"Je est un autre"
Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi talks about God, Drugs, and the current state of Independent Cinema
An interview by Chris Chase
Ox Quarterly, Winter 2000
Forget that you're making a film for a moment, and come and read a little about Caveh Zahedi: filmmaker, philosopher, theosopher, sex-addict. An unlikely maverick figure (weighing in about 100 pounds, perhaps less), Zahedi is a kind of lonely arabesque in the California landscape, a dreamer, dressed in black, a man-with-camera "revealing himself to be an artist." He is the creator of two features, a drug video, and an accomplished video correspondence with experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. Looking over his complete body of work (only two features), one has the feeling he's made much more-he penned "I Am A Sex Addict" over four years, polished and revised endlessly, and there it sits, on the table, no takers, shopped about from agent to agent, vice to virtue, no hope of production-he's virtually abandoned the project. His predicament is much the same as how Jon Jost, another American maverick, describes producers as regarding his own cinema: "your forms are too extreme. The work is not commercial. There is no marketplace." No takers, even in a society where sex sells, is a terrible reproach, an absurd rejection.
Forget that you're making a FILM, as Bresson wrote in his Notes for the Cinematographer. In the cinema of Caveh Zahedi you don't have to act much, but just be.... The characters in Zahedi's films are not fictional, but true, and are acted by their real-life participants on a stage constructed by memory, revision, and angst over both. In his films the world is quite literally a stage in which the actor's and director's choices are not so much conceived as performed; not so polished as rough-cut into existence, stuttered, nuanced, depicting the constant struggle of making experience communicable to others. There's a kind of poverty in the way it's presented, too: as a kind of gift of, "Here. What do you think? Do you like it?" Otherness is strange, and when audiences tend to react negatively to his films they are more or less in consequence with the meeting of a strange-slightly extreme, staunchly uncommercial-sight.
Making the most of his surroundings, Zahedi's vision has less to do with ends as it does means. This is another way of saying that poets are born, not made, and when confronted by a man born strange, an audience has the choice of either rejecting or embracing "strangeness," or by fine-tuning their sensibilities, making a little space-the surfaces in Zahedi's films are always presented with a considerable humility, as "little," as small emotions (the kind that John Cassavettes said are most important and revolutionary), even though the experiences presented are of much more universal, broad, and profound significance than what passes for the "real" in movies today. That alternative voices exist-a truth that is acceptable in our record stores, on our airwaves, through recommendations from our friends (";Hey, have you heard...?")-for some reason does not extend to film in the same way. Cinema is a bit tougher to recommend, for reasons illicit or not widely acknowledged that have to do with our fantasy life, our spectrums of "known" circumstance. As a wise Irish actor once said of the United States, "All your movies have happy endings. There's no tragedy, there's no purgation.... Tragedy is a healthy thing, it cleanses one.... Without tragedy, by endlessly solving every problem neatly and wrapped up at the end of two hours happily, met with little sacrifice or the indifference of nature, the culture just gets sicker and sicker...."
The films of Caveh Zahedi are a tonic for a sickness of our time. In a modern America, a culture of irony, of not-caring, his films remind us of what is lost when all our energy is devoted to the cool and hip. In Pychon's phrase, "Be cool-but care," a lesson that too many of us just don't care enough about. It's unfashionable nowadays to care much about anything, and I think this is what's most unpopular about Zahedi. Like in A Little Stiff when he makes phone call after phone call to find out a girl's phone number, or when he listens to his headphones arms akimbo, or when he trips on mushrooms by himself, or when he attempts to drop ecstasy with his dad and brother in a Las Vegas hotel room. James Joyce said that history repeats itself, but with a difference; the films of Caveh Zahedi are about a surrender that repeats itself, eternally, but with this difference: that the sorrows and consequences of being are everything and nothing in the postmodern age.
OQ: How does cinema inspire religious feelings?
CZ: For me, reality is "of God," and insofar as film documents reality, it's basically documenting God. And in that sense it's religious.
And how does it seem to inspire religious feelings in both the viewers and makers?
Well, I think reality tends to be overwhelming, and I think by framing reality and reducing it, it enables one to see. This is really clear with documentaries, where when you are there experiencing something, it is actually not that interesting, but then when you see it on film, it's actually fascinating and funny and profound, and there's something there that elevates common experience. And it's not that experience is common, but we don't really see it. Film allows us to see it, by putting us in a position where we're not implicated, where we're not seen and we can just be open and vulnerable in a way that we usually can't be when we are in the world and being seen, and having to respond and feeling like having to defend oneself in that situation. Film helps bring down our defenses.
I've noticed that in A Little Stiff you've emphasized the physicality of life and the movement of bodies.
Well, in A Little Stiff it was more a question of another way of revealing character than drama. Normally character is revealed by a dramatic situation that sort of brings things to a head. But it seems to me that the body is like a fingerprint. I mean it is a unique expression of an individual, and everything about everything signifies that thing, and that tends to get short-shrift sometimes in the more Hollywood notion of what character is.
In your interviews you've talked about experimentation with drugs and how that can effect one spiritually, as a sort of spiritual quest, and that clearly has played a role in both of your films.
Well, taking drugs is scary, certainly, and there's always the fear of death in one's mind when one takes an especially large dose of drugs, which is what I tend to do in my films. But it's not just because it's scary. I mean, I could also bungee-jump if I wanted to be scared or come close to dying. I don't know why, but I've found that drugs take me to a place that I've never been able to access without-more wise, more awakened than any place I've ever been. And I find that space very valuable and instructive, and I've been fascinated by how that looks to the naked eye, to the human eye. There is definitely a disparity between how that looks and how that feels and I've been interested in exploring that disparity.
Falling in love and making yourself vulnerable, like your character in A Little Stiff or opening up channels of communication with loved ones with whom relations are strained like in I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, is certainly putting oneself in danger, at least your ego.
I really believe in process art. I like art that is about process as much as the final product. I'm always trying to make films that, in the making of the film itself, somehow improve my life or relationships. In that sense, I'm always putting myself on the line. I'm not interested in a prefab kind of experience. It's always about testing and challenging and growing and seeing where something will take one. And the films all have that element, and when they don't, I just get bored.
And how about the danger of making oneself vulnerable?
Well, I guess that no one is really vulnerable, that, in the cosmic scheme of things, we're all safe and the truth can't hurt us, because it's benign. Of course I'm afraid of lots of things and I do feel vulnerable, but I'm always trying to learn not to be. And the films, among other things, are a kind of spiritual practice of being vulnerable and learning that one can afford to be vulnerable and nothing terrible will happen. The worst thing that happens is that people will hate you. That hurts, but it doesn't seem to really matter in the end. I think I've learned a lot about letting go of approval from making films that are vulnerable, that are more vulnerable than most films, and I try to make films that are more and more vulnerable. I mean, I think what I'm doing now is more vulnerable than anything I've done before, and they're terrifying to show people because of that. David Lynch once said that he likes films in which there is something really embarrassing, and I really like that idea. All my films really embarrass me a lot, and I can sort of tell how good it is by how embarrassing it is to me.
I'd like to read two different statements on the topic of how cinema "creates" memory. The first is by Jean-Luc Godard: "One could say television has 'un-taught' us to see. Television manufactures a few memories, but cinema-as it should have been-creates memory, i.e. the possibility of memory." I quote this because A Little Stiff is a remembered vision of an unrequited love. How does cinema "create" memory-or a virtual memory-and how, in the filmmaker, does it create a sense of nostalgia?
Well, I don't understand why television would differ from film in this regard. It seems to me that whether it's film or video, it's more about quality or content. The photographic reproduction of movement-whether it's film or video-captures time. This is what Tarkovsky says is the essence of cinema. And I think he's right; it is really capturing time, or reality, that is no longer present. And in that sense, it's a nostalgia machine, always capturing the past as a continual presence. And I think the reality is real-it's not fake; it is what really happened at that moment, but it repeats itself forever in a sort of Nietzschean "eternal return," and this gives it an aesthetic gravity that unrecorded time doesn't have. It's almost like it's denser, or the fact that it can repeat makes it have more memory, makes it more memorable, like an emulsion, but a thicker emulsion. So, yeah, it creates a totally different relationship with that record moment that one has to unrecorded moments. And that's why I'm trying to record as much of my life as possible, so that I can have a relationship to it that is more profound.
Harold Bloom said, "The experience of viewing anything, whether it be a motion picture of a street scene, or a twilight or a television screen, is the very antithesis, is the total denial of what it is that we are doing when we read deeply." How does viewing something in this regard represent an antithesis to the experience we have when we read a poem or a work of fiction?
I'm not sure what he meant exactly, but it sounds like he means the act of imagination. When you read a poem, you have a very personal experience which I think is very beautiful and valuable. And when you see a film or a television set or a sunset, you are actually seeing something that is not imaginary at all, but something completely real which has it's own parameters. It is a different experience to move toward something else and to experience the otherness of that thing-a divine thing, but an "other" thing-and to grow towards that. This is different than the eternal experience of the self, and a kind of at-homeness, and a feeling about who and what one is [that arises from reading].... And I think he's probably right. I prefer reading a poem to watching a film, personally.
Something that's being talked about and written about a lot lately is digital video. What are the possibilities of filmmaking in this newer medium?
Well. there's nothing really philosophical for me about this; it's just a very practical thing. It frees you from all the constraints of film. I mean, just practically speaking, you don't have to bend over backwards and kiss a hundred people's asses to be able to make a film and have to dilute your vision the way [film] requires when dealing with other people's money. Having done both of these things, it seems very clear to me that art isn't about pleasing other people. It's about doing something new that other people don't know how to see yet but will eventually learn to see. But if you are ahead, people aren't going to get it, and things that are ahead have a hard time getting financed. If you're interested in art, it's absurd, I mean, it's not possible to make art and get much support for it if it's truly cutting-edge art. And just in that sense it frees you up. And the great thing about digital video is you can edit without generation loss at home on your computer. So it's just much more radical freedom; people can express themselves more individually. Just in my own work, I've been so much more prolific and productive ever since I've gone video and have stopped trying to make it in the film world.
I have a friend who is not of the school that "more is better," but that if it takes ten years in a labor of love to put together a film (as long as it's in celluloid) then it will have greater integrity than anything shot on video, because of the flatness of the image and the poor quality that video provides. What would you say to this?
I'm less interested in the integrity of the image than the integrity of the artist. I mean, Hollywood movies are shot on film and they have no integrity whatsoever. Any Pixelvision film shot by an artist has more integrity than almost any 35mm Hollywood production. It's not about the medium-it's about the thought. I just saw a film last night called Don from Lakewood by Erik Saks. It's beautiful. It's shot on Pixelvision, it's astonishingly simple, and it's art. And it has no integrity of image quality [laughs].
What is the state of film distribution in the United States?
Well, it's not great. [laughs] i mean, it's really quite simple. Movie theaters require a certain number of people per night to make a film viable, so it requires a certain critical mass than, say, making a record album. Movie theaters just sort of cater to the lowest common denominator because they require a lot of people. It seems to me that as long as that's the case, people who watch movies in theaters won't see anything too fantastic, because the system will be against really great, innovative work. It happens occasionally, but it's a real uphill battle. I think video has been fantastic in this way, because work can be seen without 300 people having to see it on the same day in the same place, and I think the internet is a great thing, too. I see no hope, really, for old-fashioned film distribution to be viable for film or video art.
So you have hopes for the internet?
I do. I don't even try to get my films shown in theaters anymore. I just show them to friends, make videotapes, and send them out and let them find their way-the way people do with records and tapes. i think video has really helped people become more aware of film history, and therefore much more sophisticated as viewers, and I think that's a really good thing. People are going to become increasingly dissatisfied with low-consciousness cinema. I also think that the whole personal documentary movement has been pretty much a 90's phenomenon and that is a great advance; people are really turning toward the "personal" in a good way. I think documentary has really made the most progress, and fictional filmmaking has become more or less bloated by the financial constraints.
Where do you spend most of your time nowadays?
On my couch. Is that what you mean? I like lying down on my couch.
And what do you do when you're on your couch?
I meditate a lot. I like to meditate reclining and I try to tune into my body and try to listen for inner guidance about what I should be doing at that moment, and I try to do what I'm told. And just sort of take each day and moment, and not preplan things or have an agenda, but be in the "now." That's what I try to do. Of course, I fail miserably most of the time. I'm constantly trying to control my day and my life, but I find that when I don't, everything is much better, I'm happier.
How old are you now?
And you made A Little Stiff ten years ago?
Yeah, pretty much.
How would you describe the past ten years? Have they all been spent on the couch?
[Laughs] Some of them were spent on the floor. The last ten years have been incredibly hard. I would say an incredible amount of frustration, but also a real humbling, has happened, which I think is invaluable. That is the way it looks from here: a big, frustrating lesson in humility.
Do you ever wonder if you've chosen the right path?
Yeah, all the time. Everyday.
I'd like to close with this comment that Coleridge said about choosing, about how you choose what most challenges you. He said, "You choose what finds you." Do you think you've chosen what has found you?
And that you've chosen what is most challenging?
Yes! [laughs] Definitely.
Ox Quarterly © 2000