The Unvarnished Stories of His Life
By Mike Boehm
L.A. Times, February 24, 2002
Caveh Zahedi, an independent filmmaker whose fans are few but passionate, can be summarized most simply as the Woody Allen of some parallel cinematic universe in which being awkward, funny, highly intelligent and neurotically confessional gets you almost nowhere.
This scrawny San Franciscan has made a career – although no steady living – of dumping his hang-ups, fears, lusts, romantic contretemps and intellectual passions before the camera. But while Allen’s on-screen self is a persona, a fictional construct, what Zahedi reveals is nearly unvarnished reality.
It is a brand of reality that, even though essentially comic and devoid of scenes of sex and violence, can easily violate a viewer’s comfort zone. That, say some Zahedi supporters, is why he is important – and why he has labored in obscurity and near-poverty.
“A Little Stiff,” an offbeat love story Zahedi co-directed with classmate Greg Watkins while at UCLA’s film school, was screened at Sundance in 1991 and earned a modicum of recognition. It was picked up by 16 film festivals. Two subsequent features, “I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore” (1994) and last year’s “In the Bathtub of the World,” were rejected by most of those same festivals – although a screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival did lead to “Bathtub’s” acquisition by the Independent Film Channel. The film, a video diary of a year in Zahedi’s life, will be screened Thursday at UC Irvine’s Film and Video Center. Zahedi will be there to answer questions afterward.
“Las Vegas” and “Bathtub” play more like quasi-documentaries than stories. Zahedi rolled the camera on unscripted episodes of his life as they unfolded. He was guided by his conviction that film’s greatest glory is its ability to show reality. Therefore an interesting and truthful story would take shape from filming real life.
“Caveh sort of obliterates the layer between fiction and reality,” says director Richard Linklater, a friend and fan of Zahedi’s since they met at Sundance in 1991. Linklater, the Texan whose films include “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” says it irks him when he hears Zahedi’s self-referential style being dismissed as narcissistic.
“It’s not easy to find the universal in your own life, and he’s intuitively picking what hits a universal chord. When people say, ‘I don’t get Caveh’s stuff,’ I just smile. They’re not ready at this time, but I just know it’ll be there long-term.”
If a larger moviegoing public knows of Zahedi at all, it is probably because of his appearance playing himself in Linklater’s recent film, “Waking Life.” Into this strange dreamscape of a movie, in which live actors and their surroundings turned wavery, unstable and surreal through animated effects, Linklater inserted his friend to hold forth, unscripted, about the nature of film. In a much-remarked-upon episode dubbed “The Holy Moment,” Zahedi was seen expounding on the spiritual implications of film’s power to capture reality. Then he turned into a billowy talking cloud.
In his films, Zahedi, the 41-year-old son of Iranian immigrants, had bared flaws, feelings of inadequacy and episodes of questionable behavior that would send most people running for cover rather than risk revealing themselves.
His use of hallucinogenic drugs, especially psychedelic mushrooms, as a path to hoped-for insight and enlightenment has been a recurring motif. Perhaps the most disquieting sequence in a Zahedi film comes in “I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore” when he pressures his 62-year-old father and his 16-year-old half-brother to join him in taking the drug Ecstasy. Zahedi’s parents divorced when he was 8. He says that left him feeling abandoned and estranged from his father, an insurance salesman. The film shows his attempt to bond with his dad and his half-brother during a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Zahedi also conceived of it as a test of his cinematic credo: that filming a slice of unscripted reality could yield a coherent and involving movie.
“In the Bathtub of the World”(the title comes from a poem by John Ashbery) focuses mainly on Zahedi’s tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, Mandy Field. Repeatedly, we hear her weeping in her bedroom after one of their arguments – and, repeatedly, we see Zahedi barge through her closed door with tape rolling.
Zahedi makes a multitude of admissions that don’t reflect well on him. He can come off as selfish, comically neurotic or just plain pitiful. He confesses for the camera that he slapped Mandy once (after she slapped him), that he feels unqualified to teach the college film courses he takes on to earn money, and that he feels compulsive about everything from sex to reading. He obsesses guiltily over his habit of starting books and never finishing them. He also allows himself to be shown deep in despair. “Something’s wrong with my life,” he tells the camera near the end of the film. “I don’t know how to live. I really don’t know what to do. I’m lost.”
“Caveh is daring to show himself as clumsy and embarrassingly off-putting,” says Ray Carney, a Boston University film professor and author whose specialty is independent film. He considers “A Little Stiff” one of the great films of the 1990’s and is devoting a chapter to Zahedi in his next book, “The Real Independent Movement: Beyond the Hype.”
“With the Woody Allen schmo, you are able to stand outside and say, ‘This is all a joike,’” Carney said. “In Caveh’s films, you really are in pain for the clumsiness of the character, the ineptness that is not laughed off. These films are comic, but in a very subtle way, where the comedy does not soften the emotion.”
Zahedi grew up in Granada Hills and won a scholarship to Yale, where he majored in philosophy and became enthralled with film. After graduating, he moved to Paris. His plan was to apprentice to his hero, French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, and blaze a path as a politicized filmmaker. “I thought it would be easy just to talk my way into whatever I wanted I quickly came up against the brick wall of reality,” Zahedi said in a recent phone interview from the tiny San Francisco apartment he shares with Field, a literary magazine editor who has stuck with him despite his art’s intrusions on their relationship.
Ignored by Godard, he settled for film school, which he financed with student loans. Zahedi says he stayed five years at UCLA, accumulating a $100,000 debt that still stands, because he wanted to prolong his time making movies without having to face the economic exigencies of the movie industry.
Figuring that the everyday reality he knew best was his own, he made “A Little Stiff,” a reenactment of his unrequited crush on a UCLA art student. Actors would not suffice for Zahedi’s vision of reality. He not only cast himself, but persuaded the woman who had rejected him and the man who had been his romantic rival to play themselves. And he resolved to try to show himself as he was, without airbrushing the flaws and insecuritites.
“Our flaws are as important as our good qualities,” says Zahedi, a quietly intense talker with a reedy voice and the ability to fling terms such as “mediated” and “dialectic” without sounding pretentious. “To deny them is to deny a fundamental truth of the human condition. In our society so much is hidden that it creates a false notion about what it is to be human.
“People suffer under a false ideal that nobody can live up to. Whenever people have been honest about their own failings, it has made me feel it’s OK to have failings as well. It’s a weird, almost sacrificial thing, but by copping to these things, I’m doing it for everyone. Some [viewers] don’t forgive [the failings] in me or in themselves. But the more I do it, the more I feel it gives people power.”
Zahedi says his most embarrassing on-camera admissions are yet to come, in a film called “I Am A Sex Addict.” It will chronicle his compulsive visits to prostitutes and the resulting havoc on his relationships during his post-collegiate years in Paris and Los Angeles. Zahedi says he spent six years trying to raise money for the film and was willing to give way to a name actor if that would have attracted the $2-million budget he wanted.
He struck out and has settled instead for shooting it on video. The $100,000 budget comes from a Bay Area businessman whom Watkins, Zahedi’s film school buddy and still his frequent creative sidekick, befriended while studying for his doctorate in religious studies at Stanford. The same backer, Richard Clark, paid for “A Sign From God,” a 2000 release that Watkins directed. It featured Zahedi – as himself, of course – reenacting various career and relationship traumas he suffered during the early 1990’s.
Watkins finds little difference between the on-camera Zahedi and the everyday man. “His art is really about putting himself on screen.” Watkins thinks that “I Am A Sex Addict,” which they hope to finish by year’s end, gives Zahedi his best shot so far at taking their shared vision of reality filmmaking “over the hump” to a bigger audience, noting, “It has more promise for the simple fact it’s about sex.”
Zahedi admits that his lack of commercial success, even by modest indie standards, has caused him deep anguish – as do such continuing everyday realities as a stomach problem that has gone untreated because he has no health insurance. At one point, Zahedi tried to reflect his lot in a pseudo-documentary called “A Portrait of Caveh Zahedi as a Complete Failure.” In it, he played a documentarian interviewing people about Caveh Zahedi, a failed filmmaker who has given up and dropped out of sight. He shelved it when the cash came through to make “Sex Addict.”
“I don’t think he’s really thinking about quitting,” says Linklater, who gave a mock interview for “Complete Failure” during 1999, while Zahedi was in Texas to shoot his scene in “Waking Life.” I think he his compelled to create, which is the good news,” Linklater added. “It would be nice if it were made a little easier for him. His body of work at the end of the day will be like a lengthy Walt Whitman poem. It will be a ‘Song of Myself.” It will be one of the greatest poems ever written, because it applies to everybody.”