Song of Myself: Caveh Zahedi's Cinema of Self-Exposure
An article by Jason McBride
Cinema Scope, Spring 2006
Of all the filmmakers who I’d want to watch having sex — and that’s a pretty short list, mind you — Caveh Zahedi probably wouldn’t rank very close to the top. In his latest feature, I Am a Sex Addict, however, there is plenty of opportunity to catch Caveh in the act (or the simulation thereof), and the sight is by turns upsetting, exhilarating, and hilarious. Fitting descriptive shorthand for all of Zahedi’s work, an oeuvre that currently consists of four features and three shorts, and in which the ambitious, provocative I Am a Sex Addict can serve as both summa and introduction.
The San Francisco-based Zahedi has been making movies since the early ’90s, crafting works that defy easy categorization — the filmmaker prefers the term "hybridization" — but which are invariably dubbed autobiographical documentaries. All of these films star the wiry, wild-eyed director (now 45 years old), as well as sundry friends, lovers, and relatives, all of whom play themselves. In many ways, the films prefigure what we now call reality TV, transforming the real — and often the most humiliating, discomfiting aspects of the real — into dramatic situations whose approximate veracity leads to all sorts of ontological head-scratchers. That supposition aside, they’re also funny as hell. Zahedi’s films are largely concerned with his turbulent romantic life and artistic struggles, his fondness for psychedelics, and his penchant for philosophical gab. The occasionally irritating charmer that emerges is a navel-gazing celebrant of the quotidian, who, in his pursuit of an honest existence — and a similarly truthful representation of such — oscillates between self-laceration and self-aggrandizement. "I have this fear that reality isn’t enough…that I’m not enough," Zahedi says, with customary candour, in his 1994 feature I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore — a film which, he also says, proves the existence of God.
Reality may not be enough (reality TV certainly isn’t), but neither is fiction, and, in Zahedi’s films, it’s only their uneasy (unholy?) alliance that approaches something like the truth. Or, at least, approaches life as it’s lived. Zahedi claims to hate documentaries (again, in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore) and thus all of his films, beginning with A Little Stiff (1991), more often re-enact, or re-imagine, portions of Zahedi’s biography rather than simply capturing them. The size of his filmography belies the fact that for Zahedi, no less so then for Fassbinder, Godard, Kiarostami, or Cassavetes, filmmaking and life are inextricably entwined. Given the incessant presence of cameras in all of Zahedi’s movies (and his subjects’ frequent annoyance at said presence), it’s easy to imagine that Zahedi would happily film his every waking moment if he had the budget. (Such an experiment forms the basis for 2001’s In the Bathtub of the World — more on that later.) Making a movie always means asking "What is the meaning of life?", but then also, "What is the meaning of representing life?"
In A Little Stiff, which Zahedi co-directed with his long-suffering cinematographer Greg Watkins, Zahedi plays a UCLA film student named Caveh Zahedi who pursues, with self-conscious abandon and not-so-quiet desperation, a fellow student named Erin McKim (playing herself). Deadpan, shot in black-and-white 16mm, the film recalls other American indies of the period (Jarmusch, Jost), but it’s quintessential Zahedi. His comic persona is already fully developed — the articulate stammer, the frequent and mischievous smile, the bulwark of neuroses. Woody Allen and Albert Brooks are obvious antecedents, but there is also a hint of the Godard of Soigne ta droite (1987) and Seymour Cassel’s manic Moskowitz. Zahedi’s wooing of Erin (a process that involves The Smiths, Tarkovsky, and LSD) veers from the bathetic to the endearing, but she remains largely immune to his charms. Critics weren’t — the film received praise from both Janet Maslin and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
With I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, Zahedi adopts a kind of Ross McElwee guise, chronicling a Christmas Eve trip to Vegas with his Iranian father and 16-year-old half brother, Amin. Zahedi, somewhat estranged from both of them (father George having been a womanizer who rarely spent time with young Caveh and Amin being a surly teen), hopes that the trip will bring them closer — and, to ensure this, he brings along a few hits of Ecstasy, believing that the family that gets high together stays together. Little is seen of Vegas, aside from occasional desert vistas and shots of the neon-streaked strip — the film’s presumably teeny budget ($500 of which Zahedi spends to convince Amin to participate) restricts much of the shoot to a cramped hotel room. (Zahedi’s three-person crew, including Watkins, also squeeze in.) After much cajoling ("It’ll open up your heart chakra"), Zahedi convinces George and Amin to drop the E. Or does he? While their behaviour certainly indicates that they’re high — there is much spontaneous laughter, giddy confession, and hugs — the film’s assistant cameraman, Steve, later asserts that neither George nor Amin did actually take the drugs. The ramifications of this moment lend the film a pleasantly vertiginous ambience — is Zahedi’s family pretending to be high or pretending to be pretending to be high? — while dovetailing with Zahedi’s larger concerns of faith, examinations of which bookend the film. Just as Zahedi proposes that God’s hand is felt in every step along this small journey’s way, the filmmaker likewise requires that viewers accept his guidance. Even if what’s on screen isn’t gospel, it’s nonetheless a kind of spiritual truth — if Amin and George didn’t take the drugs, but then acted as if they had to please their son and brother, the effect that Zahedi sought was still achieved. The mere fact that they agreed to be in his film, reluctantly or not, is further proof that some kind of communication barrier had been broken.
Zahedi’s films are always about performance, but more specifically: how do you perform for others and how do you perform to get others to do something for you? A signature scene in virtually every Zahedi film features the filmmaker pleading with or attempting to convince someone to do something against their will. Such negotiations are commonplace enough behind the camera, but it’s rare the director who exposes his own tyranny. Zahedi’s persistence is generally amusing, but it occasionally morphs into a less-savoury imperiousness that undermines the charismatic, touchy-feely attitude he normally maintains.
It was the former that I remembered from In the Bathtub of the World, a year-long video diary in which Zahedi filmed one minute of his life each day. (The title is taken from a John Ashbery poem — itself plucked from a book that Zahedi claims, in voiceover, would make him a “better person” if he could ever finish it.) The first time I watched the film, the conceit seemed to impair the anarchic spirit that made Zahedi’s earlier work so pleasurable; the man it portrayed seemed similarly stunted, almost sour. Subsequent viewings, however, reveal Bathub to be a gentler, more melancholy film. Of course, Zahedi has shot much more than a minute a day, and the judicious editing of this footage — reducing each day down to an ineffable, 60-second moment — gives the film a compelling and elegiac grace. Given its constraints, Bathtub spans an enormous range of emotion and experience, all of it commonplace but usually quite wryly portrayed: Zahedi obsessing over favourite rock stars (Frank Black, Michael Stipe), dieting, getting stoned (of course), visiting his father in hospital, chasing out pigeons who have somehow infiltrated his apartment, exchanging Christmas presents with his girlfriend Mandy. At the beginning of the film, Zahedi shaves his head — lending him a far more menacing visage — and, as his hair grows back, the sense of renewal that ritual offered devolves into forlorn resignation. "Something’s wrong with my life," he says, shooting himself in a bathroom mirror as Fall becomes Winter, "I don’t know how to live. I don’t know what to do. I’m lost."
Such confused revelation pervades I Am a Sex Addict, Zahedi’s many-years-in-the-making opus of sex addiction and prostitute fetishism. It’s a film that the director alludes to as far back as I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, but which, due to the vagaries of financing, he’s only recently completed. If there’s one constant refrain in Bathtub, it’s Zahedi’s constant spats with Mandy, and here, in Sex Addict, Zahedi exposes the root of his routine difficulties with girlfriends. Combining his regular tactics — re-enactments, actors playing real people, real people playing real people — with more conventional doc techniques (stock footage, animation), Zahedi traces the ups and downs of his romantic life, and how, beginning in Paris, that life was torn asunder by his overwhelming lust for paid sex. In customary fashion, Zahedi is both entirely self-revealing and self-justifying. He admits his desire to his French girlfriend, Caroline (porn star Rebecca Lord), hoping that such honesty will absolve him of any guilt or responsibility — and free him from acting on his desire. "Is there anything I can do so that you are not tempted?" she asks. Zahedi, who, in Sex Addict, ventures frequently into pure creep territory, replies that she can give him blow jobs more often. She obliges, going down on him thrice in quick succession, each time Zahedi collapsing in louder, more outrageous orgasms. Zahedi’s honesty backfires, of course, especially when he compulsively informs Caroline of all the women he would like to sleep with: "I had hoped that being completely honest would bring us closer together, but I seriously miscalculated." Soon, the filmmaker is jerking off in confessionals — it’s difficult to imagine a more apt metaphor for Zahedi’s entire project — then finally giving into his hooker fantasies. He’s particularly aroused when one prostitute impassively pleads, "Rape me."
When Zahedi moves back to the US, subsequent girlfriends cope with his addiction in various ways. A film student, Christa, is appalled when she learns of Godard’s supposed prostitute fetish but she is thoroughly disgusted when Zahedi confesses to the same. Devin, who he meets at a film festival in Austin, blithely accepts Zahedi’s proclivities, but, on a trip to Europe, is reduced to a sobbing, alcoholic wreck when he takes her with him to a brothel. Zahedi, meanwhile, keeps on justifying his behaviour. After visiting a Los Angeles massage parlour, he claims he’s "had a mystical experience."
Zahedi’s famous cameo in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) is the most exciting thing about that film, and, in just a few moments, he manages to unpack both Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image and his (Zahedi’s) own conflicted Christianity. Zahedi’s religiosity must be taken seriously, but it also must be recognized as being, at least occasionally, shtick. His faith in God is no more and no less sturdy than his faith in the verisimilitude of an image — or in himself. Sex Addict is an extremely forthright (and funny, disarming, and brutal) film, but it’s also wholly conscious of its own manipulations and dishonesty. The reality represented in Zahedi’s films — no matter how "confessional" — is always a product of condensation, perspective shifts, and omission. Appeal to a higher power excuses bad behaviour just as an appeal to reality masks all manner of cinematic feints.
Sex Addict concludes with footage from Zahedi’s wedding to Mandy. (In a church — with tissues being used only to dab eyes.) Conventional or not — Zahedi, we learn, has narrated the entire film wearing the tux he will wear into the ceremony — it’s surprisingly tender. Even Zahedi seems touched, and he’s finally relinquished control of the camera and shut his mouth. It’s a pure home-movie moment, but it reveals the filmmaker to be, at heart, a true romantic.