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It's time. The winged chariot at my back, and all that. Taking a seat on one of the comfortable couches at the National Gallery in Ottawa, I mentally strap myself in. It's time to take a time bath, to run a time marathon, by watching Christian Marclay's 24-hour-long installation, The Clock, in a single sitting. The artist doesn't actually recommend it, but an artwork of this size demands a big response. The piece is an exercise in surrendering oneself to controlled chance, a precisely edited jumble of visual material, classic films, forgotten mediocrities and television shows, without context or backstory, all telling the time in real time. If it's 8:17 on your watch, it's 8:17 in The Clock. There is no beginning or end to The Clock. I step in midstream.

7 a.m.: Catherine Deneuve is going insane

At a little after 7 a.m., Lee J. Cobb is yelling in black and white, and then, James Bond (the Roger Moore version) appears. He's off to work early, getting fitted with new gadgets from Q before his next mission. Meanwhile, in black and white, Catherine Deneuve is going insane in Roman Polanski's Repulsion.

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Try to turn off the identifying machine – the clips go by too fast to follow. A man spits out his coffee. Various couples wake up in bed but Hilary Swank, from Boys Don't Cry, wakes up alone.

Workers are lining up to punch factory clocks, though it's not yet 7:30 a.m. The Daily News truck deposits a bundle of papers at a street corner. This could be a day-in-the-life documentary, except for the celebrities. They keep waking up everywhere – Harrison Ford, William Hurt and John Cusack. Michelle Pfeiffer wakes her daughter. They're like guests at a weekend house party. Sometimes enforced guests: There's a morning roll call in a prison. Brutality turns to softness: Ingrid Bergman embraces a man.

And why is Matthew Broderick spying on Tom Cruise? No, the spying is an editing trick that will become increasingly familiar: A character looks off-screen, and we cut to someone in another movie. Or someone opens a door, and we're in another film. Soon, certain actors repeat. You can imagine they're the cast in a multiple-strand story: starring Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers, Michael Caine and John Cusack – and various James Bonds. And Big Ben, booming like timpani.

Some time around 7:30 a.m., mail is delivered: Gene Hackman picks up a letter, which, in close-up is for someone in another movie, Ulysses's Molly Bloom. Yes, Molly, yes. The 24-hour video pays tribute to James Joyce's all-in-a-day novel.

Breakfast with Marlon, lunch with Faye Dunaway

No time to waste. The rush hour is on. People wait in traffic jams, rush to class, punch clocks and take their desks. Except for the slackers, who keep waking up later and later. There are things to be done. It's 9:15 a.m. and Susan Hayward, facing execution, is consulting with a padre. Jodie Foster awaits her day in court in The Accused. There's a lot of waiting. Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr tell everyone to wait, John Cleese makes school boys wait. Hugh Grant is getting up late. He has Four Weddings and Funeral to attend to. Children are waiting to enter Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Lon Chaney, the Wolf Man wakes up, human again. Humphrey Bogart steps out of a cab shortly after 10 a.m. Now it's a party.

We are on the beach. A young girl is somersaulting. Tom Cruise and then, in another clip, Charles Bronson are looking about in wonder. Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren are having breakfast together in a hotel. Billy Bob Thornton wakes from a hangover and slugs one from the bottle. Adam Sandler's up for going for a McDonald's Breakfast at 10:44 a.m., around the same time Mr. Darcy drops in on Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) just before Orson Welles in The Third Man sneers at the Swiss: "They had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (Did it have to be a Swiss guy to produce The Clock?) Lunchtime! Faye Dunaway is trying to feed her children raw meat in Mommie Dearest. Robert Redford rejects his lunch. Nicolas Cage wants his steak well done. Robert De Niro does not. He tosses over the table in a rage. People criticize each other for drinking at 2 in the afternoon. Tobey Maguire keeps failing to deliver pizzas properly.

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People sit in apartments reading newspapers. Why am I watching people read newspapers? Almost eight hours in, okay, I'm getting bored. When I step out of the room, I delay a little at the water cooler. Inside the gallery, while I'm re-adjusting to the dark, a blind Audrey Hepburn is blindly feeling the hands of the clock in Wait Until Dark. It's 3:28 p.m. At 4, Seth Rogen and James Franco are late for a drug deal in Pineapple Express. They thought it was 3. You knew they were wrong. You know exactly what time it is, every minute.

The cure for boredom? Sex before dinner

The cure for boredom? Must be sex. In Before Sunset, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are heading up to her room. Husbands make excuses for coming home late. And then, Agnès Varda's young heroine in Cleo from Five to Seven (the traditional French hours of assignations) worries about a fatal medical diagnosis. Gentlemen and women contemplate escape or time travel in The Time Machine, Time After Time or Happy Accidents. We see images of Einstein. Someone says time is relative to our emotions.

Other people rush home from the office in a panic to prepare dinners. Men start getting dressed in dinner jackets. The threat and promise of the night is palpable. The screen has grown more dark with outdoor night scenes. Candles gutter and cigarettes flare. A boy's shoe squeaks in another waiting room: Sean Penn is having his last meal before his execution in Dead Man Walking. We slip into dark, terrible thrillers – Rear Window, Laura, Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity, black-hearted characters in a dark world. The shackles of the day are off. I'm not tired any more.

11 p.m.: Film noir rules, and things get grim

Parties begin to break out. Now this is more like it. A New York bohemian bash for Breakfast at Tiffany's George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn, and an art party for Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright). Now it's almost 7:30 and Tom Cruise is getting ready to go out for the evening with Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Around the movie-verse, various performers are ready to go onstage, including the Beatles. Nicolas Cage and Cher go to a show together in Moonstruck. Meanwhile, Gregory Peck from To Kill a Mockingbird is putting his daughter, Scout, to bed, while Hepburn has left Peppard for another older man, William Holden, in Sabrina.

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By 11 p.m., things are starting to get grimmer and more hectic – in film noir, time is always running out. We start to see a lot of Joan Crawford, with her caterpillar eyebrows, looking demonic, and Farley Granger, looking handsome and stricken with fear. We see hospital scenes. Naomi Watts announces a birth and a death in Eastern Promises. At two minutes to midnight, various people are trying to speak to the governor for a stay of execution. No luck. The music is all violin crescendos and sweeping harps. As the hour strikes, the screen is a flurry of clock faces as midnight. Orson Welles gets run through by a clock hand in The Stranger. Big Ben explodes.

2:20 a.m.: It's the hour of the nightmare

Quiet. Gals are in the bar getting hammered. At 12:39, Shelley Winters is trying to get James Mason to go to bed with her in Lolita. He pleads incipient heartburn. We have a survey of people passed out in medical or train station waiting rooms. An exposed heart pounds in a patient's chest. At 1 a.m., Young Frankenstein is brought to life, in Mel Brooks's version of the story. Griffin Dunne is out in a queasy Technicolor New York in After Hours with Rosanna Arquette. Meanwhile, Jimmy Stewart, with his broken leg, is checking out on his neighbours in Rear Window.

At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic sinks. And Steve Martin and John Candy, who have been travelling throughout the day on Planes, Trains & Automobiles, arrive at sleazy motel, late in the night. Around the movie world, people say on the phone, "Don't you realize what time it is?" Couples make love, or fail to do so. Now I am stupid tired. The images aren't actually making sense any more, but that's also because they're actually not making sense. Nightmares proliferate. The Salvador Dali-designed hallucination in Spellbound is shown, with its eyeballs and giant playing card. Dunne is still wandering the streets of New York. Tom Cruise just got home from his orgy in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Streets are shiny and empty. High heels click like the clicking of a tock. The sky is looking lighter. You would like to go to sleep but 4 a.m. drifts into 5 a.m., and a flurry of sound explodes. Five a.m.: Clint Eastwood is yelling at young marines to get dressed. Other characters wake and toss. They slip back into dreams, with monsters in their beds. The alarms keep ringing. At 7, a series of eyes pop open.

Faye Dunaway and Madonna, in separate films, are checking their makeup and accessories. At 7:10 a.m., workers are walking away from an angry Lee J. Cobb from On the Waterfront. On strike. Feeling beat like Brando. And once again, the suave James Bond (the Roger Moore version), is getting fitted with shiny new gadgets from Q before his next mission.

You take this one, James. For as Ethan Hawke, quoting W.H. Auden, said to Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, know when it's time to quit: "O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time."



Editor's note: Moonlighting was incorrectly referenced in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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