Month: September 2017

Film Review: Frank Vitale and Cris Mazza’s “Anorgasmia: Faking It in a Sexualized World”

 

By: Ashley perez

A few years ago, I wrote one of the most terrifying pieces of writing in my life. I wrote about how sex was painful for me, how in eight years of sleeping with one partner, I had never achieved orgasm, how sex felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. I was sure that I was alone and that there was something wrong with me.

Shortly after, I was introduced to Cris Mazza via email, where I spoke with her for The Nervous Breakdown about her memoir, Something Wrong With Her. We talked about the repeated phrase (and its internalized trauma) “there’s something wrong with me,” as well as our distaste for our own bodies, amongst other things.

Since Cris lives in Chicago and I live in Los Angeles, I never got to tell her in person how much our candid conversation meant to me. When I heard that she was making a documentary that continued the conversation in Something Wrong With Her, I was eager to watch the film and see how she used her distinct voice to highlight a topic that is still not getting enough attention.

Anorgasmia, Mazza’s follow-up to Something Wrong With Me, is a further exploration of her body, gender, and sexuality and continues with the premise that Mazza is not being sexually authentic with herself—that she’s unable to orgasm because she’s conforming to roles that don’t feel true to who she is. Anorgasmia blends fiction with memoir as Mazza experiments by presenting herself as a man to understand the differences between gender and sexuality, all while navigating her relationship with her partner, Mark. Mazza’s docufiction highlights an important aspect of the conversation around gender, sexuality, and identity.

The film starts with Mazza taking a photograph of herself while describing the parts of her body she doesn’t like. Mark comes in, and she explains this is part of her “transgender experiment.” Mark is visibly confused and upset, but I was with Mazza from the beginning. The ultimate concept of the film is less about orgasms and more about her trying—for the first time in her life —to figure out who she really is. She explores the idea by cutting her hair, shopping for men’s clothes with Mark, and wearing these clothes in public.

As the film continues, Mazza struggles to find the words for what she is feeling. When Mark says repeatedly, “I don’t think you really have it in to be a man,” Mazza is frustrated at the sentiment. But she brightens when she meets a person she connected with on a trans website, who explains the difference between gender and sexuality. Mazza smiles and laughs when she realizes, “Yes, I don’t think I’m a man, but I’m just not a woman.”

The scene that easily wins for the most awkward segment is when she goes to her colleague’s house for dinner wearing traditional masculine clothes. His family is visibly uncomfortable interacting with someone who is not what they expected. As Mazza (introduced as David for this dinner) is leaving, she overhears her colleague’s wife, Molly, explain to their kids that they did not treat David nicely while admonishing her husband for bringing a trans friend home without warning. Molly expresses that David was probably asexual and not trans. I was getting a little heated while watching, wanting to reach through the screen and say, “You’re mixing gender and sexuality!”—but cue the next scene, where Cris learns the differences between terms describing gender versus sexuality.

It was gratifying to watch Cris gain the words to put to her feelings: that she can be gender nonconforming and asexual but feel hetero-romantic toward her male partner. In an earlier scene, she talks to friend, colleague, and writer Gina Frangello about her confusion about the precise, current phrases to describe sexuality, and Gina leaves Cris with the idea that maybe “it doesn’t matter where they land” as long as it’s “somewhere more authentic.”

“Writing was the way I expressed myself to the world. Writing was the way I existed. Maybe writing was the me I was going to know,” Cris says when talking about her work. I share her frustration near the end of the film, when she discusses the small reception of her memoir, and feel this is a writer who speaks for many and that her work should be more widely known.

Throughout the film, Mazza’s relationship with Mark is intricately explored and developed. He was an early part of her sexual life, and after thirty years apart, they reconnected. That connection came at the crucial time when Mazza needed to do this experiment and put words to those feelings inside her—feelings you can see written across her face as she puts a binder over her chest and buttons up a men’s shirt. The viewer feels her pain acutely when it seems like she is being forced to make a choice between being authentic to her true self or comforting and assuring her heterosexual male partner that this won’t affect him, which, at times, comes off as almost a punishment for her honesty and vulnerability as he progressively grows cold and distant with Mazza.

Anorgasmia is one of the best pieces of blended memoir and fiction I have ever seen. It’s educational, especially about an older generation of gender nonconformists, yet it also leaves the audience under the spell of good fiction in terms of what will happen to the characters of Cris and Mark after the cameras stop rolling. I highly recommend the film for its vulnerable and honest look at how identity is perceived and the impact identity can have on sexual desire and fulfillment. Let’s keep this conversation going.

Information about and viewing of Anorgasmia can be found here

 

Bios

Cris Mazza is also the author of Something Wrong With Her, a hybrid memoir published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014, a companion piece to Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls.  She has authored over fifteen books, mostly novels and collections of short fiction. Mazza now lives in the Midwest and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Ashley Perez lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She runs the literary site Arts Collide and does work of all varieties for Women Who Submit, Entropy, Jaded Ibis Press, Midnight Breakfast, and Why There Are Words. Her work can be found at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, Red Light Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.

Book Review: Laurent Binet’s “The Seventh Function of Language”

By: John Flynn-York

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH (short for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which, translated, means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), was a fictional reconstruction of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. The novel’s narrative fluctuated between past and present, history and story. In the past, Heydrich rises to power in the Third Reich, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, while two operatives—the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík—plan to kill him. In the present, the narrator grapples with this story and how best to write it, drawing on books, museums, and other references to recreate it in detail. The brilliance of the book came from the tension between these perspectives. What does it mean to recreate history? Can we understand the way historical figures understood things—that is, can we get inside their heads? Can we ever know the truth? In other words, HHhH was as concerned with what it means to tell a story about history as it was with the historical events themselves.

Binet’s new book, The Seventh Function of Language, similarly takes its inspiration from a real event: the accident that claimed the life of the semiologist Roland Barthes. Out of this incident, Binet spins a madcap tale of intellectuals run amok that is by turns wildly entertaining, mildly frustrating, and intellectually captivating—and only sometimes faithful to the historical record.

It is 1980, and Barthes, after leaving a lunch in Paris with French presidential candidate François Mitterand, is hit by a laundry truck and badly injured. At first, it appears to be an accident. But Superintendent Jacques Bayard, a no-nonsense policeman charged with the investigation, senses that there’s something amiss. And so, he investigates. Barthes is taken to a hospital, put on a ventilator, and thronged by fans, professors, and fellow intellectuals. Meanwhile, Bayard visits one of Barthes’s contemporaries, the writer and philosopher Michel Foucault, who is lecturing at the Collège de France, a school that is open to all and offers no degrees. Bayard suffers through a lecture on “the meaning of the repetition of penitence,” and afterward tries to get a few simple answers out of Foucault, who is hostile and flippant. Sensing that he needs a guide to this alternate world where people discuss “normative principles” and “systems of thought,” Bayard recruits a young professor of semiology, Simon Herzog, who teaches at Vincennes, “a university swarming with work-shy lefties and professional agitators.” Those thoughts are Bayard’s, of course. Simon (who, in contrast to Bayard, is always referred to by his first name in the book) sees it differently—he’s one of those lefties—and resists being dragged into the investigation. He has classes to teach, a thesis to finish writing, a book to return to the library. So Bayard requisitions him. “You strike me as being less stupid than the rest of these long-haired louts, and I need a translator for all this bullshit,” Bayard tells him.

From there, hijinks ensue. Following an unsteady chain of clues, Bayard and Simon begin to uncover layers of the mystery. Who ran over Barthes, and why? They discover a secret debating club, in which losing a debate results in the amputation of a finger. They travel to Bologna and Ithaca. Their search winds deeper and deeper into academic and political networks. Various luminaries of philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines appear: Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, Noam Chomsky. Friends turn out to be foes, and foes turn out to be friends. There’s a dramatic reversal or two, wild sex, sudden violence, more sex. Roman Jakobson’s theory of the functions of language is explained and discussed.

Bayard and Simon are comically and strategically mismatched, and their interplay is often amusing—think Sherlock and Watson, with a healthy dose of Inspector Clouseau. For the reader who is unfamiliar with post-structuralism and semiology, Binet provides two aids: short chapters that discuss the history of these ideas with humor and pith, and Simon himself, who is always ready to explain a complicated concept to the more practical-minded Bayard. (What is semiology? Binet’s narrator is there to help the unacquainted reader by quoting Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern linguistics: “a science that studies the life of signs within society.” The narrator quips, “Yep, that’s all,” before providing more detail.) It’s an appealing medley of detective story, satire, and theory. Binet, who is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on literature, gets the balance among the three mostly right, although there are moments when the satire becomes so outrageous (although not necessarily implausible) that it begins to grate. Other times, the humor depends on a literary game of spot-the-reference, and will be lost on the reader unfamiliar with, say, who Judith Butler is, or the intricacies of the French political landscape circa 1980. But spotting these references is also fun, and there’s always that international conspiracy to push things along.

The Seventh Function of Language, then, succeeds in creating an intellectually stimulating milieu and delivering an entertaining narrative set within it. But this novel misses a mark that HHhH hit squarely. Where HHhH was concerned with the question of what it means to reconstruct history, The Seventh Function revels in blurring the lines between fact and fiction. HHhH’s narrator wrestles with what should be included in his story: “If I were to mention all the plots in which Heydrich had a hand, this book would never be finished,” he writes. In another passage, he attempts to determine what color Heydrich’s car was—a detail that is simultaneously incidental and momentous because it reveals so little and so much at the same time. However, the narrator of The Seventh Function is far less present in the text, and far less conflicted. Referring to the accident that takes Barthes’s life, the narrator writes: “they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.” That is to say: the narrator knows, and will tell us, even if the details are occasionally hazy. A novelist is free to invent at will—this is fiction, after all. And every novel that incorporates historical detail (which is, essentially, every novel) signals a tension between history and story, a grounding in “real” life that is also a departure from it. But HHhH’s exploration of the space between what actually happened and what can be said about what happened gave it a depth and a seriousness that The Seventh Function lacks.

Ultimately, what makes The Seventh Function worth reading is the interplay between its wild plot and its discussion of ideas drawn from semiology, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and linguistics. There’s an intellectual playground in this novel, and if some (or most) of the stories turn out to be inventions, well, that’s part of the point. The epigraph, a quote from the philosopher Jacques Derrida (who also appears in the book), reads: “There are interpreters everywhere. Each speaking his own language, even if he has some knowledge of the language of the other. The interpreter’s ruses have an open field and he does not forget his own interests.” One way to read Derrida’s quote is as suggesting that the link which leads from sign to referent is always contextual and always contains some invention. HHhH is the better novel for its deeper and more nuanced exploration of this idea. Its tensions are more enduring, and its struggles are more heartfelt. Still, The Seventh Function’s madcap take is welcome, too. It’s less serious, but there’s way more sex.

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