Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Clock Keeps Ticking: 11.15 'til 12.45

Peter Fonda about to discard time in Easy Rider

I returned to Plymouth and The British Art Show 7 a couple of weekends ago to see another segment of Christian Marclay’s 24 hour film The Clock, whose screened collage of time contained and observed within movies and TV programmes remains congruent with the daily passage of time in the real world. Having previously witnessed the events of the late afternoon, this time I caught the period between 11.15 and 12.45. One of my speculations, voiced in previous comments below, was answered. Peter Fonda looks meaningfully at his wristwatch in Easy Rider before discarding it onto the rocky New Mexican ground, affording us a clear glimpse of the time: 11.38. Young Lukas Haas also attempts to cast aside the tyranny of time in the TV movie David and Lisa, after first having told his psychologist, played by Sidney Poitier, that he has invented an atomic watch which will tell the precise time for centuries. Poitier suggests that people might not want to be constantly reminded of the passing of their lives, which leads Haas to rail against time and mortality, finally throwing something at the grandfather clock in the corner of the office and shattering its face. It’s also clock smashing time in the Laurel and Hardy short Dirty Work, in which Stan, inadvisably left to look after the fireplace end of their chimneysweeping enterprise, knocks a heavy carriage clock off the mantelpiece. His frantic efforts to silence its loud and incessant chiming culminate in his wrapping it in canvas and bludgeoning it with a handy nearby shovel. Stan also wanders vacuously through the corridors of the County Hospital in which Ollie has been laid up, an absently approaching nemesis with a bag of hard boiled eggs and nuts in his hand. The clock in the lobby behind him clearly indicates the time, counting down the minutes until his friend will be plunged into yet another nice mess. A recovering Ollie will later ruefully and wearily repeat Stan’s vaguely stated reason for visiting at this time: ‘You had nothing better to do, so you thought you’d come and see me’.

Stan tries to silence time - Dirty Work
Late morning and early afternoon seems to be a time when mortality preys on the mind, perhaps a side effect of low blood sugar mood dips as lunchtime looms. Columbo has a blood pressure check up at the doctor’s, admittedly more to test out a few theories requiring medical know how than to allay any health fears. There are a couple of chill post mortem scenes in grey mortuaries in which slabside analyses are made before small gatherings of ruminating detectives, and the time of official conclusions noted. There is an agonisingly drawn out wait as the bureaucracy of execution is observed, leading up to the release of gas into a sealed chamber, ending a young woman’s life. Another life is ended as a body drops through the trapdoor of a gallows with shocking suddenness. Emmanuelle Beart returns as a very solid ghost, a revenant returning to the house in which she committed suicide in Jacques Rivette’s L’Histoire de Marie et Julien. Colin Firth’s college professor in A Single Man disconsolately addresses his bored students on the theme of anxiety in literature, the sense that a life can pass in which no-one listens to or really cares about you or anything you say. He is evidently not talking in the abstract, but articulating his own feelings.

Going through the motions - Bergman's Winter Light
This is the part of the day when time hangs heavy for some, and seems to move with a weighty slowness, as if affected by a dense gravity. In The Breakfast Club, the rebellious students set off a group whistle-along of Colonel Bogie, the theme from A Bridge Over the River Kwai, to alleviate the dullness of their confinement in the library. The church organist in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light glances at his watch whilst he plays, the pitifully meagre congregation muttering the words of the hymn whilst Gunnar Bjornstrand’s priest, his faith hollowed out and scoured away, goes through the minimal motions of religious observance once more. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the elevator carrying Michael Rennie’s celestial visitor and Patricia Neal, the woman whose son has been helping him, judders to a halt. Asking her what time it is, she replies ‘almost twelve’, and he casually notes that the worldwide stoppage that he has instigated through ‘neutralising’ all electrical activity has taken effect. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf slumps in a shadowy café, hiding away from the daylit world outside. He glances listlessly up at the clock, but pays it little heed, his day lacking any sense of urgency or purpose. Humphrey Bogart looks nervous and twitchy in a cheap apartment room, waiting for a fateful knock upon the door. When it comes, he hesitantly walks over and opens the door, but we never get to see what is on the other side. The Clock does this with several sequences, teasingly creating tension without resolution and making you want to discover the original film to find out just what does happen. This is certainly the case with Five Minutes to Live, the bank heist thriller in which Johnny Cash’s psychotic hoodlum holds the manager’s wife hostage, waiting for the phone call from his accomplice which will tell him the ransom money has been successfully transferred from the bank vaults. As the minutes tick away, events at the bank spin out of control, and the hapless employee who has been brought along for the ride is left saying ‘you don’t know what you’ve just done’. Does the wife live, or does mad Johnny get to pull the trigger which he is so evidently eager to squeeze?

The end of time - Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone
The bank is one of the hubs of the daytime business world, the centre through which the flow of commerce is channelled, and it is such a place in which Burgess Meredith’s meek and unassuming clerk works in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone story Time Enough At Last. A bibliophile whose greatest joy in life is reading, he is never afforded the chance either at work or at home, having to snatch what quiet moments he can. One such involves taking his lunch in the sealed environs of the bank vault, and it is here that he is shaken by a sudden seismic tremor. He emerges to find himself the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, the city a blasted ruin around him. Wandering about in a state of existential fear which is typical of most characters in the Twilight Zone, he talks to himself and begins to go mad with loneliness, until he stumbles across the remains of the city library. It’s here we find him in The Clock, surrounded by a literary calendar made of neatly piled up books divided to fill the months of his solitary years. ‘At last I have time’, he says with a resurgence of hope. Marclay doesn’t show us the conclusion of this conte cruel, however, in which this terribly poor sighted man drops his glasses in his excitement, smashing the lenses. ‘It’s not fair’, he quietly whines to himself, ‘it’s not fair’. The effective loss of literacy marks the final and absolute collapse of civilisation.

The rhythms of the business day are also felt in Wall Street, in which Charlie Sheen’s eager yuppie, after an endless wait, is told that he can have five minutes with Mr Gecko. He adjusts his appearance in the mirror, and gears himself up to make an instant and lasting impact. In The Hudsucker Proxy, head of the company Waring Hudsucker sits at the far end of the long boardroom table high up in the glass and steel corporate tower over which he has presided. He has a slightly unhinged smile fixed upon his face, and is psyching himself up to use the table as a runway, launching himself through the window and into a brief flight down to the sidewalk many stories below. We don’t witness this plummeting flight in The Clock, but see Paul Newman’s cold and calculating corporate shark peering down through the broken window (which, given the cartoonish nature of much of the film, might as well be in the shape of a wildly leaping, spreadeagled man), happy at the successful conclusion of this board meeting. At the other end of the business spectrum, a rank of assembly line workers mechanically rise in perfect formation to make way for the next shift in Rene Clair’s A Nous La Liberte.

If this is the time at which the wheels of commerce are already busily turning, for others, more attuned to a nocturnal clock, the day is barely beginning. We see Paul Newman again, younger and in a white vest rather than a grey suit, sprawling in bed and marvelling at the fact that his companion is up and working on her art. Another bleary eyed couple pull back the sheets, she commenting that she is normally an early morning person, and that, as he clearly is not, this is never going to work out. In another room in another film, in a seedy, crowded apartment block, a woman awakes, sees the lateness of the hour and immediately starts to hustle her bedside partner out, panicking that he might be seen by her returning husband. The pleasures of the previous night have faded, their memory rejected in a desperate rush to reassert a façade of dull daytime normalcy. Forest Whittaker’s lone urban samurai in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog gears himself up for the day with some rooftop zen routines. Meanwhile, Bill Murray’s neurosis-ridden Bob leaves his apartment in the late morning, bidding goodbye to his beloved goldfish Gill and forcing himself out into the world in What About Bob?

Timing L'Arlesienne - The Prisoner
The hours in which the day has built into full bustling business is also the time for spying and detection, for observing purposeful forays and transactions, piecing them all together to form coherent stories. We see Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoin Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, furtively dodging through the streets of 1960s Paris as he follows the woman identified by his client at the detective agency which he has haphazardly ended up working for. He is the most amateurish of detectives, peering over newspapers, dashing into doorways and slowing and accelerating his pace in the most conspicuously suspect manner imaginable. In Laura, Dana Andrews’ seedy, down-at-heel detective looks disinterestedly at Vincent Price’s collection of fine art objects, a sneer irremovably fixed to his face. When he meets the unctuously eager to please Price, he doesn’t bother to disguise his proletarian contempt for such fancy display. Columbo, meanwhile, goes through his deceptively polite and apologetic rounds of questioning, sidling towards the seemingly inconsequential but crucial point. Here, he examines the identical LPs of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne from which Number Six has assiduously sampled the opening motif in the Village shop’s listening booth, checking his watch as he does so (the time is twenty to twelve). Surely there must be some hidden message. ‘You say he was timing them?’ he asks the shopkeeper. Some variation in tempo, perhaps. Patrick Macnee’s Steed prowls around a seemingly deserted airfield in The Avengers, the silence broken by the sound of a receding milk float which draws his attention to the dead body of Roy Kinnear’s amiably bumbling tramp. In The Prisoner episode Hammer Into Anvil, Patrick Cargill’s thoroughly unpleasant Number Two is driven to a state of paranoid apoplexy by Number Six’s apparent communications with his superiors. Another eerily deserted setting forms the backdrop for the 80s Twilight Zone revival story A Matter of Minutes, in which Adam Arkin and Karen Austin find themselves shifted four hours ahead of the progress of present time. The familiar elements of the town in which they live are being assembled around them, reality seemingly a hastily constructed set with props introduced as required. How will they get back in phase with the normal flow of time? Or will they be edited out now they have glimpsed what goes on behind the curtain?

Traintime in Grand Central - The Palm Beach Story
Railways and Westerns both continue to feature, with the two sometimes combining. Claudette Colbert’s looks around the vast temple of Grand Central Station in Preston Sturge’s The Palm Beach Story, looking for the train on which she can escape from New York and her husband, and the person who’ll provide the money for a ticket. Tom Courtenay’s back stage dogsbody pleads with the engine driver to delay the departure of the train for a few moments to await the arrival of The Actors in The Dresser. He receives short shrift, and the train begins to steam off, only to shriek to a halt at the commanding thespian tones of Albert Finney’s Shakespearean veteran, whose bellowing cry of ‘stop that train’ echoes throughout the station. Colin Firth plays the characteristically flustered and awkward Englishman standing on a London platform with Irene Jacob, both realising that their respective friends aren’t going to turn up for their holiday and deciding to take the train together anyway. In a horrifying scene from Richard Lester’s sceptical San Francisco summer of love drama Petulia, a Mexican boy runs from the ticket booth at which Julie Christie is buying him a ticket to send him back to his own country, dashes out between the ranks of Greyhound buses idling at the station, and is run down by a passing car.

The time of the accident - Petulia
In No Country For Old Men, Josh Brolin’s modern day cowboy waits in the desert with a pair of binoculars, looking to observe the outcome of a drug running exchange. In Once Upon A Time In The West, Henry Fonda black-clad villain paces warily through a deserted Western town, trying to pick out the hidden bounty-hunting gunmen who are trying to kill him. Charles Bronson looks laconically on, remarking ‘time sure flies – it’s already past twelve’, thus drawing Fonda’s attention to the shadow of a rifle falling on the face of the clock painted onto the side of a building past which he’s walking. It marks out time where none yet exists on clocks without hands, in a frontier civilisation still in the process of being constructed. The pendulum propels time towards a fateful midday in High Noon, which provides a climactic moment around which others gather in the countdown to the clock striking twelve, a northward pointing meeting of the hands which seems designed for dramatic conclusions.

Carbine sundial - Once Upon A Time In The West
As we cross the threshold of midday, we move into the flexible period of lunchtime. Meryl Streep presides over a family table reluctantly and sullenly gathered. ‘Say grace’, she prompts, to which her teenage daughter sardonically bites back ‘grace’, plunging headlong into her food. Two Chinese men wordlessly chow down bowls of noodles in a streetside bar, chopsticks a blur of motion. Dustin Hoffmann’s autistically precise Raymond in Rain Man notes ‘of course, lunch time 12.30’. His yuppie brother Charlie, played with consummate narcissism by Tom Cruise, is too busy striking deals on the phone to pay him any attention, and Raymond marks the passing of that all important median dining moment, halfway between 12 and 1, with a note of rising distress at routing and structure disrupted: ‘of course, now 12.31’. Presumably if we’d stayed on a little longer, we might have seen the pub lunch (six pints of beer and four packets of peanuts) which Arthur and Ford down and scoff in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as they await the end of the world, Ford making the profound observation that ‘time is an illusion; Lunchtime doubly so’.

Watches and clocks take on an elevated emblematic or symbolic importance at various points. Christopher Walken’s imposing general tells a young boy the rather insalubrious tale of how his father’s watch has been kept safe through years of war and imprisonment before passing it on to him, a precious heirloom bearing a weight of family history. Matt Damon and Alain Delon play Patricia Highsmith’s amoral character Tom Ripley in adaptations of The Talented Mr Ripley separated by almost 40 years. In the 90s version, Ripley lies on his hotel bed and stares at the clock which represents for him the easeful elegance which his rich American acquaintances effortlessly exude. In the 1960 French version, retitled Plein Soleil, Delon’s Ripley looks at his new friend’s stylish watch with similar envy. A loquacious customer in a jewellers shop looks at watch after watch, unable to make up his mind which one he wants. He directs the assistant’s attention to one behind the counter, swiftly sweeps the whole display tray left on top into his briefcase and scarpers. It’s a rather unsubtle attempt to steal time. The thief in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is rather more expert and artful, and we see the various hiding places in his spartan room where he has stashed his plunder. A stolen watch is strapped around the leg of a table, revealing the time. Roger Moore’s watch proves to be a lifesaver in The Man With the Golden Gun, a handy Q gadget which includes a mini circular saw. This cuts through the ropes which suspend him above the inevitable shark tank into which he is being lowered in a typically overelaborate supervillain execution method which favours poetry over practicality. Marclay seems to have slipped up at one point, the clock on a mantelpiece in The Browing Version some 20 minutes ahead of real time in. But then Michael Redgrave’s traditionalist teacher notices the error and sets the hands back, a true conservative. Robert Powell’s Richard Hannay tries to literally stop the progress of time (or at least its horological demarcation) in the 1978 remake of The 39 Steps, climbing out on to the glass face of Big Ben and hanging on to the big hand as it approaches a quarter to twelve, the time at which the chimes will ring out, on this occasion triggering off a large explosive device. It’s perhaps the ultimate of many appearances made throughout The Clock’s duration by Big Ben, that instant signifier of London as a location as well as handy background indicator of the time of day.

Stopping the official progress of time - The 39 Steps
Actors are seen at various stages of their lives, making startling leaps in age, growing old or rejuvenating before our eyes. The more actorly take on widely different personae whilst stars remain essentially the same throughout. Dirk Bogarde is a northern-accented, calculating gentleman’s gentleman in The Servant and a high-collared Regency dandy in another film (possibly A Tale of Two Cities?) We see a young and self-assured Richard Gere choosing from his extensive wardrobe in the 1980 Paul Schrader film American Gigolo, and an old, grey and downbeat version from more recent times (The Mothman Prophecies?) Dustin Hoffman is Raymond in Rain Man from 1988, and is seen in early 70s youth riding a bicycle alongside a river, a clock attached in a back basket. Paul Newman is youthful in black and white in the 50s in a white vest and older in colour in the 90s in a sober grey suit. Al Pacino crops up from time to time, although at this point in The Clock’s day, he seems to be mostly present in later grizzled form.

And so it goes. The clock ticks on, sweeping through film history, crossing generic boundaries and travelling around the world, taking in all life as projected through the cinematic lens. A sprawling work of art which manages to be about pretty much everything – just like in the movies.

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