Zach Goes to the Movies: Keeper of Time is More than Just a Watch Movie

Keeper of Time opens with a sequence that I think is meant to hook people who have never given watches a second thought. We see a watchmaker, in close-up, carefully assembling a mechanical movement. The tiny screws, the little gears, piecing it all together. And then he drops the balance in and it comes alive. Suddenly this watch movement, which you might even know is a watch movement if you’ve never seen something like this before, is fully animated, almost organic as the balance wheel pulses back and forth. From there, we cut to majestic scenes of New York City at dawn as the opening credits unfurl, and we hear voice over from the film’s interview subjects about the nature of time itself. The sun is a timekeeper, time is unexplainable, and that there is no time at all, and all a clock measures is a change in the shape of the universe. It’s an early clue that Keeper of Time isn’t just “the watch documentary” we were promised in the trailer. It’s quite a bit more ambitious than that. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t a ton of great watch content in Keeper of Time, because of course there is. There’s an extended sequence, for example, in Philippe Dufour’s workshop, where we see him diligently hand finishing a watch with tools he made by hand, and he tells us that he can determine if a component is properly polished by the temperature of the metal against his skin. But Keeper of Time really shines, in my opinion, when it becomes more philosophical, and moves away from the specificity of watches and toward something quite a bit more universal. 

Dufour at his bench

I think the reason for that is the director, Michael Culyba, has approached the film as a novice. In interviews he’s given in the leadup to his documentary’s release, he’s talked about how he was not a collector or watch enthusiast when he took on the project. The detours to in-depth discussions about sundials, mechanical automata, and especially the more heady content about the unique way humans perceive and reckon with time feel like Culyba indulging his own genuine curiosity about the topic. This isn’t the usual scope of the watch enthusiast, and that’s a good thing. It makes Keeper of Time particularly rewarding, and feels more personal than a hardcore documentary on watches might have been. 

An important thread that runs through the film is that of history. Both the recent history of modern watchmaking (there’s a great interview with Roger W. Smith here that charts his relationship with George Daniels) as well as the many ways humans have attempted to track time for all of recorded history. One of the most dramatic segments of the film is a bit about the “Prague Orlog,” the oldest astronomical clock in the world still in regular use. Culyba’s camera goes behind the scenes to the ancient system of gears that drive the large mechanism, and the mind is baffled that someone could have come up with something so complex in the early 15th century. The clock depicts an accurate representation of the stars in the night sky as well as the relationship between the earth and the moon. It’s gratifying to see evidence in the form of a large crowd of tourists and onlookers that people are still amazed by this machine after so many centuries. You wonder if there’s a future watch collector in the crowd of people snapping iPhone photos as the clock’s bell strikes. 

The Prague Orlog

Keeper of Time is largely episodic. It generally moves from one location and subject to another, and tends not to circle back. This makes the movie incredibly easy to digest, and you get the impression that there’s an enormous breadth to how we understand watches and time, as we’re constantly fed new and interesting information. This also might be the movie’s weak spot, though, as Culyba doesn’t present a unifying idea to bring everything together. Of course, it’s possible (even probable) that there isn’t one, and that the ideas represented in the film are the patchwork of philosophy on time that is in and of itself a fascinating subject. Keeper of Time is essentially a survey of many divergent points of view, and the viewer is left to make up their own mind about the sometimes conflicting ideas that are proffered throughout. 

Max Büsser in Keeper of Time

One of my favorite interviews, and one that I think reveals that this is much more than watch content, is with Adrian Bejan, author of Time and Beauty: Why Time Flies and Beauty Never Dies. At the start of the interview, he’s wearing a watch, and points to it as he exclaims that this is not time, but an artifact. Time, he tells us, is the human perception that something has changed. His writing seeks to explore why, as we get older, time seems to speed up. Years seem to go by faster, and as he puts it, twenty years ago feels like yesterday. His explanation is equal parts scientific and purely philosophical, and it’s where Keeper of Time really shines. It gets to a human experience that everyone can relate to even if they’ve never owned a watch – that feeling that days, weeks, and years are slipping by. His ultimate conclusion about the link between our ability to live happy, fulfilling lives and how we interact with the passage of time is inspiring.  

It’s worth noting that Keeper of Time is loaded with familiar faces, including several past Worn & Wound podcast guests, including Max Büsser, the aforementioned Roger W. Smith, Nicholas Manoussos, Ben Clymer, along with many others that will be well known to watch enthusiasts. The inclusion of so many high profile individuals in the film is like the carrot that gets people through the door. It certainly worked on me – I wasn’t expecting Keeper of Time to be so full of interesting ideas, and for it to go so far beyond the 90 minutes of watch spotting that I frankly would have been completely satisfied with. As a documentary, it’s brimming with the most important ingredient for a project like this, which is genuine curiosity about its subject, and it has me excited to see what Culyba might tackle next. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.