Riding the Clown Train

Clown Train (Jaime Donnelly, 2009) uses a mix of discordant and minimalistic sound, as well as hard and manipulated lighting to create a tense, eerie and terrifying atmosphere.

The sound used in Clown Train is mostly non-diegetic, atmospheric sounds, such as a high-pitched whine – much like the squeal of brakes – and a strange, rhythmic drumming – like tapping on a window. It also featured very minimalistic dialogue from the two characters. There is no background train sounds, such as wheels running over tracks or the sound of engines, alluding to the fact that the train is stationary. There is an echo to the voices that doesn’t exist in the buzzing of flickering lights and the rhythmic tapping, which would suggest that the latter two are intentionally added in post-production.

This sort of minimalistic and highly discomforting mix of sounds is most prevalent in horror-thrillers, because the lack of background sounds, or soft background sounds, lead the audience to pay closer attention, and feel more vulnerable. However, whilst in traditional thriller films, the stretch of quiet sounds is usually punctuated by a sudden loud bang, in Clown Train, aurally there wasn’t a sudden crescendo, save for when the clown shouts ‘BASHES his head in’. Yet this line wasn’t the climax of the actual scene.

Visually speaking, the color palette was extremely stark and de-saturated, meaning the introduction of the overly colourful clown was even more pronounced. The director and cinematographer must have made a conscious decision to ensure that everything but the clown is in a neutral and lowkey color – both costume, set and lighting – so that the clown is extremely standout. There is also an interesting usage of lighting to further the story and help with transitions – a sudden flicker of the light sees the clown move across space, and also moves time forward during the plot. Therefore, the light acts as both a plot device, a transition device, and an atmospheric device.

Finally, in terms of narrative, while the visuals and audio compels the audience to continue watching, the final meaning of the plot is somewhat lost, at least to me. However, an excellent mix of the previous two points mean that the overall tone and style carries the narrative across.

Clown Train creates a strong, alienating atmosphere through a mix of discordant sound and harsh lighting.

Nostalgia of the Light – An Analysis

Watching a small clip from Guzmann’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), the most captivating moment for me was when the black and white contrasted images of the craters on the moon fades to a black and white kaleidoscope of the shadows of the leaves on the kitchen window. It was at this point that I properly understood the power of visual juxtaposition in this piece.

Nostalgia for the Light relies very heavily on montaging juxtaposed clips with a voice-over narrative. The images are composed with superior cinematography in mind, and are mostly of still subjects, with hints of movement only available when there is actual movement of the subjects in the background, such as shifting of the light and shadows, or the leaves on a tree swaying in the wind. This adds a stillness to the aesthetic of the film, because while the cuts are not long, they are not rapid or dynamic either. The framing is extremely intimate, with close to extreme closeups of the inanimate subjects. The lighting on these subjects (which are all either everyday homely items, or astronomy instruments) are very warm, and even though sometimes there are strong shadows, they are never rendered alienated or intimidating. The colors are also very vibrant and saturated. This is contrasted very strikingly with the highly stark and monochrome images of the moon at the beginning of the clip.

The audio is extremely minimalistic, with the focal sound being the narration, or when there is no narration, diegetic foreground noises – eg the grinding of the gears on the telescope; the squeaking of the hatch opening on the roof. Furthermore, in ground sound, there is the sound of nature, to complement the environment of the frame during the montage of household items. These
nature sounds included the chirping of birds and some light breeze noises, and may or may not be diegetic, but is more likely to be mixed in during post-production.

Narratively speaking, it was a little confusing when trying to understand the contents of the narration in relation with the visual. Logically speaking, there is little correlation between what the narrator is talking about (Chile, astronomy and social revolution) and the images that we are shown (household items such as furniture, pictures on the wall etc). It isn’t until the location of the montage moves onto the dusty remains of the observatory that I can begin to form a more coherent correlation between the visual and the audio. Alternatively, it is possible that the visual media and the audio isn’t meant to have an immediate correlation, but exist to complement the tone of the other – that is, the intimate and comfortable visuals complement the reminiscent nature of the narration, and the calm slow tones of the speaker complements the softness of the images.

One other interesting moment is when specks of light and dust becomes super imposed onto a shot of a tree blowing in the wind. The colorful image (blue, yellow and green) starts fading into a almost monochromatic and impossibly detailed shot of specks of dust and bokeh floating in the air. This leads me to think that the dust and bokeh were treated with special effects. It is also a
beautiful transition from the urban setting of the house to the more foreign settings of the observatory. In a clip that is heavy on cuts between changing visuals, changing physical location using a fade seems to be a conscious effort to minimize a jarring transition from home-life to astronomy.

Nostalgia for the Light contains many layers of deeper and inferred meaning, drawn from both aesthetics and content. It beautifully incorporates photographic cinematography and slow camera movements to create a sense of calm and stillness, and mixes this visual with a continuous but non-discordant audio narrative and other background audio materials, both diegetic and non-diegetic
to the visuals.