PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A SEX ADDICT: an interview with Caveh Zahedi
Caveh Zahedi isn’t a household name, either here or in his own country—but, for independent filmmakers, he’s a name worth remembering: not for the usual superlatives about integrity and persistence that tend to get thrown around in the independent world—although they do mostly apply here—but because, with his latest film, Zahedi has done a remarkable thing: set out, and succeeded, to make a film that would acquire theatrical distribution.
This may not sound so remarkable until one takes into account a few pertinent facts. Since his debut feature, A Little Stiff (co-directed with Greg Watkins in 1991), Zahedi has been making and starring in painfully honest autobiographical films which have utilised re-enactment, cinema verite and video diary formats to explore his personal life. Since each film has challenged in turn, conventional notions of narrative, duration, entertainment, performance, documentary, honesty and even ethics—it’s not surprising that none of them have reached an audience beyond film festivals and the occasional sale off his website. The other pertinent fact is that Zahedi’s latest, breakthrough film, which synthesises many of the concerns of his previous work, has an added cross to bear: the film details his long battle with a sex addiction to prostitutes. That the naturally titled I Am a Sex Addict (2005) also manages to be his most accessible, funny and (believe it or not) heartwarming film to date—and his first to be screened in Ireland, playing at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh—is a significant achievement. Of course, Zahedi didn’t manage it without some compromises along the way—his short-lived blog documenting the distribution process gives frank exposition of many of them—but he seems to have reached the conclusion (for now, at least) that making films is not just about what he wants. In one vivid metaphor, he described it as comparable to the give and take of a sexual experience—bad lovers are the ones who think only of satisfying themselves.
Given this proclivity to pull things off against the odds, perhaps we should give Zahedi the benefit of the doubt if his latest project sounds a touch Quixotic in the scale of its ambition: an 18-hour adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which the American Academy in Rome has granted him a year-long residency to write. In Ireland to introduce Sex Addict in Galway, Zahedi also spent several days in Dublin meeting with Joyce scholars and researching the project.
On the last day of his Irish trip, Zahedi talked to Film Ireland about how he’s changed as a filmmaker and his thoughts on Ulysses, film critics and the Irish film industry.
You’ve said that with your latest film, I Am a Sex Addict, you made a conscious effort to make a film that would get distribution. What led you to that decision, and why on this film rather than the earlier ones?
It just takes a certain amount of frustration to propel you into a different direction. I don’t think of it as selling out in anyway. There just comes a moment when you’re sick and tired of people not seeing your work or taking your work seriously and being marginalised because of it. You just want to be part of the cultural discourse. And by the time Sex Addict happened I was really wanting that.
Do you regret the way you chose to make the earlier films?
If I did it all over again I would do it differently, but I was a different person then. I believed in certain things very strongly and I didn’t see the point in compromising. Posterity was more important to me than the present. Now I feel differently: I know more, I know how things work, and now I really want to make films that people see. I also want to spend my time making films rather than having to do odd jobs to support myself.
I gather that it’s important to you to try to have some kind of transformative impact on your audience—so naturally, you want as many people to see them as possible.
Yeah. I mean it’s tricky because if you’re just playing the numbers game the amount of transformation you can do is lessened. There’s definitely a conflict in some sense between radical transformation and mass transformation. So you have to pitch the level of transformation you aim for based on all kinds of factors. I used to feel that I’d rather really affect one person than mildly affect a lot of people. Or that it was enough to affect one person in a radical way. And there are people who tell me that one of my films is their favourite film of all time or that one of my films has changed their life and to me that’s enough, it justifies your existence—and yet you would like to do that as much as possible. When I think of a filmmaker like Spielberg, he can affect change but how profound is that change? Then there are filmmakers like Tarkovsky, who affects a much more radical change, I think, in the people who are moved by his work—but then again much fewer people are moved by his work. So you want to find the right balance between those two things.
I read an interview with Paul Schrader where he criticised Godard for alienating his audiences in recent years.
It really depends on who you are. I think you want to speak at the level of your own intelligence. You don’t want to dumb down who you are because there’s no pleasure in that. I think someone like Spielberg is really speaking at his own level: that’s how he thinks, that’s how he experiences reality, and he’s expressing himself in a fairly honest way. And some people find that illuminating. I mean, I think a film like ET (1982) is a very good film, and I think it’s saying something progressive about the government and about authority and about innocence and otherness… it’s a really positive film in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of things about it that are not progressive, but it’s essentially a progressive film. And I think he’s really at the height of his own powers there. But you have to speak at your own level and I think Godard speaks at a very high level and in a sense, a very abstract level. So it would be absurd for him to try to make a movie like the movie we saw last night, Seraphim Falls (2006), which was a well-made but very intellectually plodding film. Godard does what he can do and what interests him and there are people who resonate with that on an intellectual or spiritual level and those people love the movies. Some people don’t resonate with that level and maybe they love the Spielberg films or some other thing.
Do you feel a limit to how much you can accommodate your vision to these concerns?
Yeah. And it’s quite possible that I’ll never be able to make films that are massively appealing, that there’s something in me that always demands the more difficult choice aesthetically and that will preclude any kind of mainstream success. But I do see films that I find very intelligent and very aesthetically interesting that manage to reach a lot of people, films like Spike Jonze’s work or Michel Gondry’s work. To me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a beautiful, wonderful and profound movie. And I believe it’s possible to do films that are complex and challenging within the confines of the system and to come up with something really valuable. I don’t know if my aesthetics are too out there for that to ever happen for me, but I’m certainly trying to make it happen as much as possible, without just becoming someone that I’m not.
THE FULL-BODY FILMMAKING WORK-OUT
There also seems to be a strong motive behind your work which has to do with self-transformation. In particular, your middle two films, Las Vegas and Bathtub, seemed to be projects undertaken in quite an immediate fashion in order to learn and grow in your own life. How does that kind of project differ from a film like Sex Addict, which dragged out over so many years?
Well, you know, all the films have been very growthful. And it’s like they exercise different muscles: one is like exercising your legs and one’s excercising your arms. Sex Addict was definitely a different set of muscles and I’m really glad I exercised them, I think they were necessary muscles to exercise. In the films I’m making now, I’m trying to exercise still different muscles. Hopefully one day I’ll be fully muscular. But you know, it has to be exciting to you. I also really don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t want to keep making films in the same style.
So do these shifts in your work come about in reaction to something?
I think all of my films are rebelling against something; against certain ideas of cinema, certain ideas about what is ethical, what is truth, and about what honesty is and should be.
What ideas of cinema?
A Little Stiff I think was very much against the Aristotelian notion that we were taught in film school: the higher the stakes, the better. This culminates in a movie like Crimson Tide (1995) where there’s a threat of a nuclear war and we must stop the threat of nuclear war and save the world. Now that’s effective, if it’s well done…but we can’t always make movies about nuclear destruction.
The laziest example is putting a gun in a scene—it immediately puts a lot at stake, but it’s such an easy shortcut.
Yeah, but it’s the logical extension of what Aristotle says in The Poetics. A Little Stiff is really an attempt to fight against that, to say, “you can take the most ordinary and everyday experience with nothing big at stake and make it interesting.”
What about the other films?
I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994) was rebelling against the very idea of human authorship and intentionality, which is really at the heart of Hollywood filmmaking, and which is epitomized by the work of someone like Alfred Hitchcock. I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore was at the opposite end of the spectrum, and was almost John Cage-like in its insistence that randomness holds out possibilities beyond that of intentionality and the ego. It was an attempt to allow the infinite otherness of Reality back into the frame, so to speak, and to circumvent the inevitable reductiveness of conscious thought. Put another way, it was an attempt to allow God back into the picture, which is why the tag line for that film was "a film directed by God."
In The Bathtub of the World (2001) combined the randomness of Vegas with the anti-Aristotelian experimentation of Stiff. I felt in that film that I had gone as far as I could in a certain direction - a completely minimalist, no-budget naturalism based entirely on the idea of radical honesty and acceptance. It was inspired by a line in Tarkovsky's Sculpting In Time in which he asks one to imagine an entire life that has been captured on film, and poses the question of what bits you would keep in and what bits you would leave out if you had to try to convey the essence of that person's life in two hours.
Coming from that, Sex Addict seems to have been a big turning point in your work.
Sex Addict is definitely the least everyday-ish of the films—and it was in many ways a reaction against the naturalism of In The Bathtub of the World—but it’s also the only one that’s told in the past tense. The others are all in the present tense. If you’re always trying to do it in the present tense, it really limits what you can do—that’s one of the problems with cinema verite for me: the present is interesting, but there are other things in the world besides the present. Most films, they represent the past tense in the present tense. You “cut to” the past. And to me that’s dishonest: I’d rather make it clear that we’re in the past tense and we’re re-enacting the past tense in a pseudo-present tense. I think once you’re talking about the past and trying to represent it in the past tense, you’re forced into some kind of stylisation. Budgetary constraints forced me into a certain amount of stylization as well, which I welcomed.
I AM A JOYCE ADDICT
Do you see a continuity between your Ulysses project and your previous films? It seems like quite a jump.
I do. Actually, in a lot of ways Ulysses comes out of Sex Addict in a fairly organic way—although that’s not very obvious… I feel very—it sounds pretentious—but I feel very close to Joyce, and to what he was trying to do—which for me, is really a valorisation of the everyday. And the more you study Joyce the more you realise how profoundly autobiographical his own work was. Also, the whole attempt to stretch the boundaries of the form; his relationship to language and to a view of language as not just something that you say but something that always has an ironic level to it—that says and un-says at the same time—is something I feel very close to.
I know you’ve seen the two previous film adaptations of Ulysses. Where do you think they went wrong?
To me the most interesting thing about Ulysses is not the plot; it’s the style. But with rare exceptions, neither film attempted even to address the stylistic innovations that Joyce is famous for. So they basically reduced a radical 20th century novel into a 19th century novel format. I mean it’s insane really, because it’s everything Joyce was against; they reduced him to everything he was rebelling against.
In the cinema at large, do you see any equivalent to Joyce’s literary style?
I think there are certainly elements of Joycean style in cinema today. Take something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example. In a way that film manages very elegantly to capture the process of thought: the character’s whole world keeps shifting on him and everything is sort of melting into other things… And I think that certain films—and the ones that come to mind are films like Amelie, Eternal Sunshine, in some ways Run Lola Run—they’re these kind of films being made that I would call baroque in style. They’re very fast, complex, energetic and playing with film language in a fairly Joycean way. But you know, he went so far. I don’t think any filmmaker has really gone as far as he has in the exploration of language.
GIVING CRITICS THE THUMB-DOWN
You’ve gotten some flak on your blog for taking on critics you disagreed with, in particular some who reviewed Sex Addict. But it seems like you do place a lot of value in criticism at the same time.
I think film is a form of communication and so is criticism and, in that sense, talking about films and making films isn’t that different. I mean, Godard’s films are a pretty good example of this. A film has certain ideas in it that it’s conveying, and it’s true that it’s conveying them in a cinematic way and that they’re irreducible to verbal language—or else they’d be conveyed in a non-cinematic way—but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about them in a way that is illuminating and elucidating. So if somebody says something completely inane about a film, it seems to me that it’s worth saying, “No, that’s not what that means, that’s not why that’s interesting, that’s not an interesting way of thinking about that film.” To me, discourse, dialogue, argument, whatever you want to call it… it’s a valuable and valid thing.
I think a good critic is someone who helps a viewer to experience a work in a richer way, by bringing out things about the work that you might not have thought that are stimulating and pleasurable. But really, a lot of criticism does the opposite: it diminishes the work instead of enriching it. There are so many unintelligent critics who just complain about everything instead of really talking about it…. I mean there’s a lot of movies I don’t like, but if I talked about them I’d want to do so in a way that at least the discussion was interesting.
For example, I saw Hostel 2 (2007) the other day—well, I actually walked out halfway through… Now, I don’t like that film, I don’t like the guy who made that film—I don’t like anything about that film really. But I think it’s an interesting film in terms of what it’s saying and what it’s doing and I think it’s interesting to talk about it. The way it portrays Eastern Europeans is very interesting, for example: how Eastern Europeans have become the new Other, and how movies can get away with that kind of crap, and what it shows about America and the paranoia of America and the changing geography of the earth and backpacking and pornography and all the fears that people have…. So if you’re gonna talk about it you can say “Oh the film sucks”, which it does—or you can talk about what’s interesting about it.
Did any critics engage with your reactions to their work?
Not really. Most critics just don’t want to get into it. There was one critic who responded on my blog and tried to correct certain perceptions I had about what he was saying. I found that both helpful and admirable, that he took the time to clarify his point of view and continue the discussion. But generally most critics don’t want to debate.
How has the feedback you’ve received from audiences contrasted with the critical response?
Well, the audience almost never says anything negative. People are polite. The worst thing anyone ever said to me was “I thought A Little Stiff was better.” People don’t usually come up to you and tell you how much they hated your movie. Someone said they hated me—but they loved the movie. So it kind of had a softening pedal on that note. But it’s mostly people who just love the movie and tell you that they loved it. You don’t really hear the negative stuff. And I’m sure even a lot of people that tell you how much they liked it, they probably have reservations and they don’t voice those. Which is actually why critics are so important: a lot of filmmakers would never know that anyone didn’t love their movie if critics weren’t around to say that.
THE IRISH QUESTION
What do you think of the Irish films you’ve seen?
I don’t feel qualified to make any pronouncements about Irish cinema… But my impression is that Ireland has a real uniqueness, it has its own cultural identity and specificity—its own accent, its own customs and history, and it’s really identifiable. I think the good Irish films that I’ve seen were all films that sort of took advantage of that and used that to their advantage… I really liked Garage, for example—especially the ending, I thought the ending was very beautiful, very restrained and consequently very sublime. It’s definitely my favourite film that I saw at the Fleadh. And I think that’s what Irish films should do… You should feel like “that’s so Irish.” You should feel like you’ve seen an Irish film.
There’s a danger there that you fall into clichés of Irishness though; you end up pandering to some stereotype of what it means to be Irish. And then, on the other hand, you can try too hard to avoid that, and start pretending Dublin is New York.
Yeah, those are the two twin dangers that you have to navigate between. But it seems that’s what’s needed. A film like Michael Collins…it’s all about Irish history. But does it feel Irish? Not really. Whereas The Wind That Shakes the Barley feels more Irish to me. And that was made by an Englishman.
What’s your impressions of the film industry here?
The industry here seems really good in the sense that there seems like there’s a lot of money for Irish projects, and it’s a pretty small community, so people know each other… Honestly, it seems like it would be nice to be an Irish filmmaker today. I think it would be a pretty good gig.
There’s very little of a historical cinematic tradition here. Obviously there’s a vast tradition in the States—but do you feel connected to that at all as a filmmaker?
I don’t. Being an American filmmaker isn’t the same as, say, being a French filmmaker because the tradition is so broad that it’s not really a tradition. I mean I’m not competing with Scorsese, you know. Cassavetes of course is the great one to “beat”, in a sense.. which is, again, why it’s important not to make films like him. But I think it’s good to not have too much cinematic tradition. Being a French filmmaker is a heavier burden I think.
Ireland is in an enviable position in that sense. It’s all there to be invented.
An abridged version of this text was published in Film Ireland 119.
For more information on Caveh Zahedi, visit www.cavehzahedi.com.