Chris Ryan tackles a 24-hour movie-viewing marathon at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

I hadn’t planned to spend hours in the cinema when I went to The Clock at the MCA. The film montage by American Christian Marclay is made up of thousands of film and TV extracts that reference time, and that are synchronised with the real time. It runs for 24 hours.

I took a seat in the theatre at 3.30 and planned to watch for a few minutes. I was still there as the museum closed. There was something compelling about the stream of clips – though I watch YouTube for hours on end, so I’m not a hard sell when it comes to pointless videos.

The clips aren’t only chopped to feature the current time (though there are a lot of dull shots of Big Ben that serve that purpose). Themes, moods, or a constructed narrative drew me in. There were great scenes, like in The Natural, when Robert Redford hits a home run to bust apart the clock tower at Wrigley Field, or in Gallipoli when Mel Gibson races against the clock to try to stop the doomed charge. At 4.55, there was Dennis Quaid playing a professor, kicking a student out of his office. We were kicked out of the theatre at the same time.

I decided to come back on a Thursday, when the movie plays through the night, and take on a challenge to suit the ambitious work. I would watch it all the way through, in one go.

On Thursday I am late. I run through the city at the same time Mel is running onscreen. When I sit at the front of the theatre, sweat streams down my neck. I wonder if The Clock will cut back to the final charge of Gallipoli – I’m sure one of the Anzacs pinned a pocket watch to the trench wall before going over the top – but that story is left in the past.

The Clock is democratic in its selection of clips. There are brilliant scenes, like the final gunfight in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, and forgotten classics, like the brutal fight in a clock store in MacGyver, Series 1, Episode 22: The Assassin.

At around seven o’clock the going is hard. On screen characters keep tucking into food. All I have to eat is a bag of mixed nuts. At eight o’clock curtains are raised and orchestras start playing. A conductor winks to his audience, in another film Anthony Hopkins winks back.

The Clock moves slowly at times, but anticipation of the scenes to come keeps me interested. The glimpse of Hopkins is a teaser for his later appearance, in front of a grandfather clock, where he cooks for his captives, Julianne Moore and Ray Liotta. For hours I’m waiting to see Michael J Fox racing his DeLorean down the main drag of Hill Valley. When he does, it’s much as I remembered it.

Early in the piece (for the first three hours) I enjoy the smug satisfaction of recognising the clips that race by. This becomes less satisfying as the cinema empties and no one can see your knowing smile, which was missed in the dark anyway.

The minutes passed pile up. As midnight approaches it seems ridiculous that I’ve been sitting in the same seat for seven hours. By one o’clock I’m drowsing off at the same time Johnny Depp is fighting to stay awake in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Between two o’clock and three o’clock is a popular time for sex. I go for a coffee after three. As I head out of the theatre I notice the crowd has cut down to less than fifteen. Most people are curled up on their couches.

There is not much happening in the world of movies around four in the morning. A lot of people answer phones to complain, “Do you know what time it is?” My mind starts to wander. I’m having waking dreams. I wonder if the surreal action is on the screen or in my head. At 4am an emu marches through a bedroom. At 5.40 The Dude takes a psychedelic flight over Los Angeles, and a hotel corridor is flooded with blood.

By this time I’d be deep in sleep it it weren’t for the alarm clocks on the big screen. I’m jolted awake by beeps, bells, and buzzers. People hit snooze, jam alarms clocks under pillows, and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day smashes one to smithereens. It’s no help for me: there is always another film with another alarm clock.

A break from The Clock at the MCAThe view from the MCA balcony

At twenty past six I head up to the cafe on the fourth floor for another coffee. I ask the guy at the counter if he’s been busy. He tells me it’s been dead. I tell him he’s got a great view. He tells me he took the shift because he needed the cash, not for the view. He walks from behind his counter to look at the scene and takes a photo on his phone. “You just can’t capture it, can you,” he says. The golden sun is spilling between the Opera House and the Toaster. A ferry glides across Sydney Cove on its way towards the Heads. It’s a more beautiful scene than I’ve witnessed in hours.

I slink back into the darkened theatre. People are starting their day. Steve Martin and John Candy wake up, snuggling in a hotel bed. Michael Douglas is clutching a steering wheel, stuck in traffic, about to go ballistic. It’s Good Friday in Sydney. There’s no traffic on the roads. It’s a good day for the beach.

At 10.05 Mr Big and Carrie get married. I feel like I’ve been tricked into watching Sex and the City. The pointlessness of my exercise is becoming clear. I’ve forgotten the vast majority of what I’ve watched. Still, I’m drawn back in. At 10.20 Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis are racing across the city, trying to stop a bomb. An assassin shoots someone at a wedding party. There is an ER scene. Lives are on the line.

By 10.30 I haul myself away. I stumble down the steps of the MCA into a busier, brighter world than the one I left the day before. Too much coffee and no sleep has me wired.

What did I learn from my seventeen hours in the cinema? I’m struggling to come up with much more than, “Time is precious. Don’t waste seventeen hours in the cinema.” I’m sure I can think of something more profound. Maybe I just need some time.