Metaphysician, Heal Thyself!
An interview by BRAINTRUSTdv
BRAINTRUSTdv, April 2005
The artist in question blinks and replies, "In a pejorative sense?"
In stark contrast to his hapless and vulnerable on-screen persona, Caveh Zahedi embodies poise and self-assurance when discussing his work. In the following interview, Zahedi reflects on his magnum opus I Am a Sex Addict and enumerates his idols and influences: Jesus, Godard, Hegel, Cassavetes, hallucinogens, and Walter Murch.
BRAINTRUSTdv: We're going to do this a bit backward and start with technology questions—like eating peas before pie.
You've been working in video for a while. What products or technologies have you used?
Caveh Zahedi: I started out on an EMC2, the first non-linear editing software to come out on the market. I edited both I Was Possessed By God and In the Bathtub of the World on the same EMC2 that had been used to edit Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. It was frustrating to use, however, because by that time the company that made the EMC2 had gone out of business, and there was no tech support. So I was dependent on this one guy in Utah who used to work for the company and was now embittered and unfriendly. When I was finally able to afford Final Cut Pro, I switched immediately. I've been using Final Cut ever since.
BTdv: I noticed you were at PFA the night Walter Murch spoke about cutting Cold Mountain on Final Cut. Did you learn anything from his lecture?
CZ: I love Walter Murch. I love his mind, and I always learn a lot from listening to him speak. I have no particular interest in what software he uses, other than a craft interest, but I have a tremendous interest in his mind. The man is brilliant and always has the most perceptive and original things to say about everything.
BTdv: I take it you've read his books.
CZ: I've read both Murch's In the Blink of an Eye and Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations, and I have to say that of the two books the Michael Ondaatje is my favorite. In fact, I think it is a brilliant book and one of the five best books on filmmaking that I have read.
BTdv: What are the others?
CZ: The others are Bresson's Notes on Cinematography, Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time, Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and Godard on Godard.
BTdv: When you were in film school, the "DV revolution" was still nearly a decade away. Now DV technology and digital editing are taught alongside older technologies in film schools. Do you ever feel like part of the old guard even though you've switched to DV? Do you feel overwhelmed or disadvantaged with newer technologies?
CZ: I'm not a very technologically adept person, so I do feel easily overwhelmed by new technologies. But I don't feel especially disadvantaged, since everyone needs to learn the new technologies, not just me. My biggest regret is not that I learned how to shoot film, but that I spent almost ten years of my life making experimental films instead of making narrative films. I think I would be much further along now in my career if I hadn't taken that unfortunate detour.
BTdv: Speaking of your career, you've been associated at various points with Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, and you were in the same Sundance "beginner's class" as Todd Haynes and Hal Hartley, both of whom went on to be commercially successful—no matter how proto-independent they may seem. What sort of perspective do you have on your own career choices when contrasted with the directions these other filmmakers have gone?
CZ: I oscillate between kicking myself and patting myself on the back. Obviously, my aesthetic and career choices have been tantamount to career suicide, but you've got to be who you've got to be. I wish I had the commercial instincts of the other directors you mention, but so far I've been on a different path entirely .
BTdv: You've mentioned great affection and respect for the work of John Cassavetes. On the surface, despite your aesthetic dissimilarity to Cassavetes, it would seem that you're working more in his uber-maverick tradition than many other so-called independent filmmakers are.
CZ: I certainly feel a lot closer to Cassavetes than I do to any of the other filmmakers you mention, as much as I may admire their work. But for me, Cassavetes is the greatest American filmmaker.
BTdv: It seems reasonable to assume that your scene in Linklater's Waking Life, which many consider the most memorable moment in the film, was unscripted and undirected—just Caveh being Caveh.
CZ: The scene in Waking Life was unscripted and undirected, yes. What happened was that I did four different monologues, and Rick chose that one as his favorite. But he also used another of the monologues later in the film, when his own character talks about Philip K. Dick. That was all from a dream that I'd had.
BTdv: How do you like Linklater's work? He seems to keep reinventing himself.
CZ: I think Rick Linklater is doing a fantastic job trying to push the boundaries of cinema in a way that is sustainable and accessible. He's a very brilliant person, and always seems to manage to find just the right balance between what is necessary and what is possible. I think he's doing an invaluable service for cinema. I'm not sure how other people see his work, but I see him as a kind of cinematic saint, by which I mean that his passion for film is incredibly pure and loving.
BTdv: You've said that video is more versatile than film. In what ways do you mean?
CZ: You can turn a video camera on in about ten seconds, and capture something that is going on right at that moment in your life. If you were using a film camera, you'd have to load the camera, etc., and by the time you were ready to shoot, several minutes would have gone by, and the moment you were trying to capture would be long gone. Also, you can carry your video camera around with you wherever you go and be ready to shoot something you see at a moment's notice. It's very cumbersome to carry a film camera around with you, unless you're shooting Super-8. But they've stopped manufacturing Super-8 sound film, so that medium has in effect become obsolete.
BTdv: Actually there's a guy in SF who is the last known Super-8 sound striper in the U.S. He started Super-8 Militia, they have dog tags and everything. Does it change your outlook knowing that you could get striped Super-8 film?
CZ: I think Super-8 has a place in the vocabulary of cinema, but its main use seems to me to be as a rhetorical device to imply the past tense or to provide a sense of nostalgia. An example of this is the Super-8 footage at the end of Drugstore Cowboy. It's a lovely medium with its own ontology and aesthetic, but it's like making daguerreotypes today. I don't really see the point, unless you're going for a very particular effect. Let's just say it doesn't interest me.
BTdv: You've also said, "I thought the next time I make a film I should make a thousand copies and just send them to influential people or people I like." Does this mean you don't see the theatrical experience as necessary? Eric Rohmer once said that he wanted his films to touch one person, not an audience. His films in particular seem geared toward the home viewing experience.
CZ: I don't see the theatrical experience as in any way essential to cinema, any more than the concert experience is essential to music. Many of my favorite films of all time I've only seen on video. Seeing them on video hasn't prevented me from being profoundly moved by them, and more moved by them than by other films I might have seen in a theater. And as much as I like concerts, I prefer records.
BTdv: I think this is something that has been true of our generation, yet older intellectuals and theorists such as Murch, Vittorio Storaro, and Jean-Pierre Geuens have written and spoken about the home format experience being, basically, corrupt and useless. Antero Alli, who is more or less a decade older than you, has said that he will watch DVDs occasionally, but never "the greats." For example, he says that he will only watch Tarkovsky in theatrical venues. What do you think about the disparity of viewpoints on this issue? Is it just generational? Circumstantial?
CZ: It's true that Tarkovsky's films benefit in a big way from being projected, but it's also valuable to watch and study them closely, with the ability to rewind and pause. My films benefit from being projected, too. All films do—especially comedies, because of the contagiousness of group laughter. But so what? We don't live in a perfect world, and I have no patience for the fetishization of movie theaters. With the exception of comedies, that whole cliché about the communal aspect of the theater experience strikes me as wishful thinking. The movie theater experience is usually an experience of collective alienation rather than an experience of community. I find watching a video with my wife to be a far more social and interactive experience than sitting in a movie theater with a bunch of people I don't know, and who I am almost certainly never going to talk to. It's like that Edward Hopper painting where the people are all reclining on lounge chairs in the sun, facing the same direction, but no one is looking at anyone else.
BTdv: It seems that all of your work is available on-demand at GreenCine. How do you feel about this technology? Do you think watching a movie on a computer screen is equivalent to watching it on a television?
CZ: I think video-on-demand is a godsend. I would much rather watch something I've just read about, in the immediacy and excitement of just having read about it, than watch something on a large screen that I was less interested in.
BTdv: I watched A Little Stiff for the first time the other day. I downloaded it from GreenCine and watched in on my laptop in a café. It was late afternoon, and I had to position the screen so that the sunlight wouldn't affect the image too negatively. It wasn't too noisy — only two or three tables were occupied. I had headphones on. It was the first time I've watched anything longer than ten minutes in that environment, and I admit it made me uncomfortable. I felt as though I was totally focused, and yet I was aware that I was trying to focus. The individualized experience is radically different from the theatrical experience, in which each member of the audience sees the same thing — the image projected with a lamp of a certain wattage, rather than on an LCD screen in battery-saving mode; everyone hears it the same way; the screening room is dark; etc. I'm curious how my café viewing description strikes you. Do you think the generation after ours will have an entirely new set of muscles for focusing on a feature-length movie in a busy environment? Or will people still want to go to a dark movie theater with hundreds of strangers?
CZ: I have to say that your description of watching A Little Stiff in a cafe in broad daylight does make me cringe a little. Obviously, it's better to watch it in a quiet, private place and in the dark. But the same is true of reading. It's better to read a book in a quiet, private place, and yet a great book can be read anywhere and be deeply enjoyed. As for the future, I do think that the movie theater experience will become increasingly obsolete.
BTdv: You've said that you prefer to watch a DVD at home rather than go out to a movie. You've said that the home viewing experience empowers the viewer. This is a very unusual position for a filmmaker. How much power do you feel the viewer should have over his experience?
CZ: The viewer should have absolute power over his experience. A film isn't a sacred thing. It's just something designed to give pleasure. The pleasure is the point of it, and the viewer knows best what gives him or her pleasure.
BTdv: No matter how far-fetched, tell us what you see as the ultimate long-term goal for digital video technology in terms of production, distribution, exhibition, and public reception.
CZ: The beauty of digital technology is that it democratizes the filmmaking process. Anyone can make a film now, and anyone can put it on a DVD and hand it to or mail it to anyone else. This is a very good thing and really and truly is the beginning of a revolution in the way films are made and seen. I'm all for it and feel that it is already having a very positive effect in the world.
BTdv: The squelched release of your second film, I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, has been attributed to its unflinching and celebratory focus on the use of illegal drugs — specifically ecstasy. Your films always contained this element, though it seemed to increase over the years. In your first film there's a brief scene in which you trip on mushrooms, and one of the characters discusses wanting to trip while her cat is high on cat nip. But your second movie revolves entirely around trying to convince your father to take ecstasy, and your third movie, I Was Possessed by God, is an attempt to recreate a mushroom trip in which you seemed to experience "divine possession." You've also worked on a series called Tripping with Caveh in which you trip with other artists. What about the subject of tripping so thoroughly corrals your filmmaking impetus?
CZ: Well, tripping has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. It's what transformed me from an atheist into a theist. It changed my entire way of looking at the world, and opened up a whole dimension of experience that I had never known even existed before. This said, I don't think that tripping is for everyone, and I would certainly never recommend that everyone should do it. But for me, it has been profoundly transformational, and I believe that hallucinogens can offer true insight into the transcendental realms of human experience.
BTdv: In your latest movie, I Am a Sex Addict, you've headed in another direction, though you're still orbiting the subject of vice. One could argue that this is all evidence of a consistent artistic vision, but I'm curious whether you ever feel impoverished in terms of range. Would it interest you to direct a narrative script you hadn't written? Something totally impersonal but challenging on some other level?
CZ: It would interest me to direct a narrative script I hadn't written, if I was excited by it. But traditional narrative filmmaking doesn't interest me very much. I enjoy watching it, but I wouldn't want to make anything that didn't push the boundaries of cinema in some way. It's so hard to make a film. If it's not original in some way, I just don't see the point. What we don't need in the world are more stories. Not even updated ones. What we need are new perspectives, new ways of thinking and seeing.
BTdv: After I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, you took a six-year break from filmmaking. Why such a long hiatus? What did you do in the meantime?
CZ: I spent every single day of those six years trying to raise the money to make I Am A Sex Addict. I failed miserably and made no other movies during that time, but it was hardly a hiatus. More like a nightmare.
BTdv: What does someone with your considerable energy do while not making movies? Watch, read, reflect, discuss, trip? Is that too reductive?
CZ: I like to sit in the sun and read. I like to memorize poetry. I like to swim and to recite poems in my head while I do laps. I like to meditate. I like to be in nature. I like to listen to music. I like to spend time with my friends. But my favorite thing of all is to try to think up satisfactory solutions to film problems.
BTdv: I Am a Sex Addict is a misleading title in as much as you claim to have recovered from your sex addiction. Thus, I Was a Sex Addict would be more literally representative, though as far as titles go it would lack immediacy and shock value. Can you talk a little bit about the healing process and what it means to have "recovered" from something as acute as sex addiction?
CZ: The healing process was long and arduous. I spent a lot of time writhing on my couch trying to resist the almost overwhelming temptation to act out my sexual impulses. And I did a lot of soul-searching. But the main thing for me was coming up with some form of preventive medicine. Since the addiction was rooted in pain and anger, I needed to find ways of reducing pain and anger in my life. And that meant engaging in some form of spiritual practice. For years, I did yoga everyday, and that actually helped me a tremendous amount. Actually, I still do yoga everyday. I also have a daily meditation practice.
BTdv: Sex Addict is brilliantly funny, and it is the first movie in your oeuvre in which the viewer doesn't feel pangs of guilt when laughing at you — it's the first movie in which you're aggressively winking at the audience, and the voice-over plays a large role in creating that effect. Did you make a conscious decision to be more overtly funny in your approach to Sex Addict than in your other work?
CZ: I think of all of my films as funny. It did occur to me that Sex Addict needed to be more overtly funny in order to get people not to take offense at some of the film's subject matter. Many of the events in the film are so morally dubious that humor was the only way of sugarcoating the pill, so to speak. What's that Oscar Wilde quote: "If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you."
BTdv: You mean the subject matter was so sensitive that broaching it comically was a self-protective contrivance?
CZ: I don't think the comedy in the film was a self-protective contrivance. I think the comedy was there to protect the audience.
BTdv: I know you lost interest in making the movie at some point in the 1990s, and between then and now you've recovered from your sex addiction. Do you think you would have been able to laugh at this subject matter if you'd made the movie while it was still an open wound?
CZ: The original script was also quite funny, and intentionally so, but the humor was more vicious, shall we say. In other words, because I hadn't fully recovered, I was still acting out a lot of the same issues via the script.
BTdv: Do you feel you've made a better movie than you would have made when you originally had the idea?
CZ: The film is more generous now than it would have been then, and much less sadistic. I'm not sure that makes it a better film, but it's certainly a much friendlier film.
BTdv: One thing that struck me while watching Sex Addict was that you have innumerable scenes with gorgeous naked women — scenes in which you remain strategically clothed. I don't think anyone has objectified women so much since Fellini did it in 8 & 1/2.
CZ: I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that Fellini objectified women in 8 & 1/2. I would argue that he was deconstructing the male protagonist's objectification of women, as he did again later in City of Women. Nor do I agree that my film objectifies women. My character objectifies women, but the film is critical of my character.
BTdv: Even so, you may draw the wrath of female viewers.
CZ: The film is a portrait of a sex addict, and the women are seen through his eyes.
The film never pretends that what we are seeing is the truth about these women. If anything, it implies just the opposite. What's clear in the film is that he is unable to see them clearly and projects his own needs onto them. We, as viewers, can see that his view of them is entirely delusional. In this sense, I feel that the film is absolutely anti-objectification — only rather than showing strong women or fully developed female characters, the film shows the consequences of objectification. This is also a very Hegelian idea — that you have to go through the stages of history to get to the end of history.
BTdv: You've said that you'll continue editing Sex Addict until someone "wants to strike a print." That seems to be a very open-ended approach. If someone strikes a print, will that represent completion in your mind? Or do you feel some kinship with Frank O'Connor, who would sit and scribble copious emendations in the margins of his published books?
CZ: Wallace Stevens describes the creative process as "the finding of a satisfaction." And the simple fact is that the film won't feel finished to me until I feel satisfied with it. So far, I haven't felt sufficiently satisfied. I'm sure that a time will come—hopefully very soon—where I do feel sufficiently satisfied, and that's when I'll stop editing.
BTdv: Each of your previous movies is an autobiographical installment, looking at a particular point in your life, but Sex Addict is the only one which surveys a significant portion your life. In a sense, your three other features could be seen as studies, endeavors which prepared you for this magnum opus. Do you think the tight narrative arc of this movie will redeem you in the eyes of critics and audiences who were hostile to the "self-indulgence" and "lack of focus" in your other work?
CZ: I sure as hell hope so.
BTdv: You've mentioned Ozu, Bresson, and Tarkovsky in the same breath when talking about influences, but only A Little Stiff has a careful and quiet formalism which could be compared to Ozu or Bresson. Your other work is hyperkinetic and technically haphazard.
CZ: A Little Stiff was my aesthetic reaction to the kind of by-the-numbers filmmaking that we were being taught in film school. My aesthetic changed after making it, and the aesthetic issues that fascinated me then were replaced by new areas of interest and fascination. Specifically, I have moved closer and closer to an aesthetic that valorizes the raw immediacy of the real.
BTdv: Paul Schrader wrote a study of transcendental film which was dedicated to analyses of Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu. He writes, "transcendental style chooses irrationalism over rationalism, repetition over variation, sacred over profane, the deific over the humanistic, intellectual realism over optical realism, two-dimensional vision over three-dimensional vision, tradition over experiment, anonymity over individualization." Were these components of your aesthetic when you made A Little Stiff?
CZ: I love those three filmmakers, and I have definitely been influenced by all of them. But Paul Schrader's book is just a way of trying to impose categories on three filmmakers who defy categorization. It sounds good, and it's thought-provoking, but it's certainly not "true." I believe that the transcendental is less a question of style than a question of vibrational frequency. What those filmmakers all have in common is a high spiritual frequency, not a set of rhetorical strategies.
BTdv: Well, I don't think he intended this analysis to be prescriptive, but he's a strong Calvinist, so these issues interested him greatly. And they seem to interest you, too: there is a distinct thread of redemption in your work. Like Bresson — and Schrader, who pays direct tribute to Bresson (the end of Light Sleeper is identical to the end of Pickpocket) — you seem to indulge in the ritual of on-screen sacrifices, and you've made statements to that effect: you want to be a "mascot of humanity," invoking this phrase to characterize Jesus. Not bad company. Many American intellectuals and artists have a kind of flavor aversion to the subject of Jesus, having been immersed in a culture which peddles Christianity as though it's breakfast cereal, but you talk about Jesus as though you are the first to have stumbled onto him. In I Was Possessed by God, you "talk" about Jesus and the gates of heaven while in a totally delirious state. What prompts you to feel so much kinship with Jesus?
CZ: As far as I can tell, Jesus was the most evolved human being to have been incarnated on this planet. I find his teachings to be astonishingly radical—so radical, in fact, that no one seems to even understand them, let alone practice them. As for sacrifice, I think Bob Dylan is right when he says: "You're going to have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord but you're going to have to serve somebody." I don't believe in the devil, but I do believe in humility, and in the idea of service. I am trying to serve the art of cinema. Art is my religion. And I am willing to suffer in its service. Because there's no getting around it—if you try to make films, you are going to suffer. So the question becomes why? Why do it? And the answer is a religious one. Because I believe in it.
BTdv: There's a consistently disorienting element in your oeuvre. It could easily be said that each of your films is an exercise in self-fetishism ("narcissism" is too soft a word), but it could also be argued that they're all self-parody. The warts-and-all approach to autobiography is not very common, and it tends to strain the viewer's interpretive muscles. I'm curious if you see any significant difference between an audience laughing with you or laughing at you. In each of your movies there are parts where I'm torn between thinking you're terribly clever to make fun of yourself in this way or, conversely, "Poor Caveh. People will laugh at him!" Can you honestly say there's nothing masochistic in your tendency toward public self-examination?
CZ: The word "masochistic" can mean a lot of things. There's a certain amount of acceptance of suffering that is involved in making the kinds of films I make, but it's not masochistic in the sense that it gives me pleasure when people hate or judge me. I really don't see any significant difference between the audience laughing with me or at me. I'm laughing at me, too. But you're right that my films "strain the viewer's interpretive muscles," as you put it. A lot of people don't know how to interpret my films because they have no previous experience of the kind of place I'm coming from. My background is in philosophy, and I was trained to be self-critical. This is a Marxist practice, and one that I've always found fascinating. To treat oneself as subject and as object at the same time is a curious relationship to the self, and one that most people don't seem to attempt. But it strikes me as the quintessentially artistic relationship to life, in which everything becomes aestheticized. Baudelaire says: "I am the wound and the knife, the victim and the executioner." And I think that's a much richer way to experience life than by identifying with the self in a defensive and self-protective way. From where I'm coming from, the self is a problem to be overcome, not a given to be upheld.
BTdv: In the commentary on In the Bathtub of the World you admit that prior to screenings of your work, you have diarrhea and other psychosomatic manifestations of "a primal fear of being judged negatively." Yet you put yourself out there again and again to be judged. So maybe our definitions of masochism are different. Jesus chose his fate, but he was inherently divided on the issue. Is your will divided? Do you relate to the Kazantzakis remark that "My principle anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh"?
CZ: Of course my will is divided. But one strain tends to be in the ascendant, and that strain is the one that compels me to expose myself to judgment. But I see this as a sacrifice I'm willing to make for the greater good. And for me, the greater good is self-acceptance and not buying into the judgment of others. I think the judging of others is the problem, and any attempt to push the envelope of forgiveness is necessarily going to provoke judgment.
BTdv: In a recent interview, Elliot Greenebaum confessed, "I began [to make films] because I wanted to be loved—or liked. I felt that if I were a filmmaker this would happen. When I became successful I felt worse and more unsafe than before." After making the film Assisted Living, Greenebaum was not only "judged negatively" as a filmmaker but also as a human being—he was called unethical and exploitive and was compelled to write letters to journalists and audience members in order to defend himself. Similarly, you've taken it on the chin again and again—not only as a filmmaker but as a person. Critics call you narcissistic, vain, unethical, and average viewers write you hate mail.
CZ: I don't make films in order to be liked. I make films to be honest about who I am—and by extension, who mankind is—and I am willing to be judged negatively by those who feel a strong need to judge and distance themselves from others in order to feel better about themselves. Of course, I would rather be liked. But being liked isn't my goal any more than being judged negatively is my goal. My goal is to be as honest as I can be. And people who are striving for greater honesty in their own lives tend to appreciate my films, whereas people who are trying to protect a certain image of themselves tend to feel threatened by them.
It seems to me that as a society we are addicted to fantasy as a way to cope with the pain of no longer being in harmony with our true selves. Whatever the fantasy, it always involves an element of escape from the pain of being who we really are. My films are an attempt to strip away the fantasy and to see if it's possible to love and to accept who we really are. I am as addicted to fantasy as the next guy, but I find that the one thing that snaps me out of it is when another person is totally honest with me.
BTdv: One of your key theoretical preoccupations has been the idea of privacy, your conviction that the U.S. Constitution doesn't protect people from your camera. Again, I find an interesting analog in Elliot Greenebaum's experience with Assisted Living. He shot the film in a nursing home, using actual residents as part of the narrative (the film is not a documentary). Some of these people were mentally incompetent and unable to understand that they were being filmed. Now that most of these people are deceased, Greenebaum argues that the dead don't own the rights to their likeness. In this age of Reality TV, it seems there are new moral and theoretical problems arising every day. The ethics of spectatorship is beginning to concern us all. As Marguerite Duras said of the horrors of the Second World War, all of us must share in the guilt. How do you feel about Greenebaum's approach and defense? Is there any limit to the camera's impunity?
CZ: I agree with Greenebaum completely. I haven't seen his film—although I would love to—but it sounds like he did a wonderful thing to make such a film and to involve the residents of the nursing home in the making of it. I just don't get this "sanctity of the image" thing. To be a human being in the world is to be seen by others and to not be able to control how one is perceived. It's just our ontological condition. People are going to think what they want about you, whether it's true or false. It happens. I can understand that there are laws against slander. If someone says something untruthful about you in public, there should be a legal mechanism to prevent that. But to photograph someone, and then to use that in a film—whether it be a fictional film or a documentary—is nobody's business unless you are lying about them, in which case it is incumbent on them to prove that you are lying. This whole notion of owning one's image strikes me as an absurd extension of the idea of private property.
BTdv: I saw I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore on the festival circuit in the mid-nineties. It made quite an impression on me, though honestly it didn't read like a second feature. And that continues to be true of your work — each new thing seems to be made as though you've never made a movie before. Naturally, your on-screen persona is perpetually bemused (you have that deer-in-the-headlights look), but there's also a peculiar energy to the filmmaking that suggests a constant exploration of the craft. Everything always feels new somehow. That may also explain the mesmerizing quality of your monologue in Waking Life — even when you talk about filmmaking, it's as though you've just discovered it, and you can broach it with a child's carefree enthusiasm, no matter how arcane your subject matter. Do you feel that you have a more exploratory approach to filmmaking than others do? I know you admire Godard—do you feel any affinity with his constant experimentation and childlike fascination with the medium?
CZ: I do feel a deep affinity with Godard and would say that even more than Cassavetes he has been the biggest influence on my work.
My favorite thing in art is what I would call novelty. I see absolutely no point in doing what has already been done. And this is why I love Godard—because he is always striving for novelty. So many critics judge one's work in relation to a pre-conceived set of standards and expectations, but I feel they are missing the point of what art is. Art is not the same as craft. Art is novelty. Art is seeing something that one has never seen before. Art is seeing something for the first time. Diane Arbus once said, "It is what you've never seen before that you recognize."
BTdv: In a stirring essay, you write: "The medieval view of the artist is one I feel much closer to than the Enlightenment view. In the middle ages, the artist was seen as a humble servant of God, doing God's work to the best of his ability." Later in the same essay you admit to being irreligious. How do you incorporate medieval aesthetics into a religious vacuum? Andre Bazin talked about the introduction of perspective in painting as the first step toward secularism in art—mimesis as an attempt to replace God rather than exalt Him. Isn't that what art has become—a replacement for God?
CZ: I'm not sure I agree with you that art has become a replacement for God. Art is also a path to God. I don't think of myself as irreligious, except in the sense that I don't believe in or subscribe to any organized religion. I think of myself as deeply religious, in the sense that I believe in God and find the religious or spiritual dimension the most meaningful and important thing in my life. But art is my path to God, just as yoga or meditation can also be paths to God. Art is the path I've chosen because for some reason it resonates with my inner being, but it's only one path among many.