CATEGORIES Comedy, Documentary, Independent, Tribeca, Festival Reports, Cinematical Indie, Tribeca Film Festival, CinematicalOverheard in the ladies room after yesterday's press screening of Caveh Zahedi's I Am A Sex Addict:
Woman #1: I can't imagine any woman putting up with the hooker thing.
Woman #2: Yeah, but do you really think those were his real girlfriends?
Woman #1: Oh, well, yeah - I have no idea how that guy got those girls to date him.
When Super Size Me came out last year, and made a bunch of money and won a bunch of awards, I remember thinking, "Huh. So in order for the first-person documentary to hit the mainstream, it had to go political." Caveh Zahedi has been making his all-about-me pictures for years with very little success, and whilst a lot of people seem to attribute this failure to Zahedi's personal irksomeness (I don't think anyone has any idea how he got those girls to date him), I think it has more to do with the overall solipsism he traffics in. He's not just irksome - he draws you into his irksomeness, and then he won't let you out. Some people suffocate under his neuroses; some of us can't get enough of Caveh's World. And that's the thing: there is no "real world" outside of "Caveh's World" - even when, as in I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, the whole point of the film is to connect to something larger than himself, Caveh gets impatient waiting for the universe to reveal itself and just takes Ecstasy instead.
Which is why it's rather fascinating, then, that Zahedi's latest film is about the various ways that his real-life inability to live outside of his own fantasy world has totally ruined his life.
I Am A Sex Addict opens on Caveh at age 43, dressed in a tuxedo, and talking to the camera mere minutes from his third wedding (the press notes call this "documentary footage" but, uh, I don't know ... it seems unlikely that even Caveh Zahedi would ask the wedding party to wait whilst he recorded b-roll for his new movie). Caveh explains that he's a little nervous about this wedding, because he's screwed up every other relationship he's ever been in with his obsessive thirst for prostitutes.
We quickly flash back 20 years, to meet Caveh's first love and the French siren that seperated them. This initial story is interrupted several times so that Zahedi can reveal the various accidents that comprise his filmmaking process: he couldn't actually afford to shoot in Paris, so he substitutes that city with the back alleys of San Francisco; he can't find anyone to play a certain prostitute, so he goes online looking for real-life hookers who might want an acting job; this search reveals that the actress already cast as his first wife (Rebecca Lord) is, in fact, a real-life porn star. Meanwhile, the story he's trying to tell is itself largely predicated on his failure as a filmmaker - he can't find anyone in the States to fund his Arthur Rimbaud biopic, so he allows one of the two women he's in love with to lead him to France; at a crucial formative point in his sex addiction, he's forced to refuse a blow job because he's just been hired as a film critic and has to make it to his first screening.
All of this should be annoying, but it's actually charming. At some early point, work and life threatened to impinge on Caveh's budding fantasy life; rather than capitulate to real-world responsibilities, he chose to go the other way, committing himself to full-time sexual obsession. Throughout the film, Caveh rationalises absurd behavior on the grounds that each escalating transgression might help him "get it out of my system." The fact that he's not just saying that - that he really believes that total self-indulgence will lead him down the path to some sort of enlightenment - makes it hard not to sympathize with him in advance of his inevitable (and repeated) comeuppance. By the time he declares that the only way to deal with his third serious girlfriend's intolerance of his compulsive sluttery is to "get a better girlfriend", you almost believe him. His self-concious presentation of everything he's ever done wrong somehow just leads one to shrug and say, "Caveh knows best."
The fact that none of the sex in the film is sexy goes a long way towards making his psychological condition of sex addiction seem very real. He admits that everytime he gets a blow job from a prostitute, it makes him feel "empty inside"; the fact that he keeps going back makes him a comic fool. At the zenith of his affliction, he purchases oral sex in a subway entrance from a gal who could very well be a guy. As Caveh's gaze bounces back and forth between his/her bobbing head and the guy on the sidewalk who seems to be watching, we can see that there's nothing but anxiety and even terror available for him in this experience.
Such depths of degradation make it a little hard to believe that Caveh can solve his problem by going to Sex Addicts Anonymous, and the "redemption" portion of the film is thus dissatisfyingly rushed. As Caveh leads us through his current relationship with the woman he's about to marry (there's a second marriage brushed over in less than 30 seconds), he seems uncharacteristically unwilling to tackle the meat of what makes that relationship work sans hookers. How can a man whose entire life has thus far been defined by spectacular failure suddenly about-face for a happily-ever-after? Not so fast: the film closes on what is probably real footage of the wedding, and after kissing the bride, Caveh walks past the camera with a familiar look of terror in his eyes. Oh, right - Caveh knows best - we just have to wait for the next film.