Mata Hari, the Technologized Body: A Conversation with Amy Ruhl (Part I)

by Kerrie Welsh

Still from "How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body" (2011) by Amy Ruhl

Amy Ruhl is a film school drop-out, a self-described control-freak who’s spent the last three years working on her first short film, How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body. She researched and wrote the 20-minute film while working at New York City’s Library of the Performing Arts, sneaking into the Theatre and Film Collection and pouring over stills of Theda Bara’s lost films.

After taking about nine months to write the part, she felt like no one really knew it as well as she did.  So, despite having little background in performance, she decided to take a risk and perform the role of Mata Hari herself. In an unusual providence, just after she had shot the live-action portions of the film, the economy crashed and she was offered a package to leave the library which allowed her to focus on the intricate and time-consuming work of animating the backgrounds to the film.

It is a visually dazzling, literate gem. Ruhl is a charismatic performer who is not afraid to go all the way, even when putting herself on the receiving end of what she calls “the cruelty of slapstick.”  Hers is an ambitious new voice: both she and her film are audatious, funny, and smart. And the best part? She assumes her audience is too.

How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body is an idiosyncratic version of the tale of Mata Hari, the famous dancer and courtesan who was executed by the Germans for espionage during World War I (played by Greta Garbo in the 1931 Hollywood version).

Ruhl’s film engages with sources ranging from early cinema including George Melies trick films; the biblical character Salome who requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils (the subject of Oscar Wilde’s play, Strauss’ Opera, and Nazimova’s film); and Laura Mulvey’s still incendiary 1975 essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.

How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body premiered at New Filmmakers at Anthology Film Archives on August 30th and will screen at Another Experiment By Women at Millenium Film Workshop and Antimatter Film Festival this Fall.  It will also be looping as part of the group show “Like Me Now” at the Mindy Wyatt Gallery, opening on September 9th.  Moreover, a 7” vinyl record is coming out on Soft Abuse Records with Julian Lynch’s songs for the dance scenes which can be viewed here.

Still from "How Mata Hari Found Her Head and Lost Her Body" (2011) by Amy Ruhl

KW: Tell me about this film and how it came to be.

AR:  Extensive research is how I ended up arriving at this story.  I got rather obsessed with reading about Mata Hari and all the different accounts of her life.  The real clincher was when I read about what happened to her remains after the execution: her body being donated to science, and her head decapitated and displayed with those of other criminals at the Musée d’Anatomie in Paris (only to be stolen years later by who they think was an obsessed lover.)   I had never heard of someone’s death mirroring their life so accurately, because it seemed to me like such a  good metaphor for her downfall.  In effect,  she gave her body to popular culture as a stripper and became famous based on her unbridled sexuality, only to be ultimately brought down for it when World War I came and created radically different expectations for women.  She did do some spying, though most people think it was very inconsequential. The way she really got herself into trouble was by assuming that she could cross borders all the time while acting as courtesan to high profile generals and officers. But she was not able to have the same mobility she had before.

The story itself is actually a combination of Mata Hari and one of her contemporaries, Maud Allan, who also played Salome. I started reading this book by Toni Bentley titled, Sisters of Salome. It is about four different women who played Salome: Maud Allan, Mata Hari, Colette, and Ida Rubinstein. I don’t agree at all with her main theory that the women who played Salome and performed the dance of the seven veils –which is basically a striptease– were somehow subverting the male gaze. I have heard that line of thinking from a lot of feminists and it doesn’t really sit well with me. Mata Hari and Maud Allan interestingly both played Salome, and their fates kind of mirrored that of Salome, in that they were punished for their sexuality.

Maude Allan had actually been put on trial. She was a Canadian woman who, like Mata Hari, came to Europe to re-invent herself and escape a dark past.  In Allan’s case, her brother was hanged for murdering two women and her family was completely ruined from the scandal. When she moved to  Europe she started doing an act called Visions of Salome.  In reaction to the performance,  a member of Parliament wrote an article called “The Cult of the Clitoris” which basically accused her of being a lesbian conspirator with the Germans in World War I.

He obviously meant the title to be derogatory, though I think it’s quite fantastic! He used the fact that she had once illustrated a book on female anatomy as evidence, because if she was so familiar with female gender, then she must be a lesbian!  Allan sued for libel, but instead of actually putting him on trial, the court case ended up being all about her and the suggestion she was a lesbian– which she was. Essentially the role of Salome was put on trial, in that she was also accused of being a necrophiliac simply for performing the end of the play when Salome kisses the severed head of John the Baptist.

So, while Mata Hari was rumoured to be a lesbian, most of the content in the film had been  inspired by Maud Allan.  If you break down the story, it is actually really about a very literal bisexuality- that her head is more into women while her body is just performing heterosexuality.

KW: You have an obvious interest in the past, both aesthetically and thematically. There are a lot of historical film references, especially in relation to early cinema and slapstick in particular.  Would you talk about the sources that inspired and influenced you?

AR:  Well, Theda Bera is one who is mentioned in the film. You can’t see a lot of her movies because most of them burned in a fire in the Fox Studio.  A lot of the film was actually thought of at The Library of the Performing Arts where I worked. They have such an amazing collection. They have tons and tons of stills of her, you can almost reconstruct the movies from the stills that they have in that collection.  So I would just spend hours in the stacks looking at these old stills of her.

As far as slapstick goes my favorite is Buster Keaton. There aren’t that many women who perform that except for Mabel Norman, who was very significant. I’m really interested in women and slapstick and comedy in general.  A lot of times there’s a set-up where it’s almost antithetical for women to use their body to be funny because people are used to seeing it on screen as an object of desire.  But for the performance I was really looking a lot at, and imitating, Theda Bara.  She did not do slapstick since she was always the femme fatale, but she has such an overdramatic performance style that it almost becomes slapstick from a modern point of view. She actually wrote and made a movie called The Soul of Buddha starring as Mata Hari right after her death.

Still from "How Mata Hari Found Her Head and Lost Her Body" (2011) by Amy Ruhl

KW:  It’s a gorgeous film with a unique visual style, would you talk about how you made it and how you made aesthetic decisions?

AR:  The way the film is made actually came out of financial necessity, because I didn’t have the money to make a period piece the way it should be with really ornamental stages, as seen in Paris during the early 20th-century. But I definitely wanted it to look unique and to be both visually and historically accurate to a certain degree.  So I wound up taking a lot of images that were fair use and combining them with other elements. The story is a combination of the real and the imaginary; of history and what’s made-up. So I wanted to extended this idea into the visual aesthetic as well.

A lot of the backgrounds are made from archival photographs- many of which depict stages or performers that also engaged in the craze for Orientalism that was most prominent during that era. I also used a lot of 16 mm films that I would get from the Prelinger Archives and incorporate them as pieces of the background,  masking the footage either into different shapes or using it as a textural layer. I wanted to take the idea of “film collage” very literally.  I also used a lot of overhead projections that I would make and either photograph what came out on the screen or photograph objects right  on top of it because the scratches on the screen wind up giving things a pretty old look. Trying to make things look aged without using lame digital filters became sort of an obsession.  The characters were shot in high definition, but a lot of the other things were shot with etiher a still camera or my phone’s camera.   I started developing aesthetic rules like everything has to be something that I found and manipulated. It couldn’t just be some image I grabbed off the internet, because I wanted it to look really organic.

KW:  Do you have a background in performance? How did you decide to perform the role yourself?

AR:  I don’t have much of a background in performance beyond middle school plays and acting in a few student films.    The decision to put myself in it was a result of a few different things, some of them coming from what I’d say is a negative place.  I have a lack of confidence in directing actors combined with the need to control every aspect of the film. There are times when I look at scenes and think, “I really should have gotten a real actor to do this.” But I started writing the project and making the backgrounds about a year before I was actually able to get the money to shoot the film.

At that point, I felt as if I probably knew the character better than I could describe to anyone. It also made sense considering the fact that the characters I write are distilled versions of myself  With Mata Hari, I wanted to play with the femme fatale archetype and give her more dimension beyond just the conniving babe with a sexuality, who is so dangerous that she has to die in the end.  Instead, I tried to humanize her: for one,  I had her undergo humiliation via slapstick.  But I also tried to imbue the character with a strong sense of her own desires.

KW:  Do you have any advice for folks who are one step behind you?

AR:  For people one step behind me? That’s hard for me to imagine, because I always feel one step behind where I want to be. But, in terms of funding, which is always a huge concern I had some luck with Kickstarter.  The grant process was very discouraging, because even when they specified “emerging artist”, I would look up recent past recipients only to find that many of them were actually pretty well established.  It seems very difficult to get that kind of assistance for a first-timer.

KW:  What do you need now, at this point in your career?

AR:  Money.  It would be nice to have some of that. More specifically, I really would like to create an installation that expands the narrative into three dimensional space and makes use of video projection, sculpture, video sculpture and collage on paper.  Before I begin I have to secure funds for the materials and studio space, so I am about to start another big round of grant applications. I’d also, of course, like more people to actually show the movie.  I guess the ultimate dream is for someone to see the film and see the potential to view it in a larger context.  I’ve always wanted to make feature length films.  If this film gets me one step closer to doing that, I will feel all this time has been worth it.

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