Mental Endurance and Marclay’s “Clock”

Around 8:05 am on Saturday, I emerged from the viewing room in the National Gallery where Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film “The Clock” had been showing around its namesake for a couple days. I had been watching very attentively since 11:03 pm Friday night, with the exception of a trip outside to get breakfast and watch the sun rise, roughly 6:05-7:30 am. Therefore, perhaps you can imagine my surprise when – as I stood in the bright, light-flooded atrium outside the screening room – a classmate asked me, “Whoa, did you get taller?”

I was wearing my regular shoes, and at the time I couldn’t think of a reason why I might appear taller. How often do you come out of a cinematic experience (especially a long one) exhibiting positive changes in your body language? Yet, thinking back on the experience I had with “The Clock” and reflecting on the close relationship between psychology and body language, it is beginning to make sense to me. More on that later.

First things first: why am I writing about a movie on my blog about running across Canada? Last week my friend Stephen brought up the age-old, and in my opinion totally accurate idea that,

“at a certain point, physical fitness no longer plays a role in the ability to continue the extreme [endurance] activity and that only mental conditioning drove the athletes to continue and ultimately succeed.”

This is something I believe, with two caveats: 1) my physical fitness is probably not at the “certain point” he mentions, and 2) there are not many shortcuts to mental conditioning, and in fact the most expedient way to achieve that mental state is probably to run for long periods of time. But Stephen made me question what I have been doing – other than my training, which was hampered for a few days by a sprain and a cold – to work on my mental conditioning. With this in mind, I went into my experience with Marclay’s “Clock” excited and mentally prepared for the long haul. I wanted to view this film through the lens of my own philosophies of endurance and duration, and learn from / practice during the viewing something which would further my mental game.

What I found in “The Clock” appealed to me very strongly on a philosophical level. The film, composed of short clips from thousands of different movies edited together in a seamless, free-associative chain, has shots of watches or clocks showing the current time at basically every minute of the 24 hours. In this rejection of any plot, linear experience, or structure beyond the most elemental – time’s inevitable forward movement – there is a prevailing temporality of the present. Despite the film being perhaps the ultimate achievement in “continuity editing” (an encyclopedic display of the different ways to achieve or interpret a “match on action” which links together two unrelated movies), the thesis of time upon which the film is philosophically predicated is that continuity is an illusion.

To watch a large portion of “The Clock” is to accept the fundamental truth of impermanence. The viewer is denied the comfort of a narrative founded in continuity, instead seeing a succcession of distinct moments. With each stroke of the clock’s hand, the past is swept away; the viewing experience is reborn and we see the present afresh. Marclay’s matches on action as he switches from one film to another are often so smooth that it is possible to miss them; unless you’ve seen the films he’s quoting, the slight differences in the mise-en-scène or the actors will only make you uneasy. Thus the film generates in its viewer a sense of distrust and skepticism: is the cut faithful to the original film, or are we being transported to another plane of narrative? Likewise, our world and the beings which inhabit it are ultimately no more than the vibration of certain particles… continuity and patterns are illusions which we cling to for the sake of convenience and stability. The truth of the matter is, you could drop dead tomorrow! Or, the one you love most could leave you.

Truths of this nature are difficult and uncomfortable to grasp, but are made accessible to us through the artistic technique of “defamiliarization,” or “making strange,” which Victor Shklovsky identifies as a central characteristic of the style of Tolstoy and some other Russian writers. Defamiliarization is what it sounds like: by perceptive, focused description of phenomena which are quotidian and overlooked in daily lived experience, they acquire new dimensions. The sense of unease which Marclay cultivates by a match on action which transitions from one film to another is a type of defamiliarization: it points out that the minute-to-minute continuity, which you think you see, may be a dangerous and untenable thing upon which to rely. There are two successive, nearly identical scenes in which a man is bound and splayed upon the ground while a gigantic bladed clock pendulum threatens to slice open his stomach. Wait a minute – was that man’s hair a different color just a minute ago? These are the sort of mindgames “The Clock” will play with you. Reality is not a stable entity: rather, it’s like Prince John’s migrating mole in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” or the splitting or doubling of characters in a David Lynch film (or even, come to think of it, like Donna Hayward being played by a slightly wrong-looking actress in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” though that was just because they couldn’t get the original back).

We can only come to absorb and live a truth when we practice it for a long time: thus, we meditate daily, or run absurd distances, or watch long movies. Duration changes the delivery of an idea from cerebral to experiential; long experiences foster an experiential understanding of a philosophy. Emil Zatopek said, “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.” The length of “The Clock” is therefore an essential part of what it accomplishes artistically. Watching it for many hours in a row will alter your state of consciousness. Perhaps part of what produced that effect for me was also the novelty of sleep deprivation and prolonged watching, defamiliarizing parts of the day in which I would normally do different things. But fundamentally, I believe it was the content of the film itself which left me in a very different state of mind when I left the gallery.

The Clock” was, paradoxically (since the illusion of continuity could also be called “comforting”), a comforting influence for me in that it discounted the validity of past experience and fostered an awareness of the reality of the soon-to-be-past, but present, moment. By contrast, the philosophies that inform futurist or past-obsessed art are pessimistic and claustrophobic: if, as a character in Lisa Moore’s February thinks, “the past is virulent and ravenous and everything can be devoured in a matter of seconds,” there is no escape from past trauma. Futurists like F.T. Marinetti prefer the juvenility of a high-velocity death drive. It is depressing to read things like this, but it was an experience of affirmation and solace to watch “The Clock.”

In retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me that I was standing taller when I left the gallery. As a singer and a runner I am often conscious of my body language even if I don’t like what it is doing. At difficult times in life, I often find my posture collapsing and my shoulders rolling inward, as if pulled down by the weight of oppressive past events. When I forget these things, my natural confidence reappears and I open up and lengthen.

One final note. I had worried that the constant presence of clocks showing the current time on-screen would augment time in the viewing experience, in the same way that kilometer markers (and ads for Erdinger weissbier) seemed to augment distance (and thirst) while I ran the Hamburg Marathon. It is said that a watched pot never boils. But what good is the boiling process, aesthetically, if we are not watching it? What will we learn from the boiling if our attention is elsewhere? It may seem to take some time for the water to begin to boil, but when it does it will be a far more profound experience.


~ by edmundmilly on February 21, 2012.

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