people while they glance at their watches, get in and out of bed, sit in cafes, kiss, make love, smoke, set time bombs, look out windows, or run through train stations, The Clock is an addictive, endless series of scenes that depict what’s just about to happen, minute by minute, moment by moment. The film is impossible to resist, in part because it doesn’t matter when you watch it.

Masterfully edited, the clips’ sound tracks weave in and out, corresponding and complementing each moment on screen as only a master DJ like Marclay can do. Parades of famous and unknown actors, alive and dead, stream past and reappear in waves, younger and then older, throughout the segments. Time eventually ravages all of us, even the famous and beautiful and rich.

For example: who knew that crusty old Jack Nicholson sang (about time, naturally) in a musical back in the day? It’s true, and I’m sure he wished it hadn’t happened at 3:27 PM in what looks like 1972 or thereabouts. A quick Google search confirms that yes, Jack Nicholson was in the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever with Barbara Streisand and Yves Montand.

But how did Christian Marclay find that corresponding moment in our 24-hour time spectrum when Nicholson incongruously bursts into song? And how did he manage to find all the other snippets and samples that make up the day-and-night-long movie in its mind-blowing entirety?

A phalanx of assistants, it turns out.

Marclay is a pioneering video and music artist. He’s also a Massachusetts College of Art grad, among many other accomplishments. His bio is here.

Would you be surprised if I told you he also happened to be Swiss? I thought not.

I’ve looked for a score of The Clock or some sort of publication with credits for each of the samples Marclay uses, by the minute, but I couldn’t find anything online—that’s because it doesn’t exist, even though the Museum’s gift shop management must fervently wish it did. Marclay estimates there are between 3,000 and 5,000 clips, but no one knows the exact number.

Here’s a BBC segment about The Clock, as well as the accompanying article by Vincent Dowd, an excerpt of which is below:


Mr Marclay came up with the idea in 2005 while he was working on a smaller project that also featured clocks.

“But when you’re editing a piece that’s 24 hours long, it’s going to take several years. I kept postponing that moment when I had to sit at the computer,” Mr Marclay says.

“Eventually I hired assistants to watch films. Every time they saw a clock or spotted a time reference in the narrative they brought me the footage.

Sometimes Mr Marclay would spend all day editing just one minute of footage, he says.

Mr Marclay describes his piece as “celebratory of cinema.”

“And then, of course, someone would bring me footage with that exact time but more interesting — so I’d have to re-edit.

“The hardest hour to fill was 5am to 5.30am. But people dream a lot then so I used a lot of dream sequences,” he adds.

Do try, if you can, to make time and get to the MFA before the end of the month to see The Clock. You’ll never feel the same way about time again.