I know Amanda Field as a quiet poet who works down the hall from me at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She’s the managing editor of the literary journal ‘ZYZZYVA,’ a writing teacher, and a soccer player. She’s also a recurring motif in the most recent non-fiction films of Caveh Zahedi. The longsuffering girlfriend in Zahedi’s year-long video diary of 1999, “In the Bathtub of the World,” Field plays a new part in Zahedi’s eyebrow-raising latest, “I Am a Sex Addict.” She is his wife.
The weekend before their film opens at the Balboa Theatre, I sat down with Caveh and Mandy in their book-lined, ivy-draped living room to find out where their stories converge.
SF360: Where are all the outfits used in the film?
Amanda Field: [calling out from another room] They’re here, in a drawer.
Caveh Zahedi: Wanna try one on? [laughs]
SF360 [to Mandy]: I remember when you were interviewed in an article on the making of ‘I Am a Sex Addict’ a few years ago, and you came by and visited the set while Caveh was shooting a scene with prostitutes. You were made to seem a little shocked.
Field: The writer was pressing for drama, the way journalists do. In that article, he also had Caveh, for a moment, committing patricide. With me, the character he created was the prude — and I am a prude — so he was kind of right. But he was amplifying it.
SF360: How long had you been together when that article came out?
Field: Since 1997, so, four years.
SF360: How does the character you play in Caveh’s movies compare with the person you play in real life?
Field: I’m in his narrative in those movies. I’m more of a symbol in ‘I Am a Sex Addict,’ but I think Caveh does a good job of trying to break that symbol apart with the real documentary footage. It’s a little bit like a redux of the material in ‘In the Bathtub of the World,’ that montage that occurs before the wedding. It was hard for me to come to grips with ‘Bathtub,’ just because I’m crying all the time. Every time I cried that year, Caveh used that footage. So it looks like I’m crying for the entire year, but in fact, I cried like seven times, and every time is in there.
SF360: It sounds like you had a different experience with both of these films. Are you reluctant to be in Caveh’s films?
Field: They’re just completely different. Because ‘Bathtub’ was just our life — and he was constantly whipping out the camera to film our fights and our relationship. That was the subject matter. That was a lot more emotionally frustrating to deal with — that presence of the camera. Whereas ‘Sex Addict,’ he was shooting scenes, going to sets, using actors. My part in that was so much less collaborative.
SF360: I know you, but I’ve never asked you these questions. I think people are afraid to ask you these questions. To be the wife of someone who is making a movie called ‘I Am a Sex Addict’ — what is the scene there?
Field: And what is the scene in our relationship, right, sexually speaking? It’s easy to project….
SF360: You seem so adjusted to being a character in someone else’s story. Is it because of your literary background?
Field: For awhile, I had some discomfort, as a feminist, with ‘Sex Addict,’ because it’s from such a male point of view. It doesn’t have the girlfriends’ points of view at all. For a while I had to grapple with that, until I realized, it’s OK that it’s Caveh’s story. It’s the story of a sex addict. It’s all from his point of view, and that’s an important story as well. In terms of the literary part of the question, a person is drawn to literature because of something prior; a need to make sense of subjectivity, other people’s stories. A literary person, like a psychologist, appreciates subjectivity.
SF360: For me, as a film critic and viewer, if I don’t feel personality on screen, and vulnerability on screen, I don’t get involved. If this movie felt more careful, or if it were trying to please more people, or create a ‘likable’ Caveh, it wouldn’t be as interesting. Caveh’s films are such personality pieces. Very few people can get away with that.
Field: He’s got such a penchant for honesty — taboo-breaking, and going where it’s uncomfortable.
SF360: Caveh, your movies have featured your father, your brother, many of your ex-girlfriends, and your wife. At one point, you asked me to show up for a film shoot [laughs]…. Does being part of your life mean being part of your movies?
Zahedi: I guess if people befriend me, they risk getting sucked into something.
Field: You tend to make films with your students.
Zahedi: It seems like a good use of students.
SF360: Is there a talking-them-into-it process?
Zahedi: It usually happens haphazardly — then I have footage I want to use, so that’s the time when I have to talk them into letting me use it. That process is always fraught. It’s rare that I ever talk someone into it beforehand. ‘Sex Addict’ was different, because we had to cast actors, had them do simulated sex scenes — there was some nudity involved. It was really hard to talk people into that.
SF360: What about the actual live footage of the ex girlfriends?
Zahedi: I didn’t ask anybody at first, and I just made the movie, hoping I could get permission. Then after IFC came on board, I had to get permission. I got permission from two of them, but one of them, her husband threatened to sue me. I had to take out all the footage of her, but also all the animated footage with her in it. We had to re-shoot her with an actress, and reanimate all the stuff with the actress’s face. She’d always been renamed, but it was her real image. For me, that was the most painful thing imaginable, to have to alter the authenticity of my film.
SF360: Do your movies have transformative aspects to the relationships they show?
Caveh: Any human interaction is transformative. Are they more transformative than any other? I don’t think so.
SF360: What drives the impulse to document yourself?
Caveh: Fear of death, wanting to be noticed, remembered. Wanting to be accepted, seen for who one actually is. A desire to be loved, respected. A belief that the personal is political.
SF360 [to Amanda]: Caveh’s work is underappreciated, but he is a great spokesperson for what it is he’s doing. He’s a filmmaker, a film critic, and a philosopher….
Field: I remember I was having drinks with my friend’s dad, when the film was playing in Tribeca. Caveh was called a ‘narcissist’ in the New York Times. The writer assumed that Caveh himself is a narcissist. Often critics will call either Caveh or his films narcissistic. I feel like they’re missing that exact point, that the personal is political. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are incredible statements about humanity, and that’s not considered narcissistic. That’s a self-portrait that includes all these dark areas.
SF360: To me, someone who puts themselves on screen in such a vulnerable way, exposing things — I’m not talking about sex addiction, but just plain bad behavior of various types — is putting themselves in such a susceptible position. It is, in a sense, an act of generosity. There are obviously a lot of films now with a lot of self-documentation, it’s such an easy criticism to make.
Zahedi: I don’t know why people jump to that conclusion. All I can assume is that it must not be in their repertoire of possibilities that somebody is being vulnerable in a generous way. They must be so defended, in a chronic way, that they can’t even understand why somebody wouldn’t be operating on that basis, to try to protect themselves, and to try to look good. So they can only assume someone [like me] is trying to look good — and is failing.
Field: I think they get pissed: Hey, that is ordinary life! What makes you so special?
Caveh: There’s also a kind of fascism of the extraordinary. I remember once, I approached one of the programmers of a new video diary series on public TV, and said, ‘I’m doing a video diary, can I possibly submit it?’ She said, ‘What’s your angle?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s just a year in my life.’ She said, ‘What’s so special about your life?’ I said, ‘Well, nothing, that’s the point.’ And she said, ‘Well, are you handicapped? Are you gay? Do you have a terminal illness? Is there some reason we should care about your life?’ I said, ‘Nothing beyond the fact that I’m a human being, and I’m having a life.’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for.’ I think that assumption that ordinary life is boring is just a really prevalent one, and there has to be something that is pre-ordained as dramatic. In a way, the whole ‘Tripping with Caveh’ series was based on looking at the idea that people think that the life of a celebrity is of value, and the life of a non-celebrity is not, and to realign those categories by showing the banality of celebrity life and celebrity-ness of the ordinary person’s life. But there weren’t very many takers.
SF360: Celebrities are really never as interesting to talk to, are they?
Field: Thus the literary scandals of J.T. Leroy and James Frey. It’s all about having to make yourself special. It’s not about the quality of reflection on your own life; life itself has to have these extreme traumas.
SF360: Your scene in Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’ has you describing Bazin’s theories, the ‘Holy Moment.’ Who understands the ‘Holy Moment?’
Zahedi: Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Mike Leigh, von Trier.
SF360: Interviewers usually find a way to drop Nietzsche, Proust, Shakespeare into conversations with you. Are you reading the Great Books all the time?
Field (answering): He’s got pictures of them on his wall. He memorizes poems. Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Rimbaud. He’s continually developing his relationships with these people. He’s memorizing a page of ‘Finnegans Wake’ right now….