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an essay by ralph robert moore
I've always been fascinated by clocks in movies.
Occasionally a clock fills too much of the screen, so that it's unavoidable. I'm not talking about that kind of insistence we notice the time. In Rear Window, for example, Jimmy Stewart glances at his wristwatch, which we get to see in 35mm close-up as 1:55 a.m., when Raymond Burr, the man Stewart suspects of being a wife-murderer, lugs a case out of the apartment building Stewart, a photographer, has been idly watching with his zoom lens while laid-up with a broken leg.
What I mean instead is when time is presented more casually, almost as if, and perhaps, the moviemakers had not realized a clock was there, and if they did, just meant it as set dressing, no more important than a shadowy unmade bed, a teenage idol poster, light shining down on top of the idol's tangled hair, a jug of silver water.
Two actors sit talking to each other across a desk, dutifully advancing the plot, and there on the wall over their heads just happens to be a large, round, black and white clock. That's what I mean. I always check what time it says. Ten-fifteen? Then the characters have either just returned from, or are about to go off to, their morning break, that opportunity to walk outside, be away from people, and be yourself again in a quiet parking lot under blue sky and white clouds. I study the actors' faces. Are they so good they've added this element to their character? Do they show the slight relaxation in the face and posture from having just taken a break, even as they go about the more important business of the scene? Or, alternatively, does the subtly increasing perfunctoriness in an actor's answers signal his desire to conclude the talk, so that his character can wander away from his imaginary desk for an imaginary cigarette?
In Being John Malkovitch, the clock above John Cusack's desk reads 2:23 p.m. when he first discovers the hole behind his desk that leads though a winding tunnel into Malkovitch's mind. How appropriate that time is. Early afternoon, after lunch, when you're still a little full from a big sandwich and sluggish, a little bored, and really don't want to start a major project, may even be propping your chin in your hand, looking around at the walls, the plastering imperfections of which might suggest all sorts of beckonings into another world, sagging bearded faces and outstretched hands, when here, suddenly, a godsend, is this hole in the wall, this opening into a mystery, something to wonder about and, maybe, explore; something finally that's fun.
In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's underappreciated exploration into how males deal with female sexuality, Tom Cruise glances at one point at a wristwatch we don't get to see, but announces the time as 'ten past twelve'. It is past the witching hour then in this film, and anything is allowed to happen, or to be thwarted. We are alone on the sidewalks of a tall, sprawling city, trespassing down blocks where all the stores are closed, shouldering past late-night crowds, with a wallet full of cash, heading towards doors where we have been told women can be bought.
Do the people in charge of props actually set the time on a clock before the scene starts? If the scene must be reshot, do they go in and reset the clock to where it was, each time? In an interior shot, where you're most likely to find clocks, most everything is artificial, of course, is the time artificial as well? Or does someone hook on the wall a clock which is actually telling true time, so that, for instance, we can know that this particular scene, the traveling companion, already dressed, striding into her charge's bedroom to briskly draw aside the curtains, no matter when it is supposed to occur, actually was filmed at ten-fifteen, after a long day's shoot?
What happens if the clock in a movie coincidentally shows the exact same time as it actually is in real life, while you watch that scene in the movie? Because that synchronicity only lasts a minute or two, only the length of that scene, at which point you in real life go from 2:38 p.m. to 2:39 p.m., while the movie springboards hours higher to later that evening, our handsome hero using a credit card to break into the suspect's quiet office filled with a desk, a half-full water cooler, and rows of filing cabinets. Is there a wormhole there, in that coincidence, between the real and the imaginary? What would happen if you were to edit all movies to isolate those scenes that show the time, then arrange the edits in order so that you, watching, were exactly synchronized in real time to the time shown in the hundreds of cuts?
Synchronicity between reality and a movie can occur in ways other than time, of course. Several years ago, I was watching a suspense thriller and sat up in my chair when a character walked into the scene wearing the exact same shirt I had on, watching the movie, a designer shirt with a unique red and yellow pattern sold only through certain outlets. I had synchronized with the movie without meaning or wanting to. On other occasions, I've recognized in movies items I own myself in real life. A few days ago, waiting for a TV-movie to end on a channel I had flipped to so I could see the local news, a tall, dark-haired man made a call from a city phone booth to a man at a desk overlaid with a tic-tac-do of window shadows, behind him two of the three Anderson Hickey four-drawer letter-size grey upright filing cabinets I own. Some months before that, in a movie about a financial takeover, the parties who thought they were victorious, milling about on the top floor of a skyscraper, under blue lights, toasted their predatory skills with cubist martini glasses from my kitchen cabinet.
Where will it end?
Since my clock time has been in movies, and my clothes and other possessions, it has occurred to me to wonder if I myself have ever been in a film. This is not as unlikely as it may sound. I worked for a while in New York City, where film crews were constantly shooting atmosphere "inserts", brief shots of streets, stores and parks that showed real people, and have also, on my lunch hours in my youth in the different cities where I worked or lived, watched as a movie crew tediously filmed and refilmed brief scenes of stars walking from a hotel entrance to a cab, or vice versa, with me and all the rest of the crowd of real people in the background, watching (it's amazing how many films, even large-budgeted ones, include in a shot spectators watching the shot being made: this juxtaposition of reality and the imaginary most often seems to happen in car-chase scenes, where if you look carefully, instead of being distracted by the two cars sliding down an avenue, you'll often catch glimpses of the roped-off crowd on the sidewalks watching). Think of how many crimes have been unknowingly caught on film, in anonymous crowd shots. While the actor and actress banter back and forth crossing a busy intersection, saying the same lines over and over and over again, the dark-haired actor flip, the light-haired actress sincere, in the background, in the city crowds, pockets are being picked, asses groped, overly optimistic quarterly reports shouted into cell phones. How many background crowd shots hide somewhere in their stretched fresco of bodies the blur of a bullet?
If I ever did appear in a movie, the next question is, was it one I liked? Was it one I even saw? If I did see it, did I feel a tingle at the top of my spine when my tiny head appeared? And if that shot could be blown up, and blown up again, and again, until the famous actors and actresses had been whooshed sideways out of the frame, until only the extreme magnification of my face would be in the shot, my dark hair, my dark eyebrows, my white-faced expression, where would I be looking?
And if we could zoom in even closer, until only one blue iris of mine fills the bright white movie screen, iris grey now under such extreme magnification, would there be within its convex world the glimmer of the crowd around? Zooming still into my iris' reflection of that press of bodies, one in the crowd jerking larger, face falling forward to fill the screen, eye forwarding, in that stranger's iris could a zig start that could, zoom to zoom, iris to iris in repeated magnification, zag across Manhattan, zag westward over the George Washington Bridge, a reflection jumping iris to iris among the bored motorists, into Pennsylvania, out westward farther, iris to iris, zagging across our country to California, then down, down, down the state, from hitchhiker to surfer to motorcycle cop to farmer's market attendant to postman to cat trapped in a tree to your house, where you have just woken in the privacy of your bedroom, so many years ago, stretching young, bare, tanned limbs, standing in front of the tall mirror in which you dance by yourself, years from meeting me yet, your long blonde hair white in this morning sunshine slant, your eyes blue, your eyes in this one synchronized moment-- here-- transfixed with the thousands of reflections through which, like the doubled-up clothespins on a clothesline, I see you, I see you, years yet before we bumped into each other, raising your hands to your blonde temples, in slow motion, looking into the tall mirror, through the eyes of the nation.
background on the essay
The display of time in movies interests me, because except in obvious situations where it's a plot point, it is possible the time is real, an intrusion into the artificiality of a scene much like the Jean Renoir classic where the lovers kiss, their profiles parting to unintendedly reveal, on the screened door behind them, the random progress of a bug across the wire hatching.