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

by Kerrie Welsh

I spoke with Amy Ruhl last August just as her mesmerizing film How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body premiered in New York City.  It has since played in festivals, galleries, and salons from Anthology Film Archives to the Eye Film Institute Netherlands, picking up a best Best Featurette Award at the London Underground Film Festival along the way.

If you missed it the first time, you’re in luck: you can catch it May 7th at Union Docs in a program presented by Anna Nuse’s Kinetic Cinema.  Kinetic Cinema, is a regular screening series of Pentacle’s Movement Media curated by invited guest artists who create evenings of films and videos that have been influential to their own work as artists.

Electric Salomes and the Technology of Female Spectacle:
A screening and discussion with Amy Ruhl

At Uniondocs
322 Union Avenue
Monday, May 7th, 7:30pm
$9 suggested donation

Along with a guided tour through some of the films, ephemera, essays, and corners of Ruhl’s mind that inspired the bazaar and beautiful How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body, the program will open with two shorts by contemporary experimental filmmakers, Amy Greenfield and myself.

Amy Greenfield’s Wildfire, the final film in her acclaimed Club Midnight cycle, depicts women “clothed” in electronically generated flaming colors, reincarnating Thomas Edison’s 1894 hand-tinted film, Annabelle Dances.

My own “Peter, Peter…” uses the style of amateur 8mm film popular in the 1940’s to re-tell the children’s rhyme “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.”  Both Greenfield and I will be in attendance and join the discussion.

How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body is a densely visual film that rewards repeated viewings.  Having had the opportunity to see it several times since I last spoke with Ruhl, I recently caught up with her to continue the conversation we began last August.

You recently described part of your film’s aesthetic as a deliberate “confusion of the gaze.”  Could you talk a little about what you mean by that?

Well, I meant that I didn’t always want the spectator’s focal point be so fixed.  In certain scenes- particularly in wide shots when the head is detached from body- I wanted to achieve the question within the viewer of, “What should I be looking at?” You could be watching the spectacle of a half-naked body writhing around, or a head that is speaking- which would usually call attention to the look, but is further confused by the off-syncing and disconnection of the voice.  I wanted these elements to compete for attention- this is an integral part of the film’s story as well and I was trying to make formal elements congruent with narrative.  I also tried to create backgrounds that are visually dense, creating movement or texture that might draw the eye away for a second from the primary action.  I wanted to challenge the idea that the gaze is something that is always so controlled, that the filmmaker has so much power over “desire” in that broader sense.

There’s an engagement in your film with psychoanalytic theory, perhaps most hilariously with the character of Georges Ladoux who has a gigantic ear.  Could you talk about that?

Ladoux’s oversized ear is supposed to be a visual joke, and yes one that does have psychoanalytic references, but I hope taken to the absurd.   In all his obsession with possessing Mata Hari, I conceived of him as being severely sexually stunted- as if his pleasure zone never found it’s rightful place in the penis, and instead became sublimated into an “aural” fetish that made him particularly susceptible to her “oral” narcissism and erotic stage monologues.  He’s politically powerful, but a bit of a man-child, and this is how I could imagine him wanting to collect her severed head after she died (which is a reference to the case of Mata Hari’s head being stolen from the archives of the Musee d’Anatomie where it was housed) and why when he comes face to face with Mata Hari realizing her own sexual pleasure, rather than being turned on, he is revolted.

There’s recurring “central core” imagery throughout the film.   Would you tell me about that visual theme?

A lot of the “central core” imagery is actually an attempt to visually hyperbolize Art Nouveau – a movement that was still popular when Mata Hari started performing, and was influential on the modern dance scene in which she was participating. (Loie Fuller is probably the ultimate example- but I think she brilliantly complicates the Art Nouveau politic with her use of technology.)  In trying to inundate myself with examples, I was confronted with a lot of vulvar design shapes and images of fecundity that collapse women into nature, which some historians identify as a male reaction to the threat of the contemporary discourse surrounding the New Woman.  I wanted to appropriate these aesthetics and exaggerate them in order to create a visual language and screen space for the heroine’s desire- which at a “climax” in the film, emerges as auto-erotic and lesbian.

There’s also a somewhat disturbing reference to Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll at a climatic moment…

In regards to the scene where Mata Hari is outed during the performance of Salome by the reveal that there is a long roll of war secrets hidden inside her: In a way it’s a reverse of Schneeman.  Whereas she’s locating the female sex organ as a site of creative production, that scene more or less places the vagina as cultural receptacle, a mere carrier for information. This sounds not exactly, well, “woman-positive,” but again, I was drawing on the history of Mata Hari’s criminalization and punishment- the display of her head, and her body being used for dissection: the idea of the public body, the historical body.  It’s also very much a product of research I had done about women in World War I, where we usually think of them as only marginal participants, but in actuality, they were very much on the “interior” of war intelligence, and had information literally passed over and through their bodies.

Tell me about the theoretical influences on the film?  

Elizabeth Ezra’s article, “Becoming Women: Cinema, Gender and Technology” really generated a lot of ideas for me in how it historicizes George Melies’ anatomical fascination- in particular the “dissection” and reassembly of women’s bodies- within a time period where medical science and technology were emerging as forms of entertainment, both in cinema and in turn-of-the-century fairground exhibition.

When I was doing an Independent Study Course in Feminist Film Theory with Mark Garrett Cooper  in college, I read a lot of film scholarship on Busby Berkeley, who is extremely visually influential for me, particularly as I’m so interested in women and spectacle.  Although Berkeley’s work and style is anachronistic to the time period I was tackling, I still wanted to address and confront some of the ideas that I read in analysis of his work. For instance, his interludes are very often seen as a prime example of musical numbers as pure narrative excess.  This idea, which runs theoretically parallel to Mulvey’s idea of female ‘to- be-looked at-ness’ as interrupting narrative flow, was something I wanted to challenge myself to countering.  In each of my film’s musical numbers I was trying to produce female spectacle that specifically continued the story to a new point in plot, to carry a narrative that was thematically about the effects of spectacle.

I feel that the most important engagement with theory for me personally-in terms of how I wanted to create an “experiment”- actually comes in terms of the narrative.  Feminist film theorists like Laura Mulvey, Mary Anne Doane, and Theresa De Lauretis dumped an enormous problem on women filmmakers by so effectively positioning traditional narrative as Oedipal, and in effect structurally excluding female viewers from identification, even when the films are about us.  I wanted to challenge myself when writing and ask if this still true when you take these very theoretical concerns and literalize them within the essential elements of narrative.  In other words, if the driving conflict is actually about fragmentation, the threat of losing interiority, when narrative synthesis occurs in the form of achieving a semblance of subjective wholeness, and climax is actually female orgasm, are we still excluded? I can’t answer if I was successful because I’m too close to it and know all my motives.  But in this sense, as problematic as her Essentialism may be, I find Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” immensely inspiring when thinking about female creative production, in her call for an embrace of sexual difference in order to ‘write the body’ into representation.

The last time we talked, we mostly framed in terms of gender, can you talk about the film’s engagement with nation, ethnicity, and orientalism?

Mata Hari seemed to me a perfect figure to challenge the very notion of biography- or the idea that we can somehow capture the “true” narrative of a person’s identity-  because there’s so much conflicting historical information about her life.  She was so good at creating a mythology about herself that for years after her death you still see articles referring to her as a Hindu priestess.  She lived in Java and was able to educate herself just enough about Javanese dance to capitalize upon a European society that was eating up an Eastern entertainment aesthetic- but in a totally generalized way where disparate elements from different nations, different religions combine into a hodgepodge of “The Orient.” She realized all the erotic, and of course, financial potential of ethnic otherness.   Some biographers actually see her success at faking her national identity as part of what ends up contributing to her death: she was too convincing as a foreigner and it generated suspicion when she was crossing borders during the war.  That element of historical push and pull fascinates me- that what once made her so consumable to a culture later ended up causing her demise- and only made it seem more fitting that her bodily remains would end up as public property.

Could you talk about any female filmmakers who have inspired you, how you think about gender in relation to your work, and whether you see yourself as a part of a tradition?

In terms of female film and video makers who exhibit mainly within the experimental scene or in the gallery context- Tracey Moffatt, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Zoe Beloff come to mind.  I think the female filmmakers who have influenced me most though are ones who have managed to break into the arena of “World Cinema:” Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Chantal Akerman, Vera Chytilova, Catherine Breillat, Lynne Ramsay.  They’ve overcome the hard fact that a feminist politic simply does not sell, yet they have such strong directorial voices that they can’t be ignored.  I think it’s partially because they’ve embraced the subversive potential of narrative, and I suppose that’s the tradition in which I wish to engage.   I’m really fascinated with the strategy of taking what one feels institutionally or structurally locked out of and using its very conventions to challenge it, to force yourself inside.  And as I watch more and more genre film lately, I get really excited because I only see more potential for this.


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