A Savage, Celibate Gaze: Cris Mazza’s Foray into Independent Film

by Michael Newirth  

Is adolescence a greater torment for the artist? If everybody in those years must face struggles about bodies, gender, identity, and sex, creative people may in particular wince when recalling the awkward growing pains of high school romance. For Cris Mazza, PEN/Algren award-winning author of eighteen books and the subject of the new hybrid “fictive documentary” Anorgasmia, her high-school romance with the kind, popular, new-in-town musician who would many years later reappear as her life partner was especially fraught—due, she now realizes, to a lifelong alienation from her own sexuality on every level. The memories remain etched for Mazza. She recalls, “On our second date, he wanted to go to the drive-in movies . . . and I didn’t like what he wanted to do at the drive in.” The teenaged Mazza castigated herself: “You’re supposed to like this . . . Something’s wrong with you if you don’t like this.”

Mazza, who on screen and in person exudes the ascetic, coiled intensity of a particularly prolific “writers’ writer,” had taken on these shifting matters of sexuality in her 2014 memoir Something Wrong With Her (Jaded Ibis Press). The memoir underperformed commercially, but it inspired filmmaker Frank Vitale to contact the author and propose a further exploration of the deficit at the memoir’s heart and the movie’s title: an inability to engage sexually so profound that it shakes the subject’s self-identity, role in the world, and ability to form human connection. The result is a spare, intense viewing experience that provokes empathy and difficult questions in equal doses; despite its personalized focus on Mazza herself (and a modest budget), they have produced a more universal look at intimacy’s fragility, especially when translated into our drive for sexual satisfaction.

In the film, Mazza plays an unvarnished, no-filter version of her real self, leading writing workshops and sparring with mansplaining colleagues in the Program for Writers at the poured-concrete confines of the University of Illinois, Chicago (that the film captures the brawny intimacy of life on its Brutalist Near West Side campus is one of its successes). The filmed narrative compounds aspects of her memoir; through both voiceover and a dramatic storyline, Mazza asserts that her lifelong discomfort with notions of femininity is pushing her towards the stripping down of her own physicality. She attempts to develop a transgender identity, and likewise explores the new (to her) movement of asexuality; she utilizes photography to document and criticize her own physique, made lean through a punishing regimen of weights. And throughout, she carries the anguish of anorgasmia, her own inability to recognize or give in to sexual satisfaction.

Mazza’s partner on this journey, on the screen and in life, is that former high school bandleader, musician Mark Rasmussen. After more than twenty-five years apart and multiple marriages, they reunited when Mark sought her out after a book publication, and he eventually moved from California to Illinois to be with her. In a film obliquely concerned with physicality, attractiveness, and age, Mark is a stolid, burly presence, a large man who has done some living, if on the monastic rather than the decadent side of the aging-musician spectrum. While the film (which deftly utilizes childhood and teenage footage of the principals) first establishes Mark’s full-bore hippie coiffure when he and Mazza first met in the 1970s, today his mostly bald head gleams, another reminder of the fragility of conventional attractiveness. Throughout the film, Mark’s struggle with Mazza’s self-abnegation in the face of his obvious adoration of her provides its counterpoint, its Jarmuschian suspense.

As Mazza brutally critiques her own physicality and the very idea of enthusiastically enjoying sexual engagement, Mark’s wish to be supportive, or at least to comprehend her perspective, manifests itself in an anguish which gradually overtakes him. At one point in the film, this is evidenced in his sad hesitation as they shop in an enormous, rural thrift store for appropriately run-down working man’s clothes, so that Mazza can complete her “transgender makeover” in time to appear at dinner at a colleague’s home. Later, as she describes her determination to include him in an intimate photographic portfolio presenting Mazza in a male role and appearance, his roiling unease and the fear of losing her as the woman he loves come to a head, in a tense confrontation, shot close-in. Mark claims, “To show my affection towards you as trying to be a man, that is asking me to live the biggest lie that I’ve ever tried to live for you. No, Cris. I can’t do that for you. It’s not in me, any more than I think being a man is in you.”

Throughout their funny and sometimes sad interactions that lead up to this scouring moment, Mazza and Mark seem to balance their real selves with slightly exaggerated, composite versions prepared as in fiction. Of this synthesis, Mazza noted in a conversation via email, “We—Mark and I—got better at it as we went along. It was recovering from the feeling of being watched as we lived out our lives that was difficult.”

The film likewise makes use of Mazza’s real-world literary compatriots, including novelist Gina Frangello, who appears as a similarly exaggerated composite of herself, as they discuss misadventures in vibrator shopping, as part of a well-meant attempt to address Mazza’s condition (“You said it was going to work!” she upbraids Frangello). Elsewhere, short-story writers Dan Libman and his wife Molly McNett (played by actress Christine Simokaitis in the film) host Mazza during her ill-fated experiment in masculine “passing.” While these scenes have a thrown-off aspect that would situate them well in Chicago’s mumblecore / micro-indie film scene, they also possess a sweet, awkward humor that unfurls a window into the supportive literary networks present here in “flyover country.” Mazza observes, “Writers were the only other people I knew who could understand the project quickly and work within the constraints. Also, these were the people who already knew my and Mark’s background. Working with a person from another area of my life, like a dog-training buddy, even a different colleague at UIC, might have been too awkward to then maintain any semblance of naturalness in the filmed scenes.”

Mazza is a sharp presence on film, and forces the viewer to contemplate what for most is a fearful path not taken—a life in which sexual pleasures and connections are alien—by showing how, in a writer’s life, so many outlets would otherwise become foreign. At one point the camera drifts on a dreary fall day through the crowded UIC quadrangle, finally voyeuristically settling in on the lower half of an undergraduate woman, who is essentially wearing clingy pajamas. “I can sort of understand how a man would see that and want to put himself there,” Mazza notes. “I asked one of my ex-husbands, what’s it like to be a man? And he answered, so quickly. . . ‘You walk around wanting to fuck everything.’” Mazza’s own bemusement when faced (along with the viewer) with the co-ed’s appealing rear end in clingy sweats (as Mazza muses, “She probably knew that, and that’s why she wore them to school”) shows her determination here, as in much of her fiction, to play with the invisible forces of sexual objectification (constructed here by the juxtaposition of a young student’s ass against the severe, urban backdrop of Brutalist learning) in ways that may discomfort the viewer, yet keep them tuned in for more. Still, Mazza clearly hopes the film stands on its own, apart from her fictional concerns, and making it seems to have been a mixed and at times exhausting experience, distinct from the control the novelist enjoys. As she notes, “Whatever intents I may have had that my body of work was part of this (really, only in a “Stage-of-career” way) were thwarted by decisions made in editing.”

Mazza’s film raises these issues—of enforced celibacy, of bodily alienation, against the savage stew of feminine objectification—with a plain and unflinching honesty that treats its autobiographical subject with thought-provoking empathy. Yet, its easily overlooked heart is the long-thwarted relationship between Mazza and Rasmussen. Given that neither are professional actors, their escalating on-screen intensity, and ability to step outside of their actual relationship to represent its fictionalized extremes while actually capturing the longing of both the years that passed between them and Mazza’s storm of sexual alienation, is nothing short of remarkable and admirable. The film ends, in a clever twist, with a return to Mazza’s sole quasi-sexual (as in romantic) fantasy, described offhand in an early scene: coming up on Mark playing jazz in a darkened bar, as her true, neutralized self (though as the viewer knows, still purely feminine in Mark’s eyes), only to make an unstated, public, celibate connection, an intimate visual acknowledgement. As the film’s understated climax, it represents a calm resolution one only hopes Mazza the individual (if not Mazza the restless, productive writers’ writer) receives.
Anorgasmia is available for purchase or online rental. For further information, please visit the film's website.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017