FILM / The last detail: The clock in the movies is rarely used simply to tell the time, writes Gilbert Adair

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The Independent Culture
BILLE August's The Best Intentions is a pallid tracing of Bergman's imaginative world and as such is stuffed with hints and echoes of the Master's by now slightly hackneyed iconography. Young people in knickerbockers bicycle through a misty glade. A family Christmas party ends with a communal conga around the fairy- lit tree led by an elderly, overweight, cheroot-smoking uncle in a Santa Claus suit. And there is, inevitably, in one overwrought scene, the loud tick-tock of the soundtrack clock.

In the cinema the ticking clock has always been more than a mere naturalistic prop. In Hollywood dramas it was primarily associated with two oddly related countdowns: on Death Row in some grim state penitentiary and on what might be called Birth Row in some pristine maternity hospital. ('What time is it now?' enquires the nervous father-to-be. 'Exactly five minutes since you last asked me,' replies the efficient, kindly matron with a seen-it-all-before twinkle in her eye.) And in screwball farces, earsplittingly magnified, it tended to be reserved for hangover scenes, along with slammed doors and the nightmarish clatter of breakfast cutlery.

Then there was Bergman, in whose work the ticking clock came into its own - so pervasively it felt as if each of his films had a hangover. The fetish-image that many of us have retained from these films is of a stark modern interior, cold and soulless, as if seen through a camera darkly, with its occupants' existential despair, their unbridgeable estrangement from one another, symbolised by an unremittingly ticking clock. And from Bergman to Antonioni, from Losey to Tarkovsky, the ticking clock became one of the emblematic sounds of filmic non- communication. (Significantly, there are no such clocks to be found in Italian neorealism or British Free Cinema: time - time, at least, to muse on one's alienated condition - was regarded as an exclusively middle- class property.)

For that is the paradox of a clock ticking on the soundtrack of an art movie. What it's intended to signify is perhaps the most awkward of all qualities to convey with any real force in the cinema - total and utter silence. And the noisier the ticking the more oppressive that silence becomes.