ABOUT TIME: on Masha Tupitsyn’s “Laconia: 1200 Tweets on Film” and Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

Here, with minor edits, is a piece written originally for the first iteration of the Glasgow Review of Books. It appeared online in June 2011, and as that version of the site has not been archived, I am re-posting it here. (Image credit: The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.)

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Take these notes as the continuation of a conversation. Tupitsyn’s tweets are a series of moments between 2009 and 2010. Marclay’s film is a series of moments from the beginning of cinema until now. Both form constellations from a time that extends both backwards and forwards. Tangents, reformulations, ideas followed up or discarded.

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Don DeLillo’s Point Omega begins and ends with detailed descriptions of people in a gallery watching Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, where a nameless man has come back repeatedly, mesmerised by the elongation of action, his attention focused on the separation of each miniscule movement.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is currently screening at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It is a twenty-four hour film, a collage of cinematic moments featuring clocks, watches and characters checking, talking about, and running out of time, minute by minute. You are drawn in to an experience that recalls the “city symphonies” of the 1920s by Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttman, and Alberto Cavalcanti, whose day-in-the-life of Paris was called Rien que les heuresNothing But The Hours or Nothing But Time. The one-day novels, too: UlyssesMrs Dalloway, DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

Johnny Depp is followed by William Klein’s Polly Magoo, who is followed by a crackly Japanese board room scene featuring a giant clock, which is followed by an agitated John Travolta. Despite their complexions and carefully lit profiles, stars too fall prey to the lure of the timepiece. Angelina Jolie stands on a wooden promontory overlooking a desert and checks her watch. Robert Redford waits for a contact in a diner’s booth, worrying about shifting sands. Jason Schwartzman realises the woman of his dreams isn’t coming to the event he’s laid on for her.

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Humanity’s attention is focused on the miniscule movement of the hands of the clock.

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The word “laconic” comes from the supposed concision of Spartans’ speech. Sparta is the capital of the region of Laconia, or Lacedaemonia, which is in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. In 1942 a German U-boat carrying civilians rescued from the sunken RMS Laconia was fired by the US navy. This led to the “Laconia Order” by the admiral of the German fleet, affecting both Allied and German conduct for the rest of the war and leading to lesser protection for non-combatants. Laconia is a city in Belknap County in the US state of New Hampshire. Claude Rains, who appeared in CasablancaLawrence of Arabia and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, died there in 1967. Directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart as Mr Smith, the latter film involves an attempted filibuster by Smith on the floor of the Senate. A filibuster involves a senator holding the floor for a prolonged period of time by speaking continuously for hours or even days.

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Reading Tupitsyn’s book, you make notes in the margin in the same aphoristic manner as the content. Here are a few of mine:
 Movies tell us what real life should be like even though they have no idea what it is like.
 Yet we act as if we are wrong, or guilty, for not conforming to the screen.
 One reads these tweets by ignoring the fact that they are tweets.
 Love, both real and superficial, is inherently bound up with the cinema, which plays on the disjuncture between inside and outside.

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I came to Laconia cynically and sceptically. It seemed gimmicky, and I was suspicious of the delegation of content’s role to form; that by tweeting about film Tupitsyn was hoping that this device would hold far more than it should: the burden and necessity of argument. Because the form itself already made oblique comment on the subject at hand, the content was relieved of its obligation to be rigorously argued.

Yet somehow the opposite is true, content sweeps up form, and the book creates a rigour all its own, a remarkable series of tumbling thoughts through and about visual culture. At points it is quite stunning. They carry over to one another, reflect, argue with one another. The potential problems of this sort of formal construction – that each tweet would be isolated, irrelevant to anything beyond itself, a casual observation that has no particular interest or quality – dissolve as you read. Because you read. You make narratives, connections. Including Tupitsyn herself.

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Audiences for The Clock have fun recognising films and stars. A quartet of elderly women in front of me exclaimed in joyous unison “The Sting!” when Redford appeared. They giggled conspiratorially after their shared reference.

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Throughout Laconia, topics, preoccupations, repeatedly assert themselves:
Michael Mann and Michael Haneke appear often, two film-makers whose outlooks, particularly toward feminism, are diametrically opposed.
 Inside versus outside, in various forms – fake and real bodies (“fake has gone inside”), emotion and superficiality, “the masking smile is easy to fake”, “after years watching fake movie lives maybe movie life is now more real than real life.” Warren Beatty’s Reds.
 The sea as metaphor – for consciousness, for a mirror. And the mirror as metaphor for the sea.
 The film scholar Robin Wood. He is mentioned three or four times but each time prefaced with “the film scholar” as if we haven’t been told this already. Is this because these tweets exist in an abstracted, separated time that doesn’t relate to anything beyond itself? As if each tweet resets knowledge. Or is it because tweets are fragments whereas this book is a whole?
 Cinema’s preoccupations: time (“all-time and no-time”, “any place and any time”) and scopophilia. 
Fashion models have “taught us that looking and wanting are not actually about desire, but about the industry and marketplace of desire. You look because you should. Because looking at and wanting the right things are a way of being inside.”
 New York and Los Angeles, between reality and movies.
 The nature of love: “is it because rather than master the art of loving, we’ve mastered the art of capitalism? In other words, does the context have to be artificial and does money have to be the driving impetus? What if it were love?” “Is this what we’ve come to believe love is? Being “TOTALLY” in love with oneself?” 
Fame, and its effects on the human face. Including the financial ability (and perceived necessity) of deforming it through plastic surgery. “Instead of the fiction of character, it’s now the fiction of the face.”
 Reality TV. “To replace reality?”
 Phallocentrism. Especially in Judd Apatow films.
 John Cusack’s – cinematic, ethical, personal – downward trajectory since pretty much the start of his career.

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To watch The Clock is to be both implicated in collective time and personal time. Recognising a clip is like reading an old diary entry; a whole world you thought was gone opens up again in front of you. You remember how old you were when you saw the film, where you were and who you were with. The film acts as an anchor point in lost time. But you also become crushingly aware of the distance between that vanished world and today. Even stars age, whether they’ve had surgery or not.

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The book object changes when its content has been published before on a blog or on Twitter, and then gets revised and continuously debated after the book’s publication. The book stops time, freezes it and puts itself in a time capsule. Despite the instant access the web affords, one feels a sense of security in knowing that things can be found in an object held in one’s hand. However obsolete books may begin to look, we still feel the need to make them. Though we find their tactility important, does a degree of snobbery remain?: tweets are no more than casual observations until they are “legitimised” in book form.

This is a political problem. A vast amount of literary activity has not only moved from paper to the web, but would not even exist were it not for the web. Are we to dismiss it as mere amateurism? What about those like Tupitsyn who work out projects on Twitter, or Lance Olsen’s novel Head in Flames, a wonderful book whose author in part worked out sentences on Facebook? Is it possible to balk at art-as-Facebook-status-update, living alongside Stephen Fry’s tweeted tales of elevator entrapment whilst remaining open to the really-quite-good writing that exists amongst the terrible and the banal, good writing that should be read just as widely and with just as much respect as that on traditional paper and ink? How do we sift the good writing? Just keeping up with a very small part of it seems a full-time job. Will we all need assistants to read for us?

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There are recurring images in The Clock too:
 Americans watch TV in bed between 11pm and midnight.
 Johnny Depp. Young at 11:42am, old just after 1pm. In From HellSecret WindowCry Baby.
 James Bond. Roger Moore more often than Sean Connery.
 A teen film featuring a boy in a woolly jumper that is a very particular shade of blue.
 Pronunciations of death in E.R.
 The expected: eating, sleeping, working. A montage of walking legs at 9:57, people trying to get to work. Coffee breaks between 10 and 11. Lunch-hours at 1 (rarely at 12).
 Silent, heavy-breathing callers at 00:15. Andie MacDowell; Jane Fonda in Klute.

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The Clock‘s persistent montage effects a synthesis of juxtaposition. Everything becomes equal.

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Alongside Tupitsyn’s book I’ve been reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a great novel that does its own form of condensing, though rather than thought into 140 characters it condenses a cultural atmosphere into three hundred pages. A few images overlap and seem naggingly important here: Wilder, the ’80s child, stares repeatedly at a screen – a window, the oven door, the TV. The TV moves from room to room, the family sharing it as if it were rationed, this despite its seepage into everyday life to the extent that its voices announce themselves as if they were coming from human beings bodily present in the house. Willie Mink, the inventor of a drug that represses the fear of death, sits in a chair throwing pills into his mouth, the TV on mute.

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Like Tupitsyn, Marclay is fascinated by the human face. A young Willem Dafoe’s completely uninteresting face, compared with his compelling strangeness today. The way the known and unknown, the contemporary and old, merge yet remain separated by the audience’s recognition. We create hierarchies out of our recognition.

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Each of Tupitsyn’s tweets are timed and dated. I tried scrolling back through her Twitter feed to find the book’s tweets in their natural habitat, but became exhausted when I realised how in Twitter-land, those tweets are an age away, if not simply irretrievable.

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Each moment of The Clock is time wrenched from date. Time loses its definite article and becomes abstracted, universal but without reference to particularity. The words and rituals associated with specific times – 1 o’clock is lunchtime – become unmoored, confused. You think of “lunchtime” as something that happens but without human actors. 1 o’clock is lunchtime, lunchtime is 1 o’clock.

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A strange moment occurs at Tupitsyn’s 557th tweet. It reads:

“Robin Wood, a film critic who’s influenced me profoundly, has died. RIP.”

This one is devoid of the intellectual performativity of every other tweet, performativity required by the aphorism, a literary form devoted precisely to extravagant performance. Tweet 557 reminds us that this book was composed in public, that it is an act of writing in a community, performative in the sense of public. Tupitsyn writes in her introduction: it is “a book that shows its skeleton.” Writing becomes simultaneously extravagant and coy. It is work in progress being thrust into the limelight, like a child actor having to grow up – and stay on the rails – on-screen.

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In White Noise, the narrator Jack Gladney and his fellow academic Murray have a long rambling conversation about Jack’s fear of death. Murray says Jack’s problem rests in his inability to repress this fear. Jack cannot escape his constant awareness of the ticking clock. In Marclay’s film, the unignorable fact of time is exhausting; every character from every film is anxious, taut, alert, their movement jerky, separated out into its constituent parts.

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We come to watch time pass. Why? I walk through a deserted city centre on a Sunday morning before work, just to get in another forty-five minutes. Why?

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