Love for Tender
by Nick Pinkerton
I Am a Sex Addict
Dir. Caveh Zahedi, U.S., IFC
“You are what you fuck”—or how you fuck, at least—seems to be the basis of any contemporary exercise in analytical artistic truth seeking. The open-airing of sexual biography to get at some fuller idea of identity is at least as old as Rousseau’s Confessions, though probably a closer equivalent to writer/ director/ star Caveh Zahedi’s fidgety new self-exposé (a documentary got-up like fiction—at least when it’s not animation, courtesy of Waking Life artist Bob Sabiston’s Wacom Tablet) comes from underground comix, that most purely onanistic of artistic sub-genres (one man, alone, drawing girls), in which the scrutiny of private sexual anguish occurs with frequency enough to suggest the subject matter was handed down as a commandment from the essential works of Old Master R. Crumb—Ivan Brunetti’s Schizo and, especially, Joe Matt’s smothering Peep Show are but two more recent stand-outs.
In fact, the schism apparent in Caveh Zahedi-as-played-by-Caveh Zahedi may be best described by a phrase coined in Crumb’s classic series of strips “My Troubles With Women”: “cuddly-vicious.” Our subject is the quintessence of deferential, unthreatening, pigeon-chested masculinity, weaned on (inasmuch as I can gather) paisley Eighties collegiate indie-pop and chastising Seventies feminist theory—who happens to go in for rough and domineering screws with at least a touch of transgressive mutual degradation.
Caveh’s film is a survey—eventually deadening, for all its pretense of formal briskness—of his own case history, relayed on the eve of his third wedding, from where the film flits back over two decades of open relationships and, more problematically, an oft-surrendered-to “prostitute fetish.” Zahedi’s the whole show here, tour guide and terrain, so I’m obliged to talk a lot about him—his taut mug thrust at the camera opens the movie, and he doesn’t thereafter let his hold on the narrative go unnoticed for more than a few consecutive minutes. It is possible to admire the film without, on some level, “liking” the omnipresent Caveh, but that requires a fair amount of stamina. The story rolls back and forth or pulls aside at his command, the clipped lisp of his voiceover drops in to sketch emotional undercurrents over scenes of domestic combat, and he wastes few opportunities to bring his audience backstage, flopping out “I’m just a lil’ old strapped-for-cash indie maverick” references to the budgetary limitations of his shoot, excusing the standing-in of his home-base, San Francisco, for Paris—which might be innocuously playful if it weren’t so baldly out for a laugh.
Our star—who likely played himself with aplomb in life long before winning the on-screen role—is a canny self-presenter, crisply articulating his particular physical vocabulary: the way his arms, after their loose flutters of animation, always return home, pressed to his sides. That wisp of a body topped by an anxious hobgoblin face and skyward-brushed, wiry coif make for a striking graphic—it’s little wonder that Zahedi’s was the most memorable philosophe routine in Waking Life; he seems half-cartoon already. In his bid for iconography, Caveh even limits himself to one outfit per marriage/ relationship, attempting to put across his collarless button-up and vest as a trademark on par with Charlie Brown’s jagged-striped pullover. It might seem belittling to reduce the man’s body-and-soul-baring screen persona to something as implicit of practice and calculation as schtick, but as the star confesses rather early on to his conviction that “life itself [is] kind of a performance piece,” I don’t imagine he would protest the assignation entirely.
The strongest stuff in Sex Addict comes from Caveh’s understanding of his schtick—his awareness that he is a bright, arthouse-going Beta male ectomorph that the average arthouse-goer can comfortably cheer for or self-identify with—and the fairly well-modulated push-pull that comes from, for a while at least, watching this scrappy, romantic little fella, of the sort that much of moviegoing has taught us to get behind, acting very often ungallant, very often obliviously brutal. His simpering, needy narration, forever petitioning the viewer for confirmation (a nice-guy “Right?” is his crutch-word refrain, always following something that seems pretty clearly wrong), acts as the squelching lubricant through rough-going.
A giddily saccharine Jonathan Richman song accompanying the movie’s closing credits suggests another reference point, for Caveh has something of Richman’s charismatic wide-eyed savantism (the two are friends), never lacking for wonderment and always going on about those ambiguous things called “souls”—but he is a Jonathan Richman who’s into having sex, not making love, blinded by the tunnel-vision quest for unpretty gratification, and so something altogether more dark and difficult.
I suspect Caveh is still the ambitious post-collegiate kid seen in his movie who’s angling to score arthouse celebrity, and he’s been forthcoming about his desire for his latest film to springboard him into a new level of success. A glimpse at his up-on-the-numbers blog should be more than enough to confirm this; as such, Sex Addict might be expected to look toward a more mainstream moviemaking vernacular. Plenty of the ostensible laughs here are based around Caveh’s talent for vignettes of gruesome social fumbling, much exercised in his 1991 A Little Stiff—one scene, in which our hero drags his soused girlfriend to a German brothel, refuses to buy her a beer so as not to chip away at his hooker fund then, giving in to her berating, discreetly pours her the dregs from an abandoned, half-empty glass, is a masterpiece of miniature betrayals. But there’s also copious counterweight (and if some scenes don’t actually exist as commercial concessions, they are no less awful for it) in crashingly dire moments like a montage of unsuccessful “ain’t head shrinkers kooky?” psychiatric treatments, material that would be a little broad on your standard-issue sitcom.
So my mind didn’t always stay on Caveh’s troubles with women, and I found countless moments when Sex Addict suggested other, more interesting movies. My thoughts moved outside the margins of the story—how does a grad student with a confessed aversion to any day job shy of auteur pay for such a luxuriant diet of suckjobs? And: the film rolls past a handful of girlfriends and wives, most of whom may very well be giving interesting performances. Buttressed as they are by countless scenes of emotional bullying that demand them to play pinched and put-upon and that ever-interposing voice-over, it’s pretty hard to say. But I wondered about these women, and even more about their real-life counterparts, glimpsed in snatches of old 8mm home movies.
Of course the movie’s commitment to its focus, the ramping, repetitive architecture of an addiction, forbids stopping to breathe inside any one scene, sacrificing specificity for the revelation of larger blueprint. But should this excuse the utter lack of workmanship, actorly engagement, or invention in little scene after little scene? The movie’s building blocks are, in large part, flatly-staged DV vignettes resembling some curio that one might stumble across on public access: Zahedi and paramour side-by-side on a couch, side-by-side in bed (though Caveh’s corpse-stiff nighttime posture is a bit funny), side-by-side in a car... Watching Milton Moses Ginberg’s beautiful, economical ballad of sexual dependency, Coming Apart—shot in one room, largely from one angle, and with just a handful of actors but oh! how dense—shortly after my screening of Sex Addict certainly didn’t help make a case for the latter.
Even in an ostensibly “liberated” time when most of us—and anyone reading these words on a computer screen—are only a few keystrokes away from an infinite variety of brutally splayed crotches, I tend to still believe deeply in the need for real sexual candor. There’s value to be found when anyone exorcises that stuff that the society of the moment considers shameful—the value of their own liberation, and the value of shaking us from the solitude of our sexuality. I remember reading a comment by François Truffaut about being “helped” by the writing of Henry Miller, and even if I might think Miller is an often awful artist, I have to respect his helping to bring light where there once was dark. And in the sense that I Am a Sex Addict might in some way “help” someone or somehow, I am loathe to loathe it. The reactionary response to something that is, on one level, as “Me me me” as Zahedi’s movie—flinging around the “narcissist” tag—seems such a slack, simple criticism.
But—I get stuck on the film’s “happy ending,” not so far from the stuff of old Hollywood fare, and no more satisfying. Caveh walks down the aisle, gets married, leaking tears of joy, to his girlfriend of several years, who’s made all the difference. Since meeting her, we’re told, he hasn’t been with a prostitute—and that’s about all we’re told. Perhaps this is attributable to “happiness writing white”; perhaps Caveh has met someone he doesn’t want to sully more than necessary with his filmmaking, someone he wants to keep to himself. But in a movie based on the pretense of full disclosure, it’s frustrating, even betraying—why should this chick get away clean when, in narrative mid-stream, Caveh saw fit to inform his audience, for no detectable reason outside of the old canard “blurring the boundary between fact and fiction,” that one of the film’s lead actresses “had a drinking problem in real life”? It’s all so pat, so final, when the real nature of sex seems so much better summarized in the title of another (truly great) movie about the thrall of libido: Trouble Every Day.
For a film so lavish on symptoms to be so brief on their cure is frustrating—when the level of intimacy the movie has suggested suddenly being reneged, replaced with vaporous doo-wop romanticism, it’s a cheat. I felt an uncomfortable right to know more: Does he need to fuck Mrs. Zahedi’s mouth and call her “bitch” to get his rocks off, as we see him doing to a massage parlor girl? Is that propensity something a steady schedule of meditation takes care of? These aren’t normally questions I would ask of a stranger, or even of someone that I know very well, but, you know, Caveh brought the whole thing up, not me…