Transcending Memory

I am usually in bed by 9:30, to fall asleep reading by 10:15, 10:30 or so. It’s been years since 10pm marked the start of my evening rather than its end. But last night I made an exception, trudging out of the house at 9:20pm and making my way down to The Power Plant at the Toronto Harbourfront to see if I could pull an all-nighter to watch a good chunk of Christian Marclay’s, The Clock.

I expected long lines and a minimum 1-2, probably 3, hour wait, which is I why I aimed to be there for 10. I wanted to be in the room when the clock struck midnight. But I arrived just in time to be the last person let in before the line-ups began.

The Clock is a 24 hour video compilation of short clips from films (and some tv shows), each of which contains some reference to the time, either via the characters’ speech or the display of a clock in the room. The film is played so that the temporal references correspond to real time – so when it’s 10:04pm in the gallery, it’s 10:04pm onscreen (meaning that I arrived, gloriously, as Marty McFly and Doc Brown try to harness nature’s power from a lightening struck clock to propel the Dolorian through time). I giggled as I thought to myself, in a multi-layered dorky self-comment: “Perfect timing!”

What’s amazing about The Clock is how quickly time passes – 10pm till midnight did not feel like the length of a regular feature length film, and I was as engrossed, if not more, in these images as I would be with a mainstream movie. Stripped of conventional, linear narrative form, the pieces instead were held together by theme, emotion, playful cross-references and, of course, by sharing the same time of the night.

When one actor closes a door, the next, in a completely different context, opens it. Fragments of telephone conversations connect to create relationships that exist now beyond the speaker’s intentions. What is genius about the assemblage is that Marclay manages to build mood, even story, somewhere beyond the linear, such that I found myself reinvested in characters I knew (or, strangely, thought I knew because they were portrayed by actors I recognized) without even knowing their immediate context – simply by their new association with each other and with us, the gathered. The beauty of a skilled actor’s face acting replaced the story she inhabited, instead focusing my attention on the moment itself as that moment connected with the moment we were all sharing in the room.

The 10 minutes that build to midnight, for example, build in intensity with those onscreen together counting down the minutes – so much so that I found myself stunned to watch someone leave the room at 2 minutes to the hour. I was desperate to know what would happen when the clock struck 12, and was overjoyed to find an utter avoidance of relying on stock footage of New Year’s Eve parties (even as I was equally as happy at 6am to see the somewhat obvious, “Good Morning Vietnam” shouted by Robin Williams and poor Bill Murray crash his alarm clock as he was forced into another repetition of the same day).

But these onscreen events connected to the time we in the gallery shared also. Shortly after scenes of bars closing down for the night, a wave of new viewers arrived to fill the room’s smell with the traces of alcohol burning off their breath. As they settled in to our little community, the smell was replaced with the stench of feet released from the restrictive types of shoes one wears for a night on the town.

The reason I had wanted to pull the all-nighter was because I had read that watching through the night distorts the viewer’s sense of reality – and I imagined that dozing on the couches, waking each time someone screamed or a telephone rang out onscreen would take me to some place of transcendence. But as I sunk into the non-story, captivated by each clip, I forgot this desire and simply enjoyed the show.

But then I was awoken, sometime in the 4 o’clock hour, I think – a particularly trippy hour, although I’m not sure if that’s because of what’s onscreen or my own state at the time! – to see a rocket ship taking off into space. The scene was not modern; it was old school cartoony, bright colours and figures moving around awkwardly. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that looks just like the time I went into outer space.” The strangeness of the thought woke me up for a moment, as I found the sense to question its veracity. And the next minute was spent in confusion – have I been into outer space? Have I been on a rocket ship? Surely not, I kept thinking…and yet, I was convinced that I had.

Before I fell asleep again, I had utterly convinced myself that I had, indeed, been into outer space and that I could access the memory to prove it.

It wasn’t until I was driving home this morning that I figured out where that memory came from. In high school, we had a hypnotist come to our school do a show, and I was one of the students put under. In my hypnotic state, the guy took me on a journey into space. Aliens attacked my ship, but I fought them off. And to this day I have fragmented memories – memories that feel utterly real, even though I know they’re not – of the travel and the battle. On some level, my body holds a recollection of weightlessness and inter-galactic flight and fight.

So now as a write, with the sun risen and The Clock playing on elsewhere in the city – and with me feeling a little lost because I’m not there – I realize that’s the memory I accessed somewhere around 4am. For a moment, the film led me to transcend not only the time and space I was in in the gallery space, but it also led me to transcend the structure of my own memory, into false memory – into believing for a moment in something I know isn’t true.

As I write this now, I realize that I accessed something else in that moment too – yesterday afternoon I finished Will Self’s book, Psychogeography, wherein he has a fantastic little satirical essay on Virgin Atlantic’s space program. The essay evokes the simultaneous plausibility and implausibility of recreational space travel…precisely the dilemma of memory I faced somewhere in that 4 o’clock hour.

Just as the film rearranged fragmented clips into non-linear storytelling, so too did my brain in response to it. I hesitate to say, because it’s more than a little cliched, but just can’t help myself – what a trip!

I had to force myself to leave at 6:30am, 8.5 hours after I had arrived. Watching all these characters wake up made me long to spend my day with them. But my parking was running out, and the real world of a hectic week that would not run smoothly if I didn’t find some sleep beckoned. I arrived home, took off my watch and clothes to climb into bed beside a sleeping husband as his alarm clock turned to 7am on the dot – I couldn’t help but feel I was a character on screen as the uncanniness of the ordinary enveloped by tired body.

But oh, I was desperate to know what the actual on-screen people looked like as they started their days while I ended my night! Next 24 hour viewing, I’ll be up early for a 6am arrival…to greet Kirsten Dunst as she awakens in a beautiful sunrisen field (Virgin Suicides?) and we’ll begin our day together.


While I usually only use my own photographs on this blog, I had to borrow this one because you aren’t allowed to take pictures in the viewing room. For the bulk of the night, I had the front left couch all to myself. The room was full like this on my arrival; when I left at 6:30am, there were only 7 of us left.

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