This post might be a little beyond its sell by date but hopefully the whiff of staleness isn’t too strong. It’s about three of the most interesting things I’ve seen all year. So I’m afraid you’ll have to humour me here.
Christian Marklay’s The Clock and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams are both films about time, narrative, cinema, and I suppose, something that might be described (however uncomfortable it makes me feel to use the word) humanity.
They also share a way of making film by using found material as the way to construct their imagery. Rather using film in the traditional way, of pointing a camera at moving things in order to document and record those actions they use the medium of film to show us images that already exist. In Marclays case, it’s clips sourced from a century of cinema. For Herzog, it’s the recently discovered paintings in the Chauvet Cave – the world’s oldest cave paintings, around 32,000 years old.
The Clock’s premise is simple: it splices together scenes from films that feature a clock and then sequences them to make a real time 24 hour long representation of time. That’s to say, 5pm on the screen is 5pm as you watch it. Watching, we jump from the dramatic narrative of each scene to the next – from say a classroom to a train station, to a couple eating lunch, to Big Ben, to someone waking from a daydream. Fragments of dialogue and characterisation, elements of narrative come and go in ways that summon both the familiar narrative conventions of movies but also demonstrate the diverse possibility of any given moment. The fiction of movie-time is made real by synchronising it with real time. The effect is uncanny and mesmerising and made me return many times – first to the White Cube, then to the Hayward (where it was part of the British Art Show).
Its simplicity of concept allowed it to be both as mindless as channel surfing (time wasting) but also profound (a way to experience time). Time here is at once a straightforward ticking of the second hand, but also something much weirder. Not only is there the cinematic sense of time contained within the clips themselves, there is also a jumping backwards and forwards through archival time: from silent black and white to Technicolor then back again.
What’s great about The Clock is the ease with which it allows us to occupy all of these spaces and ideas at the same time. Rather than confusing us with its jump cut juxtaposition, it feels so comfortable. Perhaps this is because we already do instinctivly inhabit these multiple time zones that occur in the overlay of reality, representation and media. The Clocks impact is to make these familiar sensations palpable.
Herzog’s film is more straightforwardly a movie. You see it in a cinema rather than an art gallery, you wait for the titles to roll, put on your 3D specs settle down and watch it for an hour and a half. Really, though, its two films. First a documentary about its own making and then a series of moments of amazing footage as the caves drawings are revealed in astoundingly deep 3D.
It is both a document – moving spatial images of a cave that few will ever visit in person – and a film about the making of this document. The subject matter is astoundingly moving: a trace of such ancient human civilisation, the beautiful nature of the drawings themselves and their rarity. We feel time warping in the freshness of their application, the vibrancy of their line, the record of footprints in dust, the crumbles of charcoal that lie where they fell so long ago.
The films explain the historical context and origins of the cave paintings. They are not the work of a single artist or even a single tribe, but images drawn and redrawn over generations across thousands of years. In a way we are reminded of The Clock. Marclays film may bear his name as its author but it contains the work of thousands, and hundreds and thousands of hours of labour – not just Marclay and his assistants but all the actors, directors, scriptwriters, crew and so on whose work was necessary for the piece to exist. All of that culture is assembled and projected onto a wall in a way that resonates with the production of the caves images. And both, through containing multiple authors and so much time, are depictions of entire cultures.
The Cave of Forgotten dreams is also a film about film – or rather the representational impulse that film is part of. The film suggests an animation to the paintings as the camera moves around the caves undulating surface and as the crew shine torches across its surface, suggesting that this might be cinema encountering its own origins.
Herzog seems to delight in the way technologically advanced medium of 3D filming is used to show us what seem to be equally cinematic technologies of pre-history. Overlaying such chronologically distant image making devices on top of one another concertinas chronological time. Our experience, through polarising glasses, combines the most ancient and the most modern representational techniques become a single simultaneous entity. Herzog becomes a collaborator with the Paleolithic cave painters. Film, it suggests is just another phase in the history of story-telling – and no doubt as likely to become as forgotten as the caves themselves.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and The Clock both tell us about the stories we tell ourselves – how we tell them, how we manipulate media into narrative, how images might be able to articulate profound understanding of human existence. And they do this by appropriating, filtering, reshowing and reformatting existing material. Rather than generating an inescapable self-referential hall of mirrors often associated with these tactics they zoom into something essential. Their collapses of time, technologies, narratives and media are devices that help us to see in ways that exceed our normal vision, to experience in ways that become heightened and acute.
See the whole film on Adam Curtis’s excellent blog here
A third recent piece rounds this up to a trilogy of media-made-out-of-media. Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace aired earlier this year on BBC2. Curtis’s approach, in AWOBMOLG, and his previous documentaries The Trap, Century of the Self, Power of Nightmares, The Mayfair Set and so on, is to tell a story out of archive footage. Archival fragments, chosen with a keen eye, are drawn from the archives of news and media organisations that would otherwise remain as undisturbed as the Chauvet Cave. In the selection and assembly of these clips Curtis’s narrative emerges. His technique is best seen in It Felt Like A Kiss, a film that remains clear of any additional material, of the traditional stock in trade of documentary making such as original footage or interviews.
Curtis edits these clips with the fluid, hypnotic feel of a music video – or maybe more accurately like the kind of non-sequitur visuals that might have been played at a rave sometime in the 90′s. Curtis’s manages to retain this dumb sensation that comes from clip juxtaposed with clip, sometimes slow-moed, sometimes soundtracked, yet he also develops the technique into something highly articulate. Sure, we might feel like its 5am in the chill out room, but it also feels like the lecture hall. As the images that seem so familiar flash in front of us – just like the sensations we experience in Marklays The Clock – we feel the ebb and flow of narrative significance. Both works share the technique of re-assembling the archive, though they raid different archives. Both assemble these fragments into a predetermined narrative (for Marclay, time, for Curtis, the impact of ideas on the world).
We feel a strange sensation in both. We assume the films and newsreels from which they are drawn to contain single, simple narratives – he ones we experience watching a film or the news. But here we find that they might not be telling the whole story, or that contained within them are many other untold stories that are usually unnoticed.
Watching both The Clock and AWOBMOLG, media that we feel so familiar with becomes more distant, more estranged and because of this have to look at it differently. The apparently transparent media of film becomes more complicated, fogged up, full of reflections that obscure what seemed so clear. Werner Herzog and his crew come to mind: as we see them treading the walkway in the pre-historic cave, their camera tracing the contours of the cave, the torches illuminating the marks made so long ago, animating 32,000 year old narratives that we can only guess at, we can see media clearly: It’s not the stories that it media tells us that is the real narrative but the mechanisms by which it tells them.