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Belleville Baby as a study on visual culture

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A short critical analysis of Mia Engberg's 2013 movie, Belleville Baby as a study in visual culture.
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  Course: Media Production: Texts and images Jamie Matthews 870529-5338 1 Essay assignment 2 Belleville Baby. A phone call from a previous lover sparks the subjective nature of memory, love and truth in Mia Engberg’s  Belleville Baby . A poetic approach is prevailed throughout in which Engberg, herself, is not keen on categorising the film as a specific genre. Instead, viewing it as an experimental film, reminisced of a short film compilation (Festival blog, 2013). It is feasible to suggest the essence of everyday life capturing the small moments is prevailed throughout including the ecstasy of falling in and out of love, giving into resistance, feelings of  joyfulness and sorrow, the unreliability of memory and the overall unknown path of what the future holds. What is visual culture? Within contemporary times, visualised images appear in an abundance within our everyday life. Television screens can be found in places ranging from public transport to our handheld smart phone devices, advertisements, billboards and visual images surface in a conspicuous manner. Visual culture is a way of understanding and interpreting life and culture within the 21 st  Century, it proposes a concern for the visualised in how our perceptions are created. Mirzoeff (1999, p. 3) argues the recent fixation with the visual creates the moment of postmodernity in response to the highly visual media saturated society we live in. Here it can be viewed upon as a tool or a tactic, as Mirzoeff (1999) labels it, in how we construct meaning from visual images. Visual culture is complex as it is constantly changing, for time never stands still, meaning context is key. It has to be expanded into a wider context taking into account of its specific ideologies of social changes of class, sexuality and gender within that contextualised timeframe (Mirzoeff, 1999, p. 4). On this note of adhering to a specific context we can run  parallels to Engberg and Vincent’s love in  Belleville Baby . Their love was at a particular place and specific time, all that is left now is their memories or rather at times the fuzziness of their memories. Her former youthful, rebellious and bohemian lifestyle in Paris was at another, distanced, place within her life.  Course: Media Production: Texts and images Jamie Matthews 870529-5338 2 Visual Culture in relation to Belleville baby Upon analysing  Belleville Baby , to an extent, we can extract meaning portraying the film as a study on visual culture. The way the images are used in visual culture is key in how we interpret meaning. The phone conversation throughout  Belleville Baby  is predominately accompanied by a black back drop, which is effective in connoting the apparent blank emptiness of their current relationship, with their lasting memories all they have left. Upon being released from prison Vince nt’s perspective on the train is blurry, filmed in black and white, resembling the hardship of serving time in prison or possibly showing their past fleeing away from them. Furthermore we could read it as symbolising a journey down memory lane, entering a different context. These subjective readings are possible as visual culture is no one thing. Various still images are used throughout to help create the mood of the situations Engberg is describing in the diary like voice over narration, whereby both the words and images complement one another. The images are predominately scratched, some appearing as negatives, they are blurry, torn and faded all resembling Engberg and Vi ncent’s distanced relationship. Visually they conjure an apparent element of realness and grittiness, whereby the audience is drawn in to the unglamorous, everyday mundane situations of the train station or the hustle and bustle of the city life. Arguably even the long distance shot of Paris manages to tone down the aura of the Eifel Tower into a dark and dull, however still, thought provoking image. Music or sound sometimes accompany the visuals too. Collectively these images are powerful and arguably stark an element of surprise for their grittiness and the questions they pose which according to Mirzoeff (1999) are fundamental aspects of visual culture. Contrastingly though, there is sometimes a juxtaposition of visual imagery with what is actually being described within the spoken words, further adding to the subjective nature of memory and the unreliability of it. Mirzoeff (1999) draws upon visual cultures growing tendency of visualising the un-visual. Since 1999 when he wrote the article this phenomena has dramatically increased, as modern technology is further embedded within society. In a way Engberg’s memories, while visible in her mind, are only made visible to the audience through the projection of the camera. The visualising of everyday life is embedded within visual culture, whereby the everyday itself is a product of modernity. Mirzoeff (1999) cites French Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre who saw capitalism and its reproductive nature as diminishing the very existence of  Course: Media Production: Texts and images Jamie Matthews 870529-5338 3 everyday life. Within a capitalist society the very existence of looking has become commodified whereby the spectacle is capital and becomes the image. Contrastingly in  Belleville Baby  there are no depicted corporate logos, images or structures and the audience can see the object as opposed to the spectacle image which Mirzoeff (1999) addresses. Instead of signs of consumerism or glamorous images we view the projecting raw realness of the small moments in everyday life; the dark small room in the attic in Marseille, the thuggish shaving scene, the dark and gloomy cup of coffee, the disjointed memories of smoking in bed and living in collectively with others, all conjuring the eeriness of Engberg’s former bohemian lifestyle. Furthermore Mirzoeff (2009) argues that visual culture has the right to a particular viewpoint, away from an authoritative viewpoint. On this note we can view  Belleville Baby  as a study of visual culture, as it is an independent documentary film told entirely from Mia Engberg’s perspective. Thus , making it her visualisation of the memories of her former life. Visuality Visuality is not a new theoretical concept, rather it is a term from the 19 th  century meaning the visualisation of history. It will push and cut across boundaries to realistically describe the real. Visual culture and visuality are against one another; the former wants to be democratic whilst the latter has been oppressive in a historical sense maintaining western ideologies and hegemony (Mirzoeff, 2009). Within the debate on visuality, if we are to take into consideration the possibility for modes of representation changing and the notion of ‘seeing is not believing but interpretin g’  (Mirzoeff, 1999), we can then, to an extent, draw parallels to  Belleville Baby . Questions of authenticity and truth emerge as it seems feasible to suggest not all the imagery used was actual footage from the past, but instead cleverly taken to be suggestive of the past. The imagery, the music and the voice over all act together in creating our interpretations of what we see and hear. An array of confusion on reality projects itself throughout  Belleville Baby , whereby we can ask what is truth, fiction and just memory. The style is not pure documentary either, as the telephone conversations are dialogues wrote by Engberg. Interestingly we don’t see Vincent throughout, however our interpretations  of the signs and mood being established might tell us that it is actually him in the bathroom scene shaving. Additionally   we can bring visual ethnography into the discussion. Visual ethnography is a way to explore the interaction between visual culture and communication. It adheres to shifts  Course: Media Production: Texts and images Jamie Matthews 870529-5338 4 within a technological nature, aiming to investigate a particular situation or phenomena using visual tools (Pink, 2013). Visual ethnography like traditional ethnography, has its roots in a positivist tradition, showing the world as an observable truth. In relation to  Belleville Baby  the audience are observing moments of Engberg’s previous youth . Pink (2013) discusses the criticisms of ethnography, showing how video is always constructed in some format, knowledge is always negotiated between the subject and researcher and thirdly the ethnographicness is defined by the viewer. Previous scholars argued how ethnographic film had to be fully objective, but as Pink (2013) rightfully shows we can never be fully objective, as constructed situations and technologies presence are inevitable. As previously mentioned there appears a lot of distortion around the element of truth within  Belleville Baby , the voice over was constructed, the editing plays a factor and consideration was put into the depiction of the visuals. However there are moments we can perceive of true realness  –   her child and grandmother are portrayed, the actual television news footage is used, and the riots are depicted, to name a few. Using the handheld camera projects a further sense of realness, which as Pink (2013) suggests should not impair the quality of objectivity but rather heighten the knowledge it seeks to create. Let us not forget that Mia Engberg is a documentary filmmaker, not a researcher, she did not set out to create a film guided by science but rather from her actual experiences within life. While  Belleville Baby , like any video production, cannot proclaim to be purely ethnographic (Pink, 2013), it can show some similarities to an ethnographic frame of knowledge. Within an ethnographic representation Pink (2013) argues there should be no hierarchy of knowledge or media, which too appears applicable in  Belleville Baby . The still and moving visuals, the voice over narration and the everyday sounds in the background all appear as compelling as one another; needing one another in order to function. The voice over is not excessive nor recklessly used to mislead the audience, rather it accompanies the visuals and sounds we hear. That is not to say the images replace the narrated words, but they effectively complement one another in portraying the mood. Giving acknowledgement to separate media technologies and treating them as equal can be instrumental in understanding how they work (Kittler, 2010). An important point for ethnographers to consider which Pink (2013) addresses is the constant mislabelling of reviewing video as being ‘played back’. Instead she argues we should play video forward. In  Belleville    Baby , although Engberg is going back in time with her memories,  Course: Media Production: Texts and images Jamie Matthews 870529-5338 5 we can symbolically read it as an act of moving forward, putting the past behind us, creating new knowledge by visualising the distant fuzziness of her memories of a previous time in her life. Ethical issues are important to address , as we could question Engberg’s representation of the subject Vincent, without his collaboration. Does he appear to be exploited? However that is not quite the case here, as  Belleville Baby  is produced within a subjective and self-reflective manner, from one particular viewpoint which visual culture and visual ethnography is entitled to show (Mirzoeff, 1999 & Pink 2013). This in turn allows for a diverse opening of opinions and interpretations which inevitably visual culture seeks to evoke. Overall while  Belleville Baby  was not intentionally produced to be understood as a study of visual culture or a debate on visuality, it provides as an insightful example where concepts of a visual nature can be discussed. While beyond the scope of this paper, the discussion could  be enriched further in terms of political and sexual ideologies in applying Laura Mulvey’s (1975) male gaze whereby it is Mia Engberg as a female who has the power over Vincent. This paper does not proclaim  Belleville Baby  to be a definite study of visual culture, visuality or visual ethnography but rather, as shown throughout, we can analyse examples and interpretations, prevailing  Belleville Baby  in light of different visual concepts. Characters: 9,908.
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