Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock… to the end of time

Got a little time to write you something about Time. The question is vast in Malick and I thought it was better not to try to embrace it all. It is a rather simple critical proposition. From an excerpt of Teorema (1968) included in The Clock (2010), by Christian Marclay, a brief look into Malick and Monteiro. Hickory, dickory, dock.


What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.”
(Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio.”, St. Augustine, Confessions)

The Clock is really one: all the clocks seen in the images and the mentions to the hours are synchronized with our time zone. The film is not representation in the usual sense, something distant from us in the dark of the room. We are part of it in the measure we share its time, the time which rules our space, being generated a permanent anticipation for what finally is no more than the running of the very film, of time itself. “People become totally aware that their life is linked – their life is synched – with this thing.” (Christian Marclay)
The film is both ludic and serious. “It’s complicated, but it’s also simple.” (from an excerpt included) It is true that many of the scenes can be understood as more or less ironic commentaries on the experience of production/fruition of The Clock. For example, we find there the famous joke from The Third Man, having the author of the film – the clockmaker – Swiss nationality:

“... in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

“Nothing gave him a greater feeling of total self-fulfillment as seclusion in his compartment, where he found himself at the center of a universe that functioned according to a perfect order that was as regulated as the movement of the clocks at La Chaux-de-Fonds.” (De se sentir isolé dans sa cellule, au centre d’un univers qui fonctionne parfaitement en vertu d’un ordre puissant, aussi réglé que le mouvement des montres de La Chaux-de-Fonds, lui procurait un épanouissement total de son être.», Pierre Francastel, Art et technique aux XIX. et XX. siècles) The narcissist dream of a world regulated clocklike under one’s wishes, a world where the architect would assume a quasi-godlike role, was that really a monster born from the sleep of modernist reason? Francastel was not exactly a fan of Le Corbusier: “Barracks, monasteries, camps, prisons, phalansteries. Le Corbusier belongs to those who, through centuries, wanted to make their neighbours happy at the cost of taking freedom from them.” («La caserne, les cloîtres, les camps, les prisons, les phalanstères. Le Corbusier appartient à la lignée de ceux qui, à travers les âges, ont voulu faire le bonheur des autres, voire au prix de leur liberté.», ibidem)

The time of clocks, the time of The Clock is not just Time (in abstract, about time we might only be able to say “I do not know.”). It is an historical time whose beginning we can determine with some accuracy. It is the time born of the industrial revolution. A well-known description of the Antwerp railroad station goes like this:

And Time, said Austerlitz, represented by the hands and dial of the clock, reigns supreme among these emblems. The clock is placed about 20 meters above the only baroque element in the entire ensemble, the cruciform stairway which leads from the foyer to the platforms, just where the image of the emperor stood in the Pantheon in a line directly prolonged from the portal; as governor of a new omnipotence it was set even above the royal coat of arms and the motto Endracht maakt macht. The movements of all travelers could be surveyed from the central position occupied by the clock in Antwerp Station, and conversely all travelers had to look up at the clock and were obliged to adjust their activities to its demands. In fact, said Austerlitz, until the railway timetables were synchronized the clocks of Lille and Liège did not keep the same time as the clocks of Ghent and Antwerp, and not until they were all standardized around the middle of the nineteenth century did time truly reign supreme.

The Clock is only exhibited in museums and galleries. Its public and somehow monumental character is fundamental for its impact, as the spectator cannot stop or control it anyhow. We have little power in this relation. The analogical is devoured by the digital age, in a process of progressive objectification to which the film tries to subtract itself. (Time is money, shhhh.....)

(Und unter all diesen Symbolbildern, sagte Austerlitz, stehe an höchster Stelle die durch Zeiger und Zifferblatt vertretene Zeit. An die 20 Meter oberhalb der kreuzförmigen, das Foyer mit den Bahnsteigen erbindenden Treppen, dem einzigen barocken Element in dem gesamten Ensemble, befinde sich genau dort, wo im Pantheon in direkter Verlängerung des Portals das Bildnis des Kaisers zu sehen war, die Uhr; als Statthalterin der neuen Omnipotenz rangiere sie noch über dem Wappen des Königs und dem Wahlspruch endracht maakt macht. Von dem Zentralpunkt, den das Uhrwerk im Antwerpener Bahnhof einnehme, ließen sich die Bewegungen sämtlicher Reisender überwachen, und umgekehrt müßten die Reisenden alle zu der Uhr aufblicken und seien gezwungen, ihre Handlungsweise auszurichten an ihr. Tatsächlich, sagte Austerlitz, gingen ja bis zur gingen ja bis zur Synchronisierung der Eisenbahnfahrpläne die Uhren in Lille oder Lüttich anders als die in Gent oder Antwerpen, und erst seit der um die Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts erfolgten Gleichschaltung beherrsche die Zeit unbestrittenermaßen die Welt.”, Austerlitz, Sebald).

It is a time-god whose worship advanced at the rhythm of the mechanization of the world, in good measure compressing individuals to its frenetic demands of precision and efficiency. The film, kind of 24 hours channel whose only and always updated news is the time we already spent with it, parodies somehow this servitude to the clock-machine (today all machines have clocks and with the internet they do not even need us to adjust), making ourselves more aware of its mechanisms.

From time to time we talk about trains around here. (Letter from an Unknown Woman)

On this subject we might remember that only with the cinema the image truly and violently mechanized, temporalized and universalized itself. If the greatest symbol of the 19th century was the train, cinema, that train of images where truth passed by 24 times a second (in a speed capable of effacing its own illusion) was the best symbol of the past century, particularly of last century’s capitalism, mass and consumption society. In its delirious montage, the film ends up to be a lesson about the artifice of cinema itself and a fresco about the life, the anxieties and the collective dreams of the west in the last 100 years.


“To this time of the Church, merchants and artisans substitute the more exactly measured, usable for profane and lay needs, time of clocks.”
(A ce temps de l’Eglise, marchands et artisans substituent le temps plus exactement mesuré, utilisable pour les besognes profanes et laïques, le temps des horloges.”, Jacques Le Goff on gothic Europe)

A good watch is reliable, regular. This one is half crazy and, like all great works of art, certainly produces associations most strange to the artist’s intentions. Of course that this was one of Marcklay’s main goals (he is a fan of Duchamp), to build an incontrollable machine of associations. From the innumerous things asking attention in this film, I choose to underline an excerpt of Teorema (1968): Lucia (Silvana Mangano) at the wheel, preparing to pick up a pair of boys off the side of a road. She stops, has a moment of despair with the mechanic vacuity of all that. Then, with no way out, she makes the turn and picks the boys. The film goes on, the clock continues its movement.

With or without abuse, I see here one of the most interesting metaphors of the film. Pasolini is not just some director, it was said around here. And Teorema is not just some film. It is a film about surviving to the experience of love, of passion, of the sacred. About this choice by Marclay, let us remember that the sacred is:

«... something that is “characterized by the impossibility of enduring,” it is the “opposite of a substance that withstands the test of time, something that flees as soon as it is seen and cannot be grasped.” For Bataille, it is the sacred which disrupts order and takes over the role of the profane to interrupt and displace rationality and labour.» (J. Tong, Crisis of Ideology and the Disenchanted Eye: Pasolini and Bataille; I dislike this article, it is a mere appropriation…)

After experiencing the sacred nothing can be the same, but its life-changing power is one with the radical distance from it. The time of the sacred is a suspension of the time of clocks. But the sacred, if it is really so, is finite. It is the finite experience of an inapropriable, unstoppable, incircunscribible other. As soon as the god of love announced his arrival, he announced his departure. Its temporal experience (rational, poetic, artistic) is apparently only possible as loss. “He belonged to life itself (…). The adorable, which had come without I had ever waited for him, has not returned and will never return again.” (“Egli apparteneva alla propria vita (…). L’adorabile che senza che io l’avessi mai sperato era venuto, non è ritornato e non tornerà mai più.”, Teorema, Rimbaud) Will he? How one survives to the expulsion of a paradise surrounded by the unsurpassable walls of time?

You certainly came here to destroy.” (“Tu sei certamente venuto qui per distruggere.”, Teorema) I would not be surprised if the author of The Tree of Life had produced several allusions to Pasolini along his work. Notice the theme of the annunciation in both Teorema (the postman is even called Angelo, angel) and The Tree of Life (arrival of the telegram). More obvious but no less important is the theme of the desert and its cross. Malick’s desert contains allusions to several films, but I do not doubt that Teorema is one of them. I suppose this was unnecessary to say, but Malick’s Visitor is RL, the River of Life. Pasolini said of his visitor that “he could be the Devil, or a mixture of God and the Devil.” In Malick, things get pretty divided, RL is God (grace) or the Devil (nature). But once you get it, the clock does not go back. By the way, Teorema is one of the films which uses the sepia/color contrast we find in Badlands.

Marclay, l’artiste, how he crosses the post-industrial desert? How he lives it? Like Lucia on the road? The endless repetition of meaningless lovers (clocks)? Typical appropriationist irony. Indeed, The Clock, kind of super-supercut, echoes the logic of the internet, or endless channel-surfing. “Good a way to kill time as any.” (Badlands) Kit puts it well. The great question of an empty nihilistic life nowadays is not so much to get time, but to kill it. If one got additional time and nothing to fill it, it only would be more oppressive.

“All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know.” (Knight of Cups): “To know that I have to lose you has made me aware of my diversity. What will happen to me in the future? My future will be like living with someone, myself, who has nothing to do with me.” (“[…] sapere di perderti è diventato la coscienza della mia diversità. Che cosa sarà di me d’ora in poi? Il futuro sarà come vivere con un me stesso che non ha niente a che fare con me.”, Teorema) The way of the son: iconoclasm and, most interestingly, deliberate blindness. Monteiro pissing (on us and art, most probably) in his private cabaret (Le bassin de J.W.). Pasolini is one of the important references of his work (Hovering over the Water draws inspiration from Teorema, for example). In 1959, he published: “Piss was the god of my childhood.” In fact, his religion in those early days was Urinism, which consisted in pissing in sacred places, like churches, as he explained (Corpo Submerso). Piss has its place in 20th century art and its discussion: Duschamp, Pollock, Warhol, etc.

“Great are the deserts, and everything is desert.” (Pessoa) How one answers to the desert? The desert is life without its authenticity, exclusive property of the god of love. “In the desert, there is only the sun [crossing the sky] and the ceaselessly shifting sand that recalls the hourglass and the passing of time.” (Crisis of Ideology…)

The real desert of Simon (Simon of the Desert).

Mother says in The Tree of Life: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” But one can say that the burden of a desertic life is exactly the indifferent, apparently endless duration of empty time. It is to be imprisoned by time. To understand near the grave that your life was a desert might be anguishing, but to prospect nothing than a desert long before it seems hardly better. It all depends of the hope of getting somewhere or not, I suppose. In that case, waiting can give birth to desire. For the father (Massimo Girotti), all ends in an immense cry.

Death and trains make regular apparitions in the film. About trains we have already spoken. Let us see a little more about Death. “For death is but the victory of time.” (“La mort n’est que la victoire du temps.”, Bazin, The Ontology of the Photographic Image) In his interviews, Marclay emphasizes a very old cultural dimension of his (well, of any) clock, the one of memento mori: remember that you will die.

One film which moves towards death, one which is really ruled by a mortal movement, The Day of Despair, by Oliveira. Camilo commits suicide and the writer’s cigar extinguishes in the floor while the rocking chair progressively immobilizes; the clock keeps marking its pace all the time. Its movement is analogue to the wheel of the coach accompanying the film. It carries the doctor who will fulfill Camilo’s despair and will transform into the funeral coach. Nothing more than a metaphor of the film reel’s movement. Marclay seems to especially like burning cigarettes, but his film includes many solutions to represent time passing: candles, drops of water, the movement of the sun or clouds, sand blown by the wind, repetitive and often obsessive movements, situations in which nothing happens...

For whom toll the bells of this clock? For us, too. The apparitions of the same actors at different points of their lives are of our finitude an expressive reminder. The Clock offers the spectacle of the empting of the hourglass of uncertain size of our lives. Marclay subverts playfully cinematic escapism, obsessively and crudely exposing the spectator to the passing of time and proponing overall no resolution whatsoever, because in this film that one will be nothing more than our own death. Each minute was inexorably burnt watching the movie, devoured by it.

“It is as though she had taken on the effects of the memento mori presented to her by the photograph. A dead image, an image of a death mask, immortalized through a process of light on emulsion, but nonetheless of a pastness that refuses to be recovered or one that will never return.” (Crisis of Ideology…) The daughter keeps her albums in her sarcophagus like cassone. Might the objectification of time reinforce the degradation of Eros? In The Clock there is a conversation sort of: 20 minutes, 20 bucks, 30 minutes, 30 bucks

We might say the camera itself is a devouring eye that upon everything exercises its mortal power (see Barthes, for example), unstoppable producer of the reality of an absence here three times disturbing: confronting us with the ephemeral character of life, with life fleeting in “real time” and with its general emptiness. Finally, having included in his clock thousands of excerpts from movies of all epochs and types, the artist emulated the devourer of all things, Time (Ovid). Cinema, devoured devourer, assumes itself in the dynamic engendered by The Clock as a memento mori par excellence.

Snow White: I wonder if Monteiro was thinking: it seems about time to tell them to go fuck themselves

One should turn the memento mori into a memento vivere, but that is only worth trying if you have something to live for. So, how does Malick try to break the clock? I mean by this also the meaningless nature of cinema, or at least its status of loss, vestige of a forever absent reality, its orphic dimension. The answer is by living towards his own social death or pure and simple annihilation. In his own destruction he finds a possibility of passion, some reserve of life to assent, some erotic power. Some door to open and escape from the circularity of time. The bells toll solemnly in The Tree of Life because the time has come, the pyramid is ready and the entrances can be closed (kind of Land of the Pharaohs concept…). It is like if the work had to eternally close upon itself to deliver its creator from time: “…it is clear that the need for duration conceals life from us, and that, in theory, only the impossibility of duration frees us.” (“… il est clair que le besoin de la durée nous dérobe la vie, et que seule en principe, l’impossibilité de la durée nous libère.”, Bataille, Théorie de la religion)

In the brilliant trailer of God’s Comedy, Monteiro violently punches a clock after playing and becoming exasperated with it (this scene is not included in the film). His insanity crisis in the sixties, in the sequence of a frustrated love, was connected to clocks. One day, a friend found him with the firm conviction that all the watches advertised in newspapers marked 10:10 because there would be a revolution the next day at that time (Portugal would live under dictatorship until 1974). It was supposed to be a secret code he had just found out… That day ended with Monteiro dressed like an army officer at the police station, announcing the revolution to the world. Next stop, insane asylum. One probably might say that his entire work is born from the impossibility of revolution. In Recollection of the Yellow House, when João de Deus asks Lívio (the first double of the director) what he has been doing all those years in the mental hospital, he tells him “I have been waiting for you.” Lost the god of love, his Eurydice, his Daphne, what was left was to eternally re-turn, re-volve upon himself. And for what I have seen in To the Wonder, Malick might end the same way, malgré tout. Hickory, dickory, dock.

Quintana working on a clock. (To the Wonder)