I Am a Sex Addict (2005)
Dir. by Caveh Zahedi
After staring at a blinking cursor for better than an hour, trying — and failing — to compose the opening sentence of this “review,” I’ve finally abandoned all hopes of objectivity. I can’t seem to find the right tone of third-person voice to describe this film, which is only appropriate, I guess. Like each of Caveh Zahedi’s previous features and shorts, I Am a Sex Addict is a work of autobiography in which Zahedi himself plays the starring role. In the opening shot, he addresses the camera directly, introduces himself as Caveh, and tells us that for many years he was a sex addict. His film is a frank, neatly-plotted, and curiously moving recreation of those years. It’s also incredibly transgressive and very, very funny. Quite a balancing act.
Hi, Caveh. I’m Darren, and this is my attempt to make sense of how and why I reacted to your film as I did.
By way of plot summary, I’ll just mention the two marriages and the three other relationships that were affected by Zahedi’s addiction. We meet all of these women over the course of the film. A few are glimpsed only briefly in old footage; others are brought to life by actresses. “Brought to life” is actually a curious choice of words here, given the film’s meta qualities. In several cases, we meet the “real” woman (via), the performed version of her (via the ), and the “real” actress who plays her (via behind-the-scenes, ). I say documentary-like because the film’s form questions the truthfulness of cinematic representation at every turn. I mean, after Zahedi interrupts one of the opening scenes to tell us that the Paris street we are looking at is actually in San Francisco because he couldn’t raise enough money to shoot in France, and after he interrupts a later scene in Paris to inform us that they made the trip after all, all epistemological ground is up for grabs, including some of our most basic interpretive strategies. Home movies and behind-the-scenes hand-held footage are more “real” or trustworthy than staged recreations? Who says?
What most impresses me about I Am a Sex Addict, and what makes it, I think, Zahedi’s most accomplished film, is the care with which he (in cooperation with co-editor Thomas Logoreci) controls its tone. The film feels as though it could fall apart at any moment, and that it doesn’t is some kind of miracle. After writing that sentence, it occurs to me that I’m quoting almost verbatim Hal Ashby’s description of Being There: “This is the most delicate film I’ve ever worked with as an editor,” he told Aljean Harmetz. “The balance is just incredible. It could be ruined in a second if you allow it to become too broad.” It’s not a perfect analogy. Ashby’s challenge was to illuminate the absurdities of simulacrum politics while preventing his satire from slipping into banal parody. Zahedi’s task, I think, is even more difficult. For I Am a Sex Addict to really work, it must humanize the victims of sex addiction, expose the very real consequences of addictive behavior, and, despite all that, remain watchable, which is easier said than done given the particular nature of Zahedi’s fetishes.
Zahedi’s addiction became manifest most often in a desire to have sex with prostitutes. To combat that desire, he instituted a series of progressively destructive strategies, beginning with a genuine desire to openly and honestly acknowledge the problem with the support of his partner; by the time he attends his first Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting years later, his “prostitute fetish” has taken a much darker and sadistic turn.
Zahedi shapes the film’s tone through careful modulations in humor, self-reflexivity, and music. The image of a sound mixer comes to mind — raising and lowering the levels of each voice to create a kind of satisfying harmony. I’m thinking of two difficult scenes, in particular. In the first, Zahedi tells his wife about his desire to receive oral sex from a prostitute. She responds by offering to satisfy the craving herself. Which she does. Three times. In the second scene, Zahedi visits a prostitute with the intent of enacting his deepest, most humiliating desires. Warning: the following blockquote is verygraphic:
In my fantasies, I will grab whoever it is by the hair, and I’ll make her say things like, “I want to suck your dick” and stuff, and maybe call her a bitch or a slut. And then I start fucking her really hard in the mouth and make her gag and stuff. . . . What I’m thinking is that, if I went to a prostitute one last time and just did everything that I always fantasize about doing, then I think maybe I could get it out of my system once and for all.
If Zahedi’s story had been told by a more naturalistic filmmaker, it would, I imagine, have looked something like Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, and, in that case, my tendency as a critic would have been to describe — and to experience — the onscreen sex metaphorically. Zahedi, however, has a vested interest in exploring the psychological underpinnings of his own addiction, and so he constantly undermines our learned tendencies as “readers.” About Twentynine Palms, I wrote, “Audiences are forced to observe everything — the ordinary and the terrifying — unloosed from the safe comfort of quick cutting, manipulative sound design, or stylized photography.” Zahedi’s approach is the polar opposite, and, as a result, watching I Am a Sex Addict is, interestingly, a simultaneously intellectual and deeply personal or human experience.
The passage of dialogue quoted above is from a conversation between Caveh and Greg Watkins, who was not only Caveh’s best friend at the time of his addiction but is also Sex Addict‘s cinematographer and co-producer. (Their conversation is also a nice echo of the opening scene in their first feature, A Little Stiff.) When we see Zahedi’s visit to a prostitute a few minutes later, his words — with all of their graphic detail and hopeless self-delusion — linger over the scene. The act portrayed in the scene is difficult to watch. It’s misogynist and sadistic. But the scene itself is fascinating. Zahedi interrupts the sequence several times with jokes and with his ubiquitous voice-over, both of which act, throughout the film, as Brechtian distancing devices. Whereas someone like Dumont dares you to keep looking (and assumes, probably, that many of us won’t), Zahedi needs you to look. It’s important. This is what he did to women, and not metaphorically speaking. A man who had once marched in an anti-pornography rally and who considers himself a feminist degraded himself and women, and did so recklessly. Asked recently about his approach to comedy in the film, Zahedi quoted Oscar Wilde: “If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you.”
Zahedi’s attention to the personal and human dimension of his story pays emotional dividends in the film’s final act. Each time I’ve watched Sex Addict, I’ve felt my relationship with the material shift categorically at exactly the same moment. Soon after the release of A Little Stiff, Zahedi began a relationship with a woman named Devin, who, as it turns out, was an alcoholic. The actress who plays Devin, Amanda Henderson, is also an alcoholic — or, at least, so claims Zahedi, who interrupts the film to show us backstage footage of Henderson pulling her bottle from a brown paper bag. (I have no idea if she actually has a drinking problem. It’s impossible to know given the film’s hall-of-mirrors relationship with “truth.”) Sex Addict is structured around such revelations. The woman who plays Zahedi’s first wife, as it turns out, is actually a porn star. The woman who plays Zahedi’s girlfriend Christa, as it turns out, is unwilling to simulate on-screen sex.
But the scene with Devin/Amanda is different, and I think the difference is owing both to the quality of Henderson’s performance (which is much better and more natural than either of the other two female leads’) and to the deftness of Zahedi’s direction. For the first 75 minutes of the film, I feel at some remove from the material. It’s an intellectual distance, the ironic distance of, say, Annie Hall writ large. But when Zahedi cuts from Henderson and her bottle to Devin drunk and spewing slurred insults, that comforting distance vanishes, and the effect is potent. I’ve been on the verge of tears both times I watched the film. I’m reminded suddenly of the “Eternal City” chapter in Catch-22, when Heller steps out of his satiric voice just long enough to send Yossarian on a walk through the grotesque streets of war-torn Rome.
For the remainder of the film, Zahedi exists, by and large, outside of his mensch-y persona. There are fewer jokes, and the voice-over and recurring musical motif become less obtrusive. Like the lines of dialogue I’ve quoted above, images of Zahedi’s transgressive sexual encounters linger over the final twenty minutes of the film, but they’re suddenly transformed by the tragic human consequences of his behavior. We in the audience, in effect, undergo an awakening similar to his own. He “hits rock bottom” (to borrow from the language of recovery) and is forced, finally, to abandon his intellectual justifications. The stakes are high. And real. In the opening scene, Zahedi informs us that he’s narrating the film on his wedding day — his third — and those of us familiar with his previous feature, In the Bathtub of the World, know that it’s Mandy who will soon be walking down the aisle toward him. I can’t seem to resist the urge to paraphrase that cheesy Jack Nicholson line: Mandy clearly makes Caveh want to be a better man.
I’ll be damned if the last scene in Sex Addict wasn’t the first time I’ve ever cried at a wedding.