If Caveh Zahedi were a better liar—or at least a less scrupulous one—he might be filling a well-worn butt groove on Oprah’s couch. Could there be a more potent title, in these gold-rush years for vicarious degradation, than the name of Zahedi’s fourth feature, I Am a Sex Addict? It’s got that irresistible one-two of confession and transgression—the lure of an unholier-than-thou past chained away safely by sweet acceptance. A title card reading “Based on a True Story” would seal the deal.
But Zahedi’s movie—a funny, inventive, ground-shifting hybrid of essay film, mea culpa and pathological real-life romantic farce—aims for truth by wrecking its own verisimilitude. A micro-epic autobiography of broken relationships and sexual hang-ups, encapsulating 20 years of the filmmaker’s life, I Am a Sex Addict kids not only its no-budget resources but the oddity of reconstructing personal experience in cinematic terms. When you edit the movie of your life, do you add stock footage of airliners whenever you took a trip?
By juxtaposing the admittedly fake with the appallingly intimate—often within the same scene—the writer-director-star sabotages the idea that dramatic re-creation is more accurate if it pretends to be real. Since his first completed feature, A Little Stiff, in 1991, the San Francisco filmmaker has smudged the lines between documentary and fiction, incorporating family, friends and above all an obsessive, neurotic cinephile named Caveh Zahedi into his seriocomic constructs.
Even when Zahedi appeared in Richard Linklater’s animated fantasia Waking Life, he played himself—a gabby, spiritually yearning philosophe mulling over French film theorist Andre Bazin’s concept of the “holy moment.” That idea is central to Zahedi’s films: when movies record moments of unmitigated life—for example, an action captured in a single shot, or an actor merging somehow with his offscreen self—they’re catching glimpse of something created by God.
Granted, that’s a strong claim for a movie called I Am a Sex Addict, in which the hero ducks into confessional booths to whack off and compulsively gets himself sucked off until he looks like he’s going to yodel. Facing the camera in a tux, outside the hall where he’s getting married, Zahedi chooses the moment to spill his guts about the erotic fixations that totaled his previous marriages. In interviews, Zahedi has said this much is true: he nursed a fixation with prostitutes, and underwent sex-addiction counseling to help overcome it.
That he remembers the drill is clear. “My name is Caveh” is the movie’s first line; a viewer mentally responds, “Hello, Caveh!” He traces his obsession back to a chance encounter with a streetwalker in 1983 Paris—where he interrupts his skeevy stroll to cock his head to the camera, announce that Paris is being played by a nondescript San Francisco exterior to save money, then resume walking. The gag comes full circle a few moments later, when the camera locates the sheepish Zahedi in front of the Eiffel Tower.
A-ha, we think: unreliable narrator! But Zahedi’s digressive commentary, which frequently switches in mid-flashback from voiceover to direct address, bears the same relation to the dramatized flashbacks as his home-movie snippets. It complicates the movie’s vantage point on the truth and his own culpability. Early on, he outs the woman playing both his first wife Caroline and the Parisian prostitute as a real-life porn star, Rebecca Lord. Given the director’s fetish of choice, her trade is no small detail: it adds a Vertigo-like undercurrent of perversity to her scenes as Caroline. (Not surprisingly, the real Caroline turned down a comeback appearance.)
Indeed, if I Am a Sex Addict had been played as straight melodrama, its often harrowing sexual politics would have been risible. Spiraling from surreptitious dirty talk to rape fantasies and thwarted rough sex, Zahedi bravely lays open his libido: a macho poseur would have seen the role as a braggart’s holiday. Zahedi, on the other hand, toddles toward a prostitute’s rape-me beckoning like a dutiful child and widens his face in a half-dozen of the funniest, least vain male orgasms in movie history—the faces our wives and girlfriends thoughtfully try to ignore. At the height of passion, you expect him to bust into “The Sound of Music.”
But the movie’s guiding musical spirit is Jonathan Richman, whose impish, open-hearted love ballad sends Zahedi down the aisle with his new bride in the last scene, taking leave of the audience and the camera. “We walk around like there are some holy moments, and there are all the other moments that are unholy,” Zahedi wondered in Waking Life, considering the beauty that flickers even in life’s establishing shots. “But this moment is holy, right?” Even better than a blowjob.