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A note from Ray Carney about the following piece: David Chien sent me the following review of Caveh Zahedi's I am a Sex Addict. Although I haven't yet seen the film, I recommend both the film and the review.

by David Chien

Written and Directed by Caveh Zahedi; Starring Caveh Zahedi

Caveh Zahedi has been something of a cult figure for Indie Cinema in the past 15 years, yet none of his four features or his short films have ever acquired a formal theatrical release. He is probably best-known to most moviegoers as one of the “speakers” in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (his role in the vignette involved the discussion of “the moment” and had the iconic visual of the “cloud” transformation). He also has a small but memorable role in Alexander Payne’s debut film, Citizen Ruth.

All of his material is primarily available through his website ( and only one film can be bought through retail – a strange little movie called A Sign From God, which his partner/cameraman Greg Watkins directed (this film, too, never got any formal distribution). This is unfair and sad, because the truth is that Zahedi is one of the most exciting voices in cinema right now. And his new film, I Am A Sex Addict, is easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year – and it’s unlikely that it will pick up distribution. The reason for this is simple: It’s a hard sell. It contains much profanity, has no big stars, is sexually explicit and frank, and is highly experimental in style. I would even suspect that it could be rated NC-17, simply because the MPAA would be aghast at the way in which the sex is handled. Not that the sexual material is graphic or unsimulated, but it is blunt and at times very ugly – especially when it delves into talk of a rape fantasy and gagging.

But I should say right now: This is a laugh-out-loud movie.

I was fortunate enough to have attended a screening last night at the Pacific Design Center. Projected from miniDV, the film ran about 100 minutes and is a fully digital feature. It would be unfair to call it a documentary, because it really isn't. At the same time, there's so much reenactment and personal stories that it's hard to describe it any other way.

The movie itself is like all of Zahedi’s films: It’s an introspective look into his life and he is the main character, the guide, the narrator. It begins with him at the altar as he is about to get married for the third time. He talks directly to us and elaborates on the various elements that played into his decade-long addiction to prostitutes. The movie flashes back and forward and we bear witness to the failed relationships, the jealousy, the montage of hookers, the various steps he took to control his compulsions, trips to the therapist’s office, struggling with making his other films, etc. But this description is a bit of a simplification and perhaps makes the movie come off as generic. It is actually more complicated because, as with anything that Zahedi discusses, it is never just about one thing. He tries to associate God and fate and destiny and philosophy with all of these events. He even takes a break from the narrative to talk to the actresses who play all the women in his life (one actresses even explains why she refuses to engage in a fake blowjob scene, and still Caveh tries to make her do it). It is at these moments that the movie gains much of its power. There is a constant reexamination of what it should be telling you, as if Zahedi is still working with the film as it is being projected. Do we empathize with him or his girlfriend? Is it wrong to be with a prostitute? Was his sexual behavior hurting himself or the work? It is alive – it never ceases questioning itself and its intentions. If you are aware of that cloud sequence in Waking Life, you might get a sense of Zahedi’s aesthetic – he is hellbent on the active participation of the audience. It feels like a dialogue, a restless argument.

I do not think Zahedi can be accused of narcissism because it really isn’t just about him. He brings up some very troubling and upsetting issues about fidelity and the relationship between love and sex. He has no answers, and the movie does little to simplify his problems. The nitty-gritty of love and addiction and what true devotion is are all put up to the test when we learn the sordid details of his affairs and escapades in Europe. The scene when he finally goes to a 12-step for guidance is particularly powerful because it sidesteps all the clichés of what a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting is – at this point, it’s about a man who has reached his own personal hell, his rock bottom. It isn’t about connecting with people, but more about being exposed in front of them. But it’s still all very funny. Also, the final sequence, where we learn the specifics of his “wedding ceremony” is genuinely heartbreaking – especially when you see Caveh and Greg Watkins standing together, crying. It is such a rare moment to see two men – two best friends – acknowledging the pain, the struggle, and the salvation that has led them up to this moment. Painful, pathetic, and redemptive, it’s powerful stuff.

It is the honesty of the film that really got to me. On a technical, structural level, it reminded me of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions – both films really set out to deconstruct the documentary format and the limitations of digital filmmaking. But emotionally, Zahedi’s film is not as distant. I Am A Sex Addict functions more like Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, that amazing movie about French garbage-pickers. Like Varda, Zahedi is more interested in speaking to the audience and creating almost a performance art of emotion – he simply has a lot to share, and through the medium of film (or video, for that matter), he struggles with how to say it. By the end, it’s not a movie about sex, but more about how challenging it is to tell a story of a man’s sexual addiction. I think it’s clear by the end of the movie that all we, the audience, can truly know are the facts – and the rest is a moot point. He never goes into the specifics of what made him stop going to hookers, and that’s okay – because it’s more about the events leading up to the rehabilitation. It would have been presumptuous to even consider showing the true healing. That has to occur off-screen.

During the Q & A, Zahedi revealed some facts about the feature:

-         It was an on-off project for over a decade. At one point, Vincent Gallo was approached to star in it. Even Harmony Korine and Robert Downey, Jr. were asked.

-         Every single distributor has turned the movie down, despite sold-out audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Rotterdam film festival. It is without any contracts right now.

-         The main feature was shot entirely in San Francisco because of budgetary concerns (and this is hilariously dealt with in the movie as well).

-         The amusing animated sequences of the film were produced and created by Bob Sabiston, who was the animation director of Waking Life.

I Am A Sex Addict is a necessary movie. It brings more art and class to the documentary format, primarily because it does not presume to know more than the audience. I felt that movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me were sensations in the box office because they were sensationalist. They brought about good issues and important ideas, but they were emotionally hollow. The best documentaries being made today are still by Errol Morris, Kirby Dick, and Werner Herzog – because their films transcend the documentary format (the otherwise newsmagazine format). Zahedi’s films are in a whole other ballpark, but seen as a documentary – there’s a lot going on here.

Like Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, which is a film I’ve long championed and had finally attained a limited release two months ago, I Am A Sex Addict is a film that can only survive by word-of-mouth. There is something special here – a disturbing, funny, candid movie about sex, relationships, and filmmaking that deserves attention. I have a feeling that the movie will eventually find its niche audience – and that a distributor will have the guts to take a chance with it. But in the meantime, I wanted to get the word out. It’s a great movie, and it’s worth keeping in mind as it continues its trek along the film festival circuit. It’s a shame that someone like Zahedi still has to struggle so much for his movies to be seen.

A note from Ray Carney:

I received a DVD of Frank V. Ross's Quietly on By in the mail unconscionably long ago. I'm embarrassed to admit that -- what with one thing and another -- I didn't sit down to look at it until the other night. That was my loss. It's really wonderful. I don't think it's been released yet, but if you have a chance to catch it at a festival or special screening, by all means do. And let me know what you think.

Quietly on By is a delicate mood piece centered around the life of of a sensitive but lonely and lost central figure. Aaron is in mourning for a love affair that didn't work out and a life that seems to be on hold. This is the territory many recent films, including some of the works of Wes Anderson, have mined; but what makes Ross's film special is the authenticity of the characters, performances, and setting. Nothing is heightened or exaggerated (except perhaps for the very first scene, which I could imagine being eliminated to the film's benefit) and none of the characters or their relationships is cartooned or caricatured.

Ross beautifully captures the longing and aimlessness of a certain emotional moment all of us have experienced in our lives. All of the performances are strong, but look out for one actor in particular, the one who plays Mike in the film. He steals the movie. He's amazing! He operates at a completely different level from the others, as good as they are. I predict great things for him.

A postscript: I went to Ross's web site (click here to go there) to look up this actor's name, but unfortunately (and somewhat strangely), it isn't listed in the film's credits. Well, he's still worth looking out for anyway. And so is the entire film.

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