‘Christian Marclay: The Clock’ at the Museum of Modern Art

At this point, even my father, whose tends to skip contemporary art shows for ancient Chinese stone-carving exhibitions, has run

Installation view of Christian Marclay's The Clock, 2010
Installation view of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010. (© Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York/Museum of Modern Art)

At this point, even my father, whose tends to skip contemporary art shows for ancient Chinese stone-carving exhibitions, has run into and enjoyed Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film, The Clock. To recap: each scene is sampled from a snippet of a movie or TV show and synchronized with real time such that the film itself can be used as a working clock. Made in 2010, it has already been shown at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, White Cube in London, the Venice Biennale, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and, recently, in New York again, at Lincoln Center. It has screened in Glasgow, Ottawa and Yokohama. Several international museums own time-shares of the film.

One chilly night about two years ago, I visited Paula Cooper in the dead of night to catch it during its debut. There was no line to see the film. It felt like a cult movie screening—people smuggled food and drink in overcoats, viewers lounged on the floor or napped on cheap white couches. A few couples were making out in the back.

At MoMA, The Clock is being shown in a vast, movie-theater-sized space. There is usually a 30-minute wait to get in.

Once seated by MoMA’s ushers, you can stop checking your iPhone: Cartiers, Casios, Omegas, Rolexes, Vedettes, Breitlings, school clocks, clocks at work, grandfather clocks and even sundials, all on the big screen, keep the time. Away from the bustle of the museum, the theater is immensely relaxing: people sprawl on the carpeted floor and sit three, four and five to a white couch.

The movie doesn’t feel like an art film. The references are too omnivorous: while I was there, Winona Ryder came home from school. Nicolas Cage pawned his watch, and Mary Poppins floated by Big Ben on her umbrella. A man was bound and gagged, spy-movie fashion.

At 3 p.m., school lets out around the world. Just after 3, everyone’s late to a meeting. Car chases dominate 3:45; in between is a long stretch of tea times, funerals, saloon scenes in Westerns and the occasional act of late-afternoon aggression. My 2 a.m. trip two years ago had more dream sequences, sleeping women and murder scenes.

I visited stock exchanges, Western Union offices, courtrooms, Japanese asylums, Korean boardrooms, diners, train stations and German bars. I registered Julianne Moore, Hugh Grant, Kim Basinger, Marisa Tomei, John Travolta, Will Smith, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Jodie Foster, Robin Williams, Alan Alda, Charlie Sheen, Mia Farrow, Audrey Hepburn, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Harold Lloyd, Anthony Hopkins, Woody Allen and John Malkovich. Mr. Marclay challenges Warhol’s films Sleep and Empire for sheer scale.

It’s a forgotten pleasure to kill an afternoon at the movies. Although you may have to line up to see it, The Clock is not a spectacle of the sort currently dominating contemporary art museums. Its environment gives you space to contemplate film as a medium. Formalists can enjoy it; so can anyone who likes movies, which is to say probably all of us. The Clock flirts with form and content in a winning way, lacing and unlacing the real and the fictional. To watch it is to see a cinema that is not based on the suspension of time, but rather on an immersion in time. It may well be our contemporary Mona Lisa. (Through January 21, 2013)

‘Christian Marclay: The Clock’ at the Museum of Modern Art