Love (with Prostitutes) Is the Drug for this Filmmaker
At least where filmmaker, ex-sex addict Caveh Zahedi is concerned
By Neva Chonin
San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2006
Caveh Zahedi has suffered for his art. He's been blown off by Jean-Luc Godard and the Sundance Film Festival, received hate mail and ruined two of his marriages. Nothing, however, compares to the terror of success. Blinking in the sunlight and looking like a small, nocturnal animal in black jeans, Zahedi sits outside his San Francisco apartment and recalls the moments before his film, I Am a Sex Addict, won a Gotham Award as "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" in New York in November. "I was so nervous. I was hoping I wouldn't get it so I wouldn't have to go up and say anything," he says. "I was praying, 'Please, God, don't let it be me.' "
God ignored his plea, and Zahedi won. After 15 years of roadblocks and catastrophes, his little autobiographical opus about seeking acceptance through sex had itself been accepted. And so, voice trembling and hands shaking, Zahedi rose to give an acceptance speech so compelling it helped find a distributor for I Am a Sex Addict, which opens Wednesday at the Balboa.
When it's suggested that not wanting to win an award indicates ambivalence toward success, Zahedi looks bemused.
"I think I have ambition, but I'm just really frightened." Of what?
His eyes expand to lemur proportions. "Of not being liked."
That's the crux of Zahedi's condition: He craves acceptance, but it has to be on his terms. And if making a confessional movie called I Am a Sex Addict seems counterproductive to the quest for unconditional love, it's emblematic of the 45-year-old filmmaker's approach to his art. He is fearless in demanding that audiences accept it, and its maker, for what they are -- warts included.
Alternately funny and infuriating, I Am a Sex Addict seduces the audience in spite of itself. Zahedi's portrayal of a man who trashes two marriages and numerous relationships with his craving for prostitutes is endearing to the point of pathos: Large of eye and small of bone, the fragile-looking protagonist seems as much a victim of his desires as his suffering girlfriends.
As he putters around the book-strewn flat he shares with his third wife, Zyzzyva managing editor Amanda Field, Zahedi describes the film as both "an attempt to transcend wanting to be liked" and a quest to be loved without restraint. "It's an infantile game you play where you don't believe you're lovable, so you push to see if there's a point where the acceptance stops," he says. "It's a similar dynamic with the audience: OK, will you still like me if I do this? And this? There's a perverse pleasure in being rejected, I think."
Zahedi has experienced plenty of rejection since making his first film in 1991, from hate mail labeling him a navel-gazing solipsist ("and self-indulgent," he points out, "and narcissistic") to a woman who approached him after a Sex Addict screening to announce, "I really like your movie a lot, but I hate you." It's no wonder he has a work in progress called A Portrait of Caveh Zahedi as a Complete Failure. His career has had enough dips to inspire vertigo. A former Yale philosophy student, Zahedi's first cinematic venture was a pilgrimage to Switzerland to work with his idol, Jean-Luc Godard. After he called the director at 3 a.m., Godard stopped answering the phone. Zahedi moved on to Paris, where he tried to woo backers, including the French government, for films about poets Arthur Rimbaud and Stephen Mallarme and photographer Eadweard Muybridge. All declined. Deflated but undaunted, Zahedi returned to the United States and enrolled in UCLA's film school. There he and collaborator Greg Watkins made A Little Stiff, in which Zahedi chronicled his unrequited love for an art student. The film premiered at Sundance and won critical acclaim; Zahedi responded by making increasingly experimental films. I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore attempted to prove the existence of God via a Las Vegas trip with his Iranian father and half-brother; In the Bathtub of the World recorded one minute of each day for a year. I Was Possessed by God followed Zahedi as he ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms and channeled the Divine.
Sex Addict continues Zahedi's tradition of simultaneously playing subject, object, author and performer in his own films (when not playing himself in friends' films such as Richard Linklater's animated Waking Life). Using a blend of first-person narration, re-enactment and home movies, his work explores his internal life while navigating the external world. The results are archly self-aware and, while they certainly aren't fiction, his movies don't really qualify as documentary either. Zahedi calls them "hybridization." Until Sex Addict, many critics called them excruciating.
Zahedi's personal life has been as rocky as his professional path. As documented in Sex Addict, for years he suffered from a compulsion to have sex with prostitutes and then cluelessly tell his wives and girlfriends every detail. They were not amused. With a pile of relationships on the scrap heap, Zahedi finally realized he had a problem, and started writing I Am a Sex Addict after returning from his first Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. Analyzing his obsession in hindsight, Zahedi says he thinks "a moral repression was at the base of the addiction -- that there was something wrong with sexual desires, that they were hurtful or bad in some way. So you repress them, and they're not integrated into your being. It's like you're two people: there's the one that's just sexual and the one that's just nice. There was a kind of permission given by the prostitutes to let the sexual side out and it wouldn't be judged. They had a gaze on your sexuality that was different from your own repressive gaze. There's an incredible thirst for that, to have the guilt assuaged."
For a work with erotic desire as its narrative core, Sex Addict is remarkably unsexy, portraying sexual encounters as ungainly and even humiliating for both Zahedi and his partners. "It's not meant to be sexy; I can't imagine anyone thinking it's sexy," he says. "Some women told me they got turned on watching it, and I was just stunned. I couldn't think of anything that's less of a turn-on than my film. A lot of the impulse in making it was to show sex the way I experienced it, which was not the way it's presented in movies at all, but awkward and much weirder. My character is self-involved. That's his problem, and it's definitely true of me. But toward the end he has a glimpse of something outside the circle of himself."
Throughout the '90s, Zahedi pitched the film to numerous producers, and numerous producers sent it back. He approached actors, and actors backed away. Robert Downey Jr. was busy being arrested; Vincent Gallo became so involved in critiquing Zahedi's pitch that he never got around to reading the script; and Harmony Korine expressed interest, "but then his phone number changed and I couldn't reach him anymore." Even Steve Buscemi, a fan of Zahedi's work, turned it down ("I think he thought the character was unlikable").
So Zahedi played himself. Work progressed slowly. Seven years of footage had to be dumped after a tenant "kinda went insane" and trashed his Los Angeles apartment, one of the movie's primary locations. The French actress playing Zahedi's first wife was deported mid-production, requiring a weekend dash to Paris to film her final scenes (San Francisco locales stood in for Europe in the rest of the film). When the completed project was rejected by Sundance, Zahedi tried to distribute the film himself. Then came the Gotham Award, and his speech about filmmaker empowerment. Producers began returning his calls, and IFC picked up the film.
Now, with Sex Addict finally poised for release, Zahedi feels elated but ambivalent. "Mostly it feels really good." He pauses. "But surreal. I feel anxious about it."
Anxious that this might be another pinnacle before a plunge? That, in the end, nobody will like him? Zahedi looks like a deer in the headlights. "Totally."
The final moments of Sex Addict document Zahedi's 2003 wedding to Field. Walking to the altar, Zahedi weeps. Some wedding guests were probably in tears, too, since the ceremony had to wait while the groom finished shooting his preamble to the scene. It makes a perfect, and perfectly ridiculous, denouement.
"There's no end to the trouble you can get into," Zahedi says of his sexual addiction saga. Asked where he'd be if he hadn't overcome it through art and therapy, he pauses to mull. "Who knows? Probably a lot less happy, a lot less healthy and a lot less productive."
At the moment, Zahedi is happy and productive and working on his next film: An adaptation of James Joyce's epic of modernist experimentation, Ulysses.
I Am a Sex Addict: Opens Wed. at the Balboa Theater, 3630 Balboa St., San Francisco, (415) 221-8184; and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 464-5980.
E-mail Neva Chonin at email@example.com.