Caveh Zahedi is an American filmmaker, who has been steadily putting out movies for several decades. Although his most widely seen work is his memorable appearance in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, Zahedi has inspired numerous indie stalwarts, including Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham. Mainstream success has consistently eluded him, owing in part to his issues with interpersonal relationships – listen to his podcast Awkward Celebrity Encounters for first-person accounts of the many (so many) occasions he’s blown huge opportunities by offending the wrong people. Despite this, a passionate cult has developed around his work.
Though hard to categorise (“documentary” doesn’t quite cut it), one consistent element is the director himself, with Zahedi and his tumultuous personal life forming a key aspect of his feature films, audio recordings and serialised TV shows. Through direct-to-camera addresses and absurdist, fourth-wall breaking reenactments, Zahedi plumbs the depths of his chaotic household, social sphere and artistic struggles, leaving it all on the table for the viewer to reach their own conclusions. Imagine Larry David, minus the wealth, fame and reassuring HBO production values.
His obsessions and artistic endeavours have come with a cost, as is outlined in this New York Times piece, his series The Show About the Show ultimately destroyed his marriage. In films like In the Bathtub of the World, we see how Zahedi’s insistence that the cameras keep rolling in any situation has a corrosive effect on those around him. It’s a price he’s seemingly willing to pay, with the director continuing to put out new work at an impressive clip. Two of his recent films, How to Overthrow the US Government (Legally) and Higher Education, have transformed his students at New York’s The New School into subjects of a provocative hybrid of reality-TV/anthropological experiment – which, unsurprisingly, almost cost him his position as a professor.
Although it would be tempting to dismiss the centring of himself as director’s vanity, Zahedi is never afraid to depict himself in a bad light. His compulsive desire to showcase the full spectrum of human behaviour stems from a belief that the media depicts an extremely narrow version of what people are actually like, which creates a culture of hypocrisy wherein we judge each other for thoughts and actions that we ourselves indulge in.
Flying the flag for “radical honesty”, Zahedi’s work is remarkably revealing and totally unparalleled. To put it briefly: we’re obsessed. As a starting point, we’d recommend The Show About the Show. Every episode is about the making of the previous episode and the cumulative impact Zahedi’s obsession with the series begins to take on everyone he comes into contact with. You can watch it in its entirety for free on YouTube.
As a student of cinema, with an array of influences, we were keen to get Caveh’s all-time favourites. Here are his choices.
‘Andrei Roublev’ (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
Caveh Zahedi: Andrei Roublev is, in my humble opinion, the greatest film by the greatest filmmaker of all time. While Lars Von Trier is my personal favourite filmmaker (see below), my guess is that he too would agree that Tarkovsky is the master of us all (Von Trier’s Antichrist was dedicated to Tarkovsky and Von Trier’s entire oeuvre is, in many ways, an attempt to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky by pushing in a diametrically opposite direction). No one can hope to attain the artistic and spiritual heights that Tarkovsky’s films embody and, just as the history of philosophy could be described as a series of footnotes to Plato, the subsequent masters of the medium are essentially cinematic footnotes to Tarkovsky’s towering oeuvre, of which Andrei Roublev is both the annunciation and the apogee.
Every single shot in this film is a masterpiece. Every moment, every camera move, every frame. How did he do it? There was no precursor to his achievement. His previous feature, Ivan’s Childhood, even when viewed from the vantage point of what was to come, gives no hint of the heights he was about to attain. In his structurally ramshackle and always utterly original biography of the great medieval Russian icon painter, Tarkovsky creates a devastatingly powerful allegory for what it means to be an artist in this world of incommensurable cruelty.
I didn’t love this film at first. In fact, I didn’t like Tarkovsky at all for a long time. But his films work on a subconscious level and their vibrational frequency has an unexpectedly long half-life that continues to work its particular magic for years. I also can’t recommend highly enough his book Sculpting in Time, one of my three favourite books on film (the other two being Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography and the Ray Carney-edited Cassavetes on Cassavetes).
‘The Passion of Anna’ (Ingmar Bergman, 1969)
CZ: Ingmar Bergman is the other great cinematic master who can arguably hold a candle to Tarkovsky’s sun (Tarkovsky was his favourite filmmaker and he helped Tarkovsky make The Sacrifice).
When I was in high school, PBS aired a different Ingmar Bergman film every Friday night. Bergman was considered the world’s greatest filmmaker at that time, so I was curious and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. It was a slow burn but after a few weeks of exposure to Bergman’s cinematic universe, I found myself waiting excitedly throughout the week for Bergman’s next masterpiece to unfurl. I saw Summer with Monica, Sawdust and Tinsel, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries. I had never experienced anything like it and it opened me up to what the medium of cinema could do.
In college, I sought out every Bergman film I could find. I especially loved Bergman’s 60s and 70s films: Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, Face to Face, and Autumn Sonata. But it wasn’t until I attended film school at UCLA that I discovered The Passion of Anna.
It’s Bergman’s most formally radical film, and it does something that I have never seen done before or since. Bergman breaks the frame of the film’s four-hander narrative four times to have each actor comment on the character they’re playing. He plucks the viewer out of the narrative completely and then throws him back in and the narrative resumes where it left off. At first, one is taken aback and straddling two worlds but eventually one forgets what just happened and becomes engrossed in the action, only to have Bergman break the frame again and again. The film becomes a kind of cinematic proof of what Brechtian cinema could be (it is a direct precursor of Von Trier’s Dogville and Five Obstructions) and opens a space for an entirely new relation to cinema.
‘The Man Who Left His Will on Film’ (Nagisa Oshima, 1970)
CZ: I saw this film in college and I couldn’t believe it. Oshima’s relatively-unknown masterpiece begins with a Japanese film student who, tasked with filming a student protest, abruptly leaves the protest to film a series of bizarre and incomprehensible images before jumping off a building to his death, camera rolling. A fellow film student grabs the dead friend’s camera before the police arrive and develops the roll of film inside. He projects the images to a third (female) friend and, together, they try to unravel the meaning of the mysterious images their dead friend recorded. They track down the locations in which the images were shot and then re-enact what was recorded in the hopes of thereby deciphering this most enigmatic of suicide notes. Their quest leads them to the building where he jumped off the roof and the ending, like all great endings, is at once completely unexpected and inevitable.
As someone who was interested in both art and politics, but also increasingly disillusioned with politics, I found it to be a perfect expression of the dialectic between these two almost opposite ways of being in the world. It captures and embodies a particular moment and trauma – the disillusionment of politics post-1968. The film clarified and healed something for me, and it moved me in a direction that I am still moving in.
‘Vertical Features Remake’ (Peter Greenaway, 1978)
CZ: I discovered Peter Greenaway’s work in 1983 when The Draughtsman’s Contract came out. I was bowled over by his erudition and deft use of allegory in that film. Then came A Zed and Two Naughts (1985) which spoke to me even more. When I found out that he was going to be presenting some of his earlier films at the British Embassy in Paris, where I was living at the time, I was ecstatic.
I met him and found him to be cold and a bit pompous in the way that British people can sometimes be. But then I watched Vertical Features Remake and my admiration for him hit a whole new level.
It’s an early mockumentary about an experimental filmmaker who dies and leaves behind a large trove of footage of vertical things. The question is: why? The narrator of the film sets about trying to solve the mystery of the footage. What was the filmmaker trying to say? How was he planning to edit the footage together? It sounds dull but it’s both hilarious and metaphysically profound. It’s also a brilliant commentary on structuralist filmmaking that both complicates and enriches our understanding of the primacy of narrative in our search for meaning.
‘Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees’ (David Blair, 1991)
CZ: When I saw this film I was so blown away that I immediately sought out the director, who I wanted desperately to meet. It’s ostensibly about the creation of the atom bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico but also about telepathic communication with bees. In any case, it struck me as the greatest anti-war film I had ever seen (and I’d seen many great anti-war films – my second favourite being Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory). But calling it an anti-war film doesn’t begin to do justice to the richness and complexity and sheer aesthetic bravado of this no-budget masterpiece.
The director lived in New York and I made plans to meet him for coffee the next time I was in New York. I was convinced we would become lifelong friends. But we didn’t really get along and he seemed uninterested and unimpressed by both me and my work. Maybe he never saw my work. I can’t remember. But I was disappointed and I lost touch with him after that.
But it’s a work of pure genius and cinematic inventiveness and it’s one of our culture’s many casual crimes that the film isn’t better known.
‘Upstream Color’ (Shane Carruth, 2013)
CZ: I remember being blown away by Shane Carruth’s Primer when I saw it at Sundance in 2004. It was at a press screening and I walked out of the theatre with the knowledge that I had just watched a work of obvious genius. It’s ostensibly a no-budget science fiction film about creating a time machine but it’s so much more than that. It was easily the best film I saw at Sundance that year but I was nevertheless surprised when it won the Jury Prize. It was a challenging film and the Sundance juries (the composition of which were always political) weren’t known for having great taste.
But Shane Carruth’s career seemed assured and the film industry executives descended on him like vultures. We had a brief phone conversation in which I tried to warn him about what was about to happen to him and he was cautiously level-headed. But then nothing for many years. What had happened to this extremely promising young man who had made a masterpiece for $10,000? It turned out that he had languished in Hollywood development hell and wouldn’t come up for air for nine years. When he did, it was with another no-budget masterpiece that was the exact antithesis of everything that Hollywood had been trying to get him to do. In short, he had made another masterpiece, even more intransigent and challenging than his first feature.
He self-financed it, and he also self-distributed it. But the experience was so discouraging and demoralising for him that he hasn’t made another film since. He was one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation and he has made only two films in almost 20 years, both for virtually no money and with zero outside support. The film is a mind-fuck and confusing but it’s also INCREDIBLE! You don’t even have to understand it. If you just watch it, it will release its poison into your bloodstream and you will be infected with its genius.
‘Begotten’ (Elias Merhige, 1990)
CZ: A producer I knew had recommended this fever dream of a film to me, so I went to see it. I’ve had this experience only a handful of times in my life, but it was one of those experiences where I feel that I’ve just met a friend, someone from the same aesthetic universe as me (while at the same time being the aesthetic opposite of anything I have ever done or would do). The film is impossible to describe: a preternatural being masturbates and gives life to the universe? A hypnagogic state captured on film? A Butoh-inspired creation myth for our times?
You have to see it and give yourself over to it but that wasn’t hard for me to do. I immediately reached out to the filmmaker, Elias Merhige, and we actually became friends. We started hanging out together and even tried to collaborate on a couple of projects. But Elias was much more interested in playing the Hollywood game than I was – despite his film being arguably even more obscure and difficult than my own work – and we had a bit of a falling out and then lost touch. I ended up reviewing his subsequent film, the star-studded Shadow of a Vampire, which was quite good but nevertheless a serious step down artistically from the metaphysical heights of Begotten.
I haven’t spoken to him in years but I would love to see him again. He once made a great, great film.
To help Caveh get funding for the third season of THE SHOW ABOUT THE SHOW, Deeper Into Movies has organised a screening of his new film How to Overthrow the US Government (Legally) on the 6th of September.
You can also donate to his Kickstarter here.