Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Caveh Zahedi

Nosedive had its first reading for The Adventures of Nervous Boy last night at Pete’s apartment, which psyched a bunch of us up for this production. We’ve got a really great cast for this and I’m looking forward to seeing what Pete does with it. It’s now time to roll with this. I’ll be sending out the obligatory email blasts, postcards and blog plugs soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to talk about a filmmaker I really admire, and about a recent film of his I really liked.

(Since I neither have access to the DVDs, shooting scripts or press junkets to the films mentioned below, any and all quotes from and descriptions of the movies are based on my metzo-metzo memory. So I ask that some slack be cut if I get lines of dialogue wrong.)

A couple weekends ago, I went to go see the film I Am A Sex Addict, an autobiographical comedy by Caveh Zahedi about his real-life obsession with getting sex from prostitutes and how this obsession/addiction (go figure) destroyed his relationships and two marriages.

In I Am A Sex Addict, Mr. Zahedi plays himself and has actresses recreate conversations/fights he had with his ex-wife and previous girlfriends, breaks the fourth wall from time to time to address the audience directly and explain to us the context of the scene, uses old home movies to show images of his real ex-wife and ex-girlfriends and uses documentary footage to show some of the ins-and-outs of what happened behind the scenes with the actresses playing their roles.

For example, after casting an actress to play his first wife, Mr. Zahedi stops the narrative to show doc footage of him discovering that the actress he selected is in real life a porn star. In another scene where he’s chronicling his fights with a former girlfriend with a drinking problem, he stops the action to point out that the actress playing his alcoholic ex-girlfriend was in real life an alcoholic and shows footage of the actress stumbling around the set holding a bottle of Courvoisier slurring something about booze being “the source and solution to all of life’s problems.”

It is clear throughout the film that Mr. Zahedi is a brutally intelligent and learned man (bordering on the insufferably pretentious). However, he’s frank enough to point out in his movie how his intelligence is his Achilles Heel in some regards: he uses his intellect, philosophical know-how and bizarre compulsion for total honesty to create justifications for his trysts with prostitutes (at one point in the film, he opines: “I can't keep repressing my lust. It’s not healthy;” at other points, he feels compelled to tell his wife and later girlfriends every single sexual thought he has towards every and any female passerby on the street so as to not act on his impulses).

Despite its painful and depressing subject (addiction never being a walk in the park), the film still manages to live up to its category of “comedy” without cheapening the seriousness of the subject. The switching of gears and changing of styles, rather than being distracting, allows the film to be more frank and open than a conventional documentary or biopic.

Now, some of you may be going at this point, “Ugh. Two hours of self-indulgent navel-gazing from a 40-something self-loathing narcissist. Yeah, count me out, James.” And to be honest, I can’t really argue against that. I also don’t know if I could argue against the claim that a film like I Am A Sex Addict isn’t so much an example of honest filmmaking as it is shameless exhibitionism. But hey, self-loathing narcissists (pardon the redundancy) are sometimes the most fascinating artists. Anyone who’s been a fan of such disparate talents as Peter Sellers, Woody Allen or Vincent Gallo knows what I’m talking about. (Mr. Zahedi argues in his blog: “the film is a critique of narcissism, rather than an instance of it.” A good argument, although evasive in some parts, since the accusations of him and his film being narcissistic aren’t stemmed simply from the first-person narrative but from him being genuinely fascinated by his own behavior.)

I was first introduced to Mr. Zahedi’s work when taking Professor Ray Carney’s American Independent Film Class in college. Prof. Carney showed a film by Mr. Zahedi and Greg Watkins called A Little Stiff, perhaps one of the most honest, ambiguous and personal “boy-meets-girl” movies I had (and have) ever seen.

The story behind A Little Stiff is simple: a young film student (Caveh) meets an art student (Erin McKim) in an elevator and develops a God-awful, seventh grade schoolboy crush on her. The bulk of the movie is Caveh calling Erin (and leaving numerous voice messages), him waiting for her to call him back, stopping by her studio, being blown off, being invited to go to a party with her…along with another guy friend of hers, trying to impress her, deciding to give up on her, spending a day at the beach with her, and having no idea if she has any interest in him romantically or not.

A Little Stiff is unclear if this is a story about unrequited love or the lifespan of a schoolboy crush. The movie is also unclear (towards the end) whether Caveh and Erin are or aren’t dating. Mr. Zahedi and Mr. Watkins are spot-on in their depiction of uncertainty in a relationship. (How many times have you asked someone — or been asked — “What’s going on between you and so-and-so? Are you two dating or what?” And how many times has that answer been: “I have no idea?”)

According to Mr. Zahedi’s Web site, A Little Stiff was based on actual events, which isn’t surprising (he’s playing himself, and Erin McKim is playing herself, so I mean…duh). This is one of those “Yeah, I’ve been there before” types of films. A Little Stiff is painfully honest and just downright funny (I particularly like the scene where he has a bad trip on mushrooms and calls Erin to ask her to come over and talk him down. She refuses, since she has to study. He decides later that he’s done speaking to her: “I mean, if she was having a bad trip I’d go over and talk her down!”). Also, Mr. Zahedi is fearless in portraying himself as both a dork and (let’s face it) a jerk.

Mr. Zahedi is a fascinating filmmaker and on-screen persona: both insufferably arrogant and self-effacingly disarming, like a cross between a pompous professor and a child wanting to be loved. He’s the self-absorbed asshole you just can’t stay mad at. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane pointed out that if you lightened his complexion and gave him a fright wig, he’d be a dead ringer for Harpo Marx. Scott Tobias from The Onion said it best in his review of I Am A Sex Addict: “…his self-effacement makes the film a reflection on narcissism and misogyny rather than an exercise in both.”

Addicted to navel-gazing,

James “Self-Loather” Comtois


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