When a screenwriter needs a tool to induce suspense, the go-to strategy is "the ticking clock."
This simple narrative device, when it works, keeps the audience on the edge of its collective seat. In The Silence of the Lambs, novice FBI agent Clarice Starling is working against the clock against the serial killer Buffalo Bill before he kills the daughter of a senator. In Fred Zinneman's 1952 western High Noon, the ticking clock is specific: At noon, a train will arrive in town carrying a trio of gunslingers, and retiring sheriff Gary Cooper tries -- unsuccessfully -- to deputize volunteers to make a stand against them.
In the amazing installation in the WAG, Christian Marclay's The Clock, when the clock strikes noon in reality, the screen shows the striking of that fateful noon hour in High Noon.
The entire 24-hour movie is synched to footage lifted from movies and television shows depicting the corresponding time in reality.
Whether by mistake or design, the clock is not always accurate. Around the 2 p.m. mark, we see a shot from L.A. Confidential in which Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) checks the clock in the squad room. If you've seen the film, you know the time being depicted is 2 a.m., not 2 p.m. The same goes for a shot around the 3 p.m. mark, from Fritz Lang's proto-serial-killer movie M in which a pickpocket is setting his purloined watches. The scene actually takes place at night, not in daytime.
But one is not inclined to congratulate oneself for catching these mistakes. Indeed, fanboy familiarity registers as an aspect of The Clock's implied critique. As a culture, we denizens of the 21st century are the most entertained in known history. Unlike T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, we do not measure out our lives "in coffee spoons," but in the movies we see and on the TV shows to which we claim benign addiction.
Aware of that cultural saturation, the Swiss-American video artist Marclay had a massive film and video library with which to construct a round-the-clock timepiece, consisting of some 10,000 clips gathered by a team of researchers over a three-year period.
Yet it does not register as an arbitrary assembly. Marclay edits these random components in infinitely interesting ways, with soundtracks of some clips bleeding over into others to startling effect.
If the end product is worthy of a museum setting (the WAG gallery is equipped with an array of comfy sofas), the globally sourced materials are a sublime blend of high and low art, from Fanny and Alexander to Columbo, from Alfred Hitchcock to Wes Craven.
The end result -- and I must stress I have not come anywhere near watching all 24 hours of The Clock -- is simultaneously fascinating and unsettling. This accumulation of clips elicits a certain tension, partly due to Marclay's reliance on suspense movies. He includes snippets of both contemporary and original versions of 3:10 to Yuma and The Taking of Pelham 123 -- textbook ticking-clock movies -- with scenes depicting the minutes leading up to their violent resolutions.
Take away those resolutions and it leaves an overriding sense of menace accompanying the passage of time. Indeed, time is frequently malevolent: Around the 9:48 a.m. mark, witness a shot from Stephen King's rise-of-the-machines thriller Maximum Overdrive, where a menacing bank clock, instead of displaying time and temperature, offers up an insulting, obscene epithet.
The WAG has attached a Halloween theme to this weekend's 24-hour marathon screening, beginning Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. It may seem a strained marketing device to get butts in seats. (Costumes, we are told, are "optional.")
Then again, as the movie functions as an epic reminder of our mortality, maybe the Halloween theme is not so silly after all.