Friday, May 6, 2011

The Big Clock

In J.G. Ballard's short story Chronopolis,the inhabitants of a run-down city live without clocks. Time-keeping has been outlawed. But a young man's curiousity (his name is Newman) leads him to a deserted part of the city where time once ruled peoples' lives absolutely. Clocks are everywhere here, on the side's of skyscrapers and in the central plaza that was ground zero for a civilisation controlled by time. All the clocks have long since stopped at the exact time of the revolution that overthrew them. Newman sets his sights on restoring the enormous central clock through which all the others were once run. The idea of the story is that free of the tyranny of time, people gradually stagnate, society runs down, that while a society controlled by time may be highly efficent it is nevertheless soulless, a fascist state where human autonomy is virtually outlawed. Let time take over and it will rule you like a dictator, ignore it and you'll sink into boundless lethargy. It captures our natural fascination with clocks, with questing minds setting out in search of answers, but it also articulates our unease with time as a personal and political tool of oppression. I thought of it the other day while reading about Christian Marclay's amazing art piece The Clock, a video installation sampling thousands of time-related film clips to create a metaphysical meditation on time. It also happens to be a twenty-four-hour clock merging real time with its more elastic cousin, cinema time, creating in the process a kind of Venn diagram, an interzone where life and art meet, a world where clocks are everywhere and every minute is not only catalogued and synchronised but significant. It sounds amazing and I'd love to see it but unfortunately being an art piece it's only on exhibition in certain galleries in big cities, so I don't have much hope. Some considerate person has, however, uploaded about six minutes of it onto Youtube.

Even this short excerpt is hypnotic, time hovering behind everything surreptitiously. (We're not watching time; time's watching us). The ingenuity is compelling enough but what I really like is the way time links each clip to the next, creating a sense of inevitability, like these random clips from past and present are meant to go together, like there's meaning here, a narrative just out of reach. There's no past, present or future, it seems to suggest, only time, continuous, backwards and forwards, where Laurel & Hardy and Roger Moore are in the same film and cinema has been engaged in a secret process of accumulating clips for this very project all along, a High Noon-style countdown across cinematic history. 'Time is the substance from which I am made,' Jorge Luis Borges once wrote. 'Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.' Substitute cinema for time in that and you might have an answer. Cinema carries us along too, devours us. Maybe it's our collective dream of escaping the heartbeat ticking of clocks, of re-entering the timeless flow of eternity, floating away on it like Michel Simon's anarchic tramp at the end of Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning. On the other hand, we like the sense of control clocks give us too, the sense of purpose, which is probably what makes a cinematic clock such a potent idea, the best of both worlds, mysterious and accurate, a Chronopolis we can escape from.

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