So you really feel like you've paid your dues. Your familiarity with the concept of rejection is intimate, perverse and frankly epic. You've perfected the art of living off credit cards. True, you're only 34, but then, you have been making films for over 20 years now. You've flown up from LA and you're both excited and kind of terrified because your second feature, I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, has been selected for the 1994 SF International Film Festival — the U.S. premiere — and it's one of the year's hottest tickets. But you and your producer, Henry Rosenthal, are non-plussed. Where are all the eager distributors? Where's the bidding war? Critical mass is not occurring. You want more people to see your film; you need money to square old debts and finance other films you've been keeping on the back burner. And then there's that sticky situation with the NEA, whose money you used to finance the wrong film.
Meet Caveh Zahedi, independent filmmaker and bemused, metaphysical quester. It's a drizzly, befogged Wednesday night in San Francisco, and we're midway through the two-week long Film Fest marathon. This year's festival has been notable for the many independent and local films included, with much fanfare, in the line-up. But you might not know it by judging the size of the crowd that's turned up for "An Evening with Caveh Zahedi" at SoMa's Film Arts Foundation. It's an "intimate" gathering, about a dozen people, which certainly won't raise the $27,000 needed to appease the folks at the NEA. When we arrive later at the Festival's Intermezzo f?te at the Capp Street Project, the crush of bodies is intense, the glam-factor positively stratospheric. Clearly, free-flowing Piper-Heidsieck champagne, Pilsner Urquell and SKYY Vodka is an unrivaled draw.
But those dozen or so people who came to FAF got a rare chance to see Zahedi do in person what he does best — talk about himself. For some three hours, Zahedi improvised, deadpanned, traced the pinball-like story of his life and film career, dispensed itty-bitty rivulets of wisdom and meaning, vented, recounted strange obsessions and generally bared his stunningly neurotic soul. And that's a pretty good description of his films as well. Zahedi likes to place himself at the center of his films. Some might call this narcissistic, megalomaniacal, self-obsessed. Zahedi would counter, ˆ la the Blues Brothers, that he's simply on a mission from God.
Vegas is a case in point. As he confesses in direct-address to the camera near the beginning, gawkily scratching his head, "This film is an experiment in faith É I'm trying to prove that God exists." What follows is a three-day road trip to Las Vegas on Christmas with his father George and his hostile, 16-year-old half-brother Amin, filmed and recorded by a trio of Zahedi's closest friends. Like Las Vegas itself, the film is one huge roll of the dice, made with no script and no set goal or agenda other than a faith that divine intervention will bring it off successfully. Along the way, Zahedi attempts to work out certain "issues" with his estranged family members, dragging the crew and their emotional problems into the frame as well. Midway through the film, Zahedi tries desperately to persuade George and Amin to drop Ecstasy in order to accelerate the stalled bonding process.
The result is an amalgam of Shirley Clarke's self-deconstructing documentary The Connection and the geeky, babbling confessionalism of Woody Allen, although, unlike Allen, Zahedi never hides behind a fictive veil. At the same time, Vegas has a fresh, unique feel and vision all its own. It's deceptively understated and low-key, avoiding grand revelations in favor of what Zahedi calls "little, accidental epiphanies" and spontaneous "extra-narrative moments."
Call it film as therapy, film as process, film as being. At the Intermezzo, Zahedi told me, "I think of what I'm doing as performance art. I'm very influenced by Sam Hsieh." Hsieh made his name in NY during the 80's for his bizarre, year-long performance art. In his first piece, he locked himself in a cage for a year without reading, writing or talking to anybody. For his next piece, he punched into a time clock every hour on the hour for a year; every time he punched in, a camera above the time clock would shoot one frame, so that every day accrued 24 frames. He could never sleep or go away for more than an hour. "What I like about Hsieh is the idea of life and art having no boundaries," said Zahedi. "That whatever you do is an artistic act. In my films, I try to integrate my life into film, and make my life a work of art."
Such comments are vintage Zahedi. He's a veritable encyclopedia of disparate influences, each one a temporary obsession or fixation at a certain moment in his life, be it Godard, Rimbaud, or Goethe. While an undergraduate at Yale, he absorbed everything from Hegel to Eisenstein to LSD. His late teens and twenties were a continual quest for mentors, from Stan Brakhage, with whom he corresponded for a long period, to a number of New Wave French directors, who all gave him the brush off. Part of the problem may have been his m.o. — when he suddenly decided at 2 am that he wanted to work with Godard, he called the legendary director right then and there, waking him from deep slumber. Things never panned out on that front. Robert Altman was also a no go.
"I would go to his office, like, every week to talk to him, and he was never there, and they would never let me talk to him. Actually, I had written him a letter when I was younger, something very pretentious, like, "I'm going to be the most important American filmmaker, blah, blah, blah.' And he wrote back and said, "Well, if you're so fucking brilliant, then you don't need any help from me.'"
When he wasn't being dissed or simply ignored by famous directors, Zahedi labored over the years on a number of shorts, most of them admittedly pretentious and painfully arty. He did a stint as a film critic while in Paris, but got sacked when he somehow came to the conclusion that Ghostbusters was the greatest film of all time. "I had my own theories about film, and they were unconventional. I mean, I was very biased. I was a terrible critic. I was very, very, what's the word — vituperative."
Eventually, Zahedi abandoned the mentor hunt, returned to the States, and enrolled in the UCLA film program. He completed his first low-budget feature, A Little Stiff, in 1991. Like Vegas it is "radically subjective," centering around a failed relationship Zahedi had just gone through. Although it's a re-enactment, he used the actual woman he had been seeing, as well as the "other man," whom Zahedi had to bribe with four hits of Ecstasy to do the project. A Little Stiff did well on the festival circuit, but due to bad luck and assorted snafus, suffered a withering theatrical run.
But with Vegas, Zahedi seems finally to have arrived. His connection to SoMa-based producer Henry Rosenthal, whose roster includes names like Jon Jost, Jon Moritsugu and Gregg Araki, is a major plus. For now, they've both got their fingers crossed, waiting for the best distribution deal — slowly but surely, the offers are starting to come in. Odds are, it'll be playing at your local theatre soon.
Zen and the Art of Movie Maintenance:
Indie Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi Submits an Act of Faith.
By J. Scott Burgeson
The Daily Californian, May 6, 1994