I was rather annoyed to be dragged out of bed last Friday at 10:00 PM to schlep all the way to West 21st and 11th Ave to look at art. I generally don't fare well at galleries--I tire easily and I complain--and I particularly hate watching video while standing around and looking awkwardly at a small screen whose sound is competing with other monitors nearby. After spending two hours at Paula Cooper with Christian Marclay's new 24-hour video work The Clock (2010), however, I may have to reassess my value system. Not only is the piece terrific, but the viewing space is by far the most comfortable of any gallery I have ever been to. No tiny television under glaring overhead lights with a pair of headphones (and a line of people waiting to use them). This baby is being projected on a huge theater-size wall with booming sound and inviting couches to sprawl out on. I was actually sad to have to leave so soon. Fuck the white cube! Of course, Marclay's raw material being (predominantly) Hollywood narrative films, I'm sure he is anxious to maintain a bit of the black box aura surrounding his sources.
The Clock is a 24-hour single-channel video about time, and particularly time as expressed by watches and clocks. While I realize this sounds dreadfully boring ("Why not just stay home and read Bergson?" you may ask), it is truly a thrilling experience. Marclay and god knows how many assistants have assembled hundreds upon hundreds of these temporal expressions from the cinematic universe and strung them together in chronological order. So if a character remarks that the clock has struck 11:30 in the virtual world, check for yourself and you'll find that it's 11:30 in the "real" world as well. (At the very least, Marclay saves you the trouble of having to check your watch if and when you get bored with him.) All this has the effect of making these excerpted Hollywood scenes so much more vivid in the viewer's mind, and I am sure the Surrealist prompt to walk into a movie en medias res and leave before it ends was a decisive influence. Taken out of context, these films speak to each other in a self-contained universe beyond the confines of plot, training our eyes to see what is always already there in the image: the passage of time. One comes to realize that clocks are almost always used in films to dramatize someone's anxiety, to heighten narrative tension, or to reflect bitterly on death. Of course, the numerous shots of people opening their clocks and rearranging the hands underscore the rather slippery and arbitrary conventions surrounding our notions of Father Time. We emerge with a new admiration for the actor, who fights bravely in the cinematic trenches with the knowledge that his own death is only two reels away.
"Christian Marclay's The Clock will be screening for 32 straight hours each of the following weekends: Jan. 28-29, Feb. 4-5, Feb. 11-12 & Feb. 18-19 (Friday 10am through Saturday 6pm)." I'd hate to be the unlucky gallery assistant on hand for those overnight shifts! Of course, you can also see the piece during normal gallery hours, pretty much any day except Sunday and Monday. If you go only once, I recommend trying to catch the midnight mayhem. Did Marclay use anything from the great opening scene of Cries and Whispers, as Bergman makes a tour of every handsome clock in the dying Harriet Andersson's ancestral home? Or how about one of my favorite scenes of all time--the shattered clock at the end of Preminger's Laura when Clifton Webb misfires and stops time at the same instant he himself expires from a thunderous gunshot wound? This is why The Clock will keep me coming back: at the very least, I need to sit and verify Mr. Marclay's good taste.
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Speaking of people who teach us to be better viewers, John Waters is making an appearance at Anthology Film Archives next Friday (Feb. 4) to present Douglas Heyes' Kitten With a Whip (1964), a neglected little film starring Ann-Margret and John Forsythe of Charlie's Angels/Dynasty fame. I know I've been writing about Anthology a lot and they probably don't really need the press, but it's their 40th anniversary and this is important, damn it! Perhaps Waters considers Heyes on a par with Delmer Daves, the 'undiscovered auteur' whose scene from Susan Slade of an infant setting itself on fire was elevated to high art status by the Pope of Trash in one of his great Director's Cut pieces. I'll be interested to hear what he has to say in his introduction, and so should you.
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Finally, C. Scott Willis' The Woodmans (2010) is wrapping up its two-week engagement at Film Forum--the last screenings will be on Feb. 1, a Tuesday. I waited on line for two hours to see this film at Tribeca last year and I was not disappointed. It's a beautiful, evocative portrait of photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. Or, rather, it's a beautiful, evocative portrait of the family that survived her, each of whom is an artist in his/her own right but hopelessly overshadowed by Francesca's enduring fame. The central themes, as you can imagine, are narcissism and repressed jealousy, a curious mixture of admiration and acrimony that leads to such twisted statements as father George's consoling line, "Well, I've lived to enjoy old age. Francesca never had that" (I'm paraphrasing). I have to admit I was a bit perplexed by Elisabeth Subrin's mostly negative review of The Woodmans in Film Comment (July/August 2010) shortly after the Tribeca premiere. Willis is attacked for "yield[ing] little insight into the source of creativity--as if simply looking at art might explain it." How else would one encounter art if not by looking? What do films really do other than look, sometimes idiotically, always rapturously? If the filmmaker wanted to write art criticism, he wouldn't be making films. (Unless he was Godard.) Subrin then goes on to fault Willis for making "a work about a suicide, with parents as primary source material" rather than "a well-researched inquiry with critics, art historians, and perhaps even a psychologist weighing in." All of which would have left us with a mildly interesting television special that we could watch once for the information we desire and safely file away in the back of our minds for future use. In short, The Woodmans gives us only "a void of meaning." I suppose it may be stating the obvious to say that a void of meaning is precisely Willis' intention. Suicide is one person's confrontation with the void, and that void proceeds to grow outward in order to embrace each of those closest to the victim, who will never satisfactorily agree on the loved one's motivations. All of this dialogue expended on Woodman's life, all the self-denials and self-implications, are only so much circling around a phenomenon beyond comprehension. As Dudley Andrew put it, cinema is not an index of Truth, but, at its best, can present us with clues and signs whose elusive set of prompts may lead us back to an offscreen truth or two. And watching the tortured inner workings as they manifest themselves on the face and body of one still in mourning for a lost child--well, that's the sort of grand truthiness that films offer, take it or leave it.