Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Clock-watching, or Truth, sixty times an hour

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers some "axioms about time in general":
Time has only one dimension; different times are not simultaneous but sequential (just as different spaces are not sequential but simultaneous).... Different times are only parts of one and the same time.... the proposition that different times cannot be simultaneous could not be derived from a universal concept.... Hence it is contained directly in the intuition and presentation of time.  --Pluhar's translation, A32 = B48
Sequence is how time is related to counting, which is to say that time can be measured by a numbering clock always counting upwards.  Einstein's thought experiments about time really consist of showing the kinds of things that can act as clocks: viz., any physical system that follows the then recently articulated fundamental axioms of arithmetic: the idea of a defined interval and the idea of a succession of such intervals.  (Thus two mirrors bouncing light back and forth to each other are a clock.) Since pretty much all things can be clocks (movies pre-eminently, ticking at 24fps), the universe of things is a universe subject to time. (The fact that Einstein proved Kant wrong is not really germane here: what matters is the domain that space and time map out.)

At any rate, I thought about some of this when I spent a couple of hours at Christian Marclay's The Clock, the real-time exhibition to end all real-time exhibitions.

As everyone knows, Marclay spliced together bits of film totaling twenty-four hours, each bit containing somewhere a (legible) clock, whether a digital sign like the one above, a wrist-watch, a sun-dial (I'm guessing: I don't think I saw one), or someone telling someone else the time.  Some movies, parts of some scenes, appeared more than once -- if a character worried about the time keeps looking at his watch in some movie, his watch may appear more than once in that movie, as time hurries by or seems to drag on forever.  Since most movies aren't in real time even when they're showing continuous time, the time difference between those clips is different (and more accurate) in The Clock from what it was in the original.

In His Girl Friday about twenty minutes passes on the clock in the twelve real minutes that Hildy and Walter are talking; in 24 the commercials allow for elisions but also compress the time a little bit so that particular deadlines can be met during the show and not during the ads.  As far as I know High Noon is in genuine real time, as is Robert Wise's great boxing movie "The Set-Up" (1949).

This is from The Set-Up, at the end, and,
for all I know, from The Clock

You can certainly set your watch by The Clock, and one of the interesting parts of the experience is knowing what time it is as you watch; you don't have to worry about checking.  Watching is checking.  And yet you kind of forget that also: the fragments are all so gripping that you're hooked -- 60 times an hour.  We regret leaving every scene for the next, or would regret it if the next scene weren't so immediately compelling.  The movies!
Part of being gripped, though, is looking for the watch or clock or time-piece in each scene.  (It's a pleasure to see clocks you recognize from the real world.  My watch was there! (Someone trying to pawn it for drugs, at just about 1:17 p.m.  Kind of early in the day, come to think of it; must have been a heroin addict.)  My grandmother's clunky alarm clock!  So we watch (!) somewhat differently from the way we would the original movie.  It might therefore seem surprising that we're hooked, scene after scene.

And yet in another way it's not surprising.  The experience is decontextualized, in the best possible sense, the way movie trailers decontextualize the scenes they show.  We get little fragments of intensity, all the more intense for being unexplained, unassimilated to some reasonable desire or goal or way of making oneself secure in the world, the goal of all characters in sequential narration.

Sequence again, then.  The Clock quilts together scenes from a century or so of movies.  We're not looking at the sequential unfolding of time.  We're looking at different spaces, maybe 2,880 of them (the clips are not the same length; they probably average thirty seconds apiece, but who knows?) that are not simultaneous, and different times that are not sequential, but all brought to the spatial simultaneity, the spacial equivalent of simultaneity, on the video screen.  Time and space are made mosaics of each other.  We recognizes bits and pieces -- here a scene, there some sort of time-keeper.  They all come together.  It's beautiful.

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