Forseeing a generation of digitally enabled filmmakers who turn journal entries (or chemical experiments) into movies, Caveh Zahedi, in the years since 1991, has attempted a radical, spiritual, schematized openness, blending self-exposure with a reflexivity that is itself almost confessional.
Zahedi, who recently moved to Carroll Gardens and now teaches at the New School, is the subject of a complete, weeklong retrospective at the reRun starting Friday, when he’ll appear for a Q&A along with a shorts program (including an in-progress work made on commission in the UAE). A bit of another of Caveh Zahedi’s post-screening Q&A can be glimpsed in 2001’s In the Bathtub of the World, as he asks an unseen questioner to clarify: “Are you saying narcissistic and vain in the pejorative sense?” The moment seems to me to define the fascination of Zahedi’s films, and the problems inseparable from them.
In his late 20s, the former philosophy student Zahedi enrolled at UCLA film school, where he made his first feature, 1991’s A Little Stiff, closely inspired by his unrequited crush on an art student. He plays himself, spindly, spastic, sensitive and delicately jolie-laide ; friend and codirector Greg Watkins plays “Greg”; Erin McKim plays “Erin,” the painter (who in the film’s funniest segment talks about wanting to get high on toad glands, while her cat plays with catnip. “Like a performance art piece?” “Yeah, but I’d be alone”).
Single-setup, black and white scenes separated by fadeouts, feature proto-mumblecore social misreadings—Caveh, feeling threatened by a rival’s quotation of Morrissey’s new single “Suedehead,” puts on a student film about death—in priceless baggy Gen X outfits. Caveh stalks Erin, pre-Facebook: he shows up at her studio unannounced, leaves multiple unanswered voicemails, and takes her druggy moments of petulance and intimacy far more seriously than, clearly, he should. He’s offended and stressed when she politely blows him off when he calls her during a bad trip (as in most of his films, Zahedi films himself under the influence of hallucinogens, which is both fascinating for the untrackable interiority behind his spazzing and a bit overshary). For this film self-conscious, self-analytic film, as for his next one, Zahedi uses a title font similar to Woody Allen’s.
1994’s I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, though, is more like group therapy. As Zahedi explains, in an expository monologue recorded before and after the main action of the film—his explanations become an increasingly significant component of his cinema—the film was developed after a previous film, about a trip to Las Vegas with his Iranian-born father and half-brother, petered out. Here, in a trip filmed from December 24-26, 1992, Zahedi goes back to Vegas with his father, “George” (who still insists on calling Caveh by his nom de assimilation, “Bobby”) and his surly 16-year-old half-brother, Amin (who has to be bribed to come along). In Vegas, Caveh hopes, he and his heart-troubled father and his “drug-free” half-brother (resolutely normal in his hoodie and baseball cap) will take ecstasy together. It’ll bring them closer together, he explains, New Age-ily.
The film, Zahedi explains to us, is a test of his belief in God, which he understands as a force of cohesiveness operating invisibly in his life. And throughout, he struggles to release the expectations he has for his very different family, to and let love in—both as he tries to goad his dad and brother into taking X for Xmas, and in his own drug-fueled intimacy with them—and, in a similar vein, to resist the urge to shape his material: his crew, Greg Watkins and two other friends, councils against filming reenactments of moments they didn’t capture as they happened.
Zahedi’s experiment is validated by serendipitous technical errors—an accidental double-exposure creates Brakhage-esque visual textures just as perspective shifts to his father—and unscriptable laughs—“at this time, I understand you so well it’s unbelievable”—even as the filmmaker allows himself to appear needy and manipulative in his conversations with his family. He also allows his crew to voice their own reservations and revelations. Las Vegas is a troubling, hopeful portrait of the love completely incompatible people feel for each other, and a beautifully imperfect technical construction.
Much of which imperfection is due to the shoestring production on celluloid. I emailed with Zahedi this week and asked him about his subsequent transition to filming digitally. He told me:
I prefer to shoot digitally for a bunch of reasons—cost, ease, the ability to see right away what one has shot and whether it is working or not and to make adjustments. The downside is one tends to shoot too much, and can easily get overwhelmed and never finish things because it’s so unbelievably boring to wade through all that footage.
His reservations are useful ones, but the benefits he delineates are evident in 2001’s In the Bathtub of the World, his favorite of his films, which, like many other films, can only exist because of digital ease. The film takes its title from a John Ashbery poem, the film’s epigraph: “I only slipped on the cake of soap of the air/And drowned in the bathtub of the world.” Ashbery also appears in the film, when Zahedi films a West Coast appearance: in zoomed-in close-up, the wise, sweet sensualist concludes a poem, musing, “Why do I tell you these things? You’re not even here.” (It’s from “This Room,” from his then-latest collection.) Ashbery’s question lingers over the rest of the movie.
Bathtub is assembled from Zahedi’s daily video diary, begun on January 1st, 1999, and endeavoring to capture a few minutes of the ebb and flow of each day, like a neurotic On Kawara. We see Zahedi dance to Frank Black and Pavement (he’s friends with Jonathan Richman, and if possible, an even worse dancer), do yoga, connect with old friends into town; visit his father before bypass surgery; fight and make up with his live-in girlfriend Mandy (the poet Amanda Field); go to Austin to film his “holy moment” monologue in friend Rick Linlater’s Waking Life; take mushrooms on his birthday; tell us about his attractions to streetcorner hookers and desire to salve pain with carbs; and take ecstasy with Mandy on New Year’s Eve, as the tape recorder’s clock counts off into the year 2000.
The first of Zahedi’s films I saw was 2005’s I Am a Sex Addict, a self-analyzing documentary about his compulsion to get rough head from hookers, woven together from a to-camera monologue he delivered minutes before his wedding to Mandy, home videos and his earlier movies, and reenactments starring the filmmaker as his younger self and actresses as ex-wifes and old lovers, including “D,” as he calls his alcoholic ex when she appears, and is his less than reliable sound-woman, in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore.
When I saw the film a half-decade ago, I recoiled from its restaged transaction beejs (of which there are a lot, with and without Zahedi’s agonized rationalizations) in a way not entirely dissimilar to the way that Nick Pinkerton, then making his name at Reverse Shot, did. (The review raises many of the issues—discomfort, the questionable utility of artistic catharsis—that seem pertinent to any full discussion about the films.) But the missing ingredient was time. In a tangent in Vegas, Caveh admits he’s a sex addict: “that’s what my next film is about.” That was in 1992; seeing Zahedi talk about money and teach entry-level film-school classes in Bathtub, it’s easy to see why it took so long—long enough for him to meet Mandy and film her; long enough for D to die of cancer. The fullness of time, as it accumulates here, is affecting; Zahedi, like a psychedelically inclined Ross McElwee, logs the passage of time in changing film stocks, his own appearance, and the movement of people through his life and its documents. (Asked to cite his influences, Zahedi himself cites Ed Pincus—whom, he graciously pointed out to me over email earlier this week, was McElwee’s teacher.)
Built into all of this life-logging, as we recognize the reoccurring footage, is an acute awareness of the mechanism by which the recording is being made. Zahedi doesn’t just jokingly spray over his bald spot for the mid-80s reenactments in Sex Addict: he cuts back to reveal the crew recording his pre-nuptial monologue when he starts crying. There’s a compulsion, evident in his films, for honesty with us strangers in the audience. Long before he told us about his sex addiction, he wasn’t shy about revealing his flaws. If someone calls him “vain and narcissistic,” he’ll let us know about it.
But isn’t there something self-obsessed, as well, about this commitment to self-abasement? Something compulsively self-gratifying about discussing your compulsion to self-gratification? Being sure to tell us that yes, you can be vain and narcissistic is its own form of vanity and narcissism, another degree of navel-gazing, and listening to Zahedi obsess over his addictions and imperfections and selfishness can feel… well, not so different from listening to any other friend’s attempts to apologize for his addictions and imperfections and selfishness. Zahedi’s films ultimately transcend themselves, though, by the bits of life he lets in—by the moments, especially in Vegas and Bathtub, which allow for his crew to have doubts about the film, his family to have doubts about his career, his girlfriend to block the camera or read on the stoop across the street. Zahedi has an Ashbery-esque openness to the winds of the world and the progress of love.