Why I Loved Caveh Zahedi - Believer Magazine

Why I Loved Caveh Zahedi

Tracking down the autobiographical filmmaker and falling in love with him

When I showed my law school boyfriend The Show About the Show, he was disgusted. You could tell, he said, that this guy thought he was a genius. You could tell he was a philosophy-major narcissist. You could tell he was obsessed with himself.

I am obsessed with myself. I have always put myself ahead of anyone else in my life. I have always shared too much and attracted and repelled people instantly and intensely. I have always written excruciating psychodramas about my failures to love and made the people I failed read them, edit them, and act in them.

What’s the appeal of stuff like this? What’s the appeal of some show about a guy making a show about a show that’s really just his life?  It’s that The Show is so fucked up. You know that everyone has ambivalences about everyone else, about their girlfriend, their parents, their children, but you aren’t allowed to say that out loud. Most TV is so sanitized it makes me feel like I’m not a person, like something happened at birth, like I’m an alien or a case study. And in a way The Show has that too, has a bourgeois Brooklyn family that’s still trying to live with some pleasure and isn’t, like my family, basically committing a small suicide with every passing second. But when Caveh says that line, “I hate my life too,” and shows his kids fighting as Mandy and he try to put them to bed…

It just feels so good to hear someone say they hate their life.

I always had some fantasy that if you could just tell the truth, life would be redeemed. When I finished fifth grade, my father threw out all my toys and bought me The Interpretation of Dreams. In seventh grade, for our essay about “our hero,” I wrote in my little marble composition book: “My hero is Sigmund Freud because he told the truth.” And isn’t the truth how many million ways we fail each other on a daily basis? I love Pascal’s definition of the human: that man alone among the animals is aware that he is wretched, and that is his greatness.

So I’ve always been an oversharer, orally expulsive, vomiting pain on everyone around me. Sometimes it works. I get to play the vulgar girl with the big tits who tells sex stories and people laugh and call me “really something.” Sometimes I drain everyone around me, like a vampire sucking the love and care out of them until they tell me the magic words, “Have you considered therapy?” and I cut them out of my life entirely. For me the point of art, life, and relationships isn’t to feel better. The point is to feel more.

And I felt that with Caveh. With Caveh, in the little YouTube rectangle, against the black backdrop. Some desire to feel more, to feel in public, to fail, to admit he sucks, is nervous, is anxious, has no faith, is a fuck-up, is an asshole. Back when I still lived in Florida, it felt like you were allowed to be bad, to be in pain, to be a sunburned stoner with a shitty car and a pill dependence and no idea when life would possibly stop hurting on an hourly basis. But then I did a Fulbright. I started a PhD at Yale. I went to Yale Law, and I worked at Goldman Sachs. In all these places, it was like getting slapped and shoved into an existential locker on a daily basis: everyone else, apparently, felt absolutely fine. What was wrong with me?

Even with the people closest to you—your mother, your brother, your lover—there are missteps, awkward silences, a disconnect. It’s the feeling Zizek talks about so well in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema; like when a video call freezes up and the person you were trying to communicate with becomes just pixels and static. A few years ago, I got too high with a friend in Amsterdam. We were eating eggs and I started feeling that no word I said to her was ever going to be honest; not only was each word a reduction of thought, but I also had to amuse her, to be her “funny friend,” her “smart friend,” her “crazy friend.” I was performing. And realizing I couldn’t escape the performance, I wanted to jump in front of each passing tram.

But with your favorite art, you get to feel totally fused with someone, like Plato’s hermaphrodites, like any teenager’s tragic dream of love. Tolstoy’s theory of art was about “infection”—a great artist infects you with his love, his triumph, his despair, until you’re feeling his feelings, directly—and he seems to feel yours. You feel less alone. You feel together, with that artist, a way you don’t feel with anyone else.

So that was what was nice about Caveh. He was being bad in public and he was talking just to me and he was telling me everything. There’s some hard-to-place quality in his voice, in his overly large eyes and the gap in his teeth, some ineffable grain of it all, like Barthes would say. A genius grain. There was some intimacy of that voice, some feeling of really being with him, knowing him. Loving him.

And, anyway, everything my boyfriend hated in Caveh was what he hated in me.

A year later, I couldn’t stand my boyfriend anymore, I couldn’t keep waiting for him to finish work and then going to sleep alone. But I couldn’t be single. I spent a lot of time in my New Haven apartment, sitting at the Ikea table waiting for a certain filmmaker who I had a crush on to text me back. One of those days, to distract myself, I watched The Show again, and I saw the filmmaker in an episode. It was a perfect excuse to text him.

He told me he loved The Show—he was the first person I’d met who did. I messaged Caveh asking if there’d be a Season 3. He wrote back, a little tersely, that there would, but it would take at least a year.

I complained to the filmmaker that Caveh seemed cold, and he snidely suggested I send a video message, like an obsessive fan of The Show that Caveh had ended up dating. Instead, while sitting at a bar a few days later with a tech millionaire that wanted to marry me, that I wanted to want to marry, I asked Caveh to coffee.

The filmmaker told me that Caveh would be totally charmed by me. That excited me, because I thought it was proof that he, even though he was taken, even though he didn’t talk to me so much, anymore, must have been charmed by me, once. And that someone might be charmed by me again.

I met Caveh on November 15, 2020, at a Thai restaurant near the Carroll Street subway station. When I had asked him to coffee, he had suggested lunch. I viewed this as a gesture of serious interest or horniness. I would later learn that he doesn’t drink coffee. I was nervous about the potential horniness, I was nervous we wouldn’t have anything to say to each other, and I was nervous about my boyfriend, who still despised Caveh and The Show more totally and with more primitive disgust than I had seen him react to anything in the years we’d been together. So I wore a miniskirt, but with a loose jacket.

I arrived on time, it was cold, and a few minutes past noon I texted him that I was there. I was a little put off that he waited until I texted him to leave his house. When he arrived, he was wearing a facemask and glasses, and all I could see of him was the enormous lines in his forehead, like gashes, and his head with grey hair at the corners. He looked older than I expected, and more tired, and distracted, really. He asked if I wanted to eat at his house instead, he lived right on the block, and I said, “That’s a little fast,” something like that.

The lunch was uncomfortable. It was windy, I would have rather been sitting inside the entirely empty restaurant, but he was too afraid of COVID (as I’d tell my friends later, too afraid to eat inside a restaurant with me but not too afraid to have me go inside his apartment and fuck). The wind swung a potted palm down onto someone’s curry. We talked a little about French literature. He mispronounced Duras but I didn’t correct him. He was irritated that they didn’t have the lunch special on weekends, he couldn’t hear the waitress when she explained that something on his plate was “garlic,” and when the check came, all the cards fell out of his wallet and I automatically got on the floor to pick them up.

When you turn eighteen, all your conversations become “what do you study,” and when you turn twenty-five, all your conversations become “what do you do.”

Caveh asked me what I did, and I said I was in law school, “What kind of law?” “You know, corporate.” I could have gone into my so-called “accomplishments” in international law, or something, but I was trying to say, look Caveh, I’m not here because I study law, I’m here because I hate my life.

I confided very openly in him. I felt myself resembling those café scenes in French films where the young woman divulges to the older man seventy minutes in: the linguist scene in Vivre sa vie or the scene toward the end of Rohmer’s Full Moon Over Paris where the young woman, fresh off her first adultery, talks to Nestor Almendros. I told him everything as honestly as I could, often looking away, at the people stacking produce across Court Street: I used to think I was a talented poet, a talented writer, a talented academic, now I’m trying to make a film, but at some point I made a terrible and irreversible decision, and now I send useless emails and make sure investment funds are headquartered in the Cayman Islands. And I’m going to do that for the rest of my life. I look at my boyfriend who was a “literature person” just like me but went to law school and now sits at his desk drafting emails and playing video games until three in the morning, and the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?” makes my eyes hot and watery, like I’m cutting onions. I needed Caveh to tell me the magic words: “It’s not too late!”

With some disgust, he got up, said, “Well, quit your job and break up with your boyfriend,” and started walking home. I began to walk with him. He said, “The subway’s that way,” I said, “I know,” he said, “No, it’s that way,” pointing over his shoulder, I said, “Je t’accompagne jusqu’au coin,” and he said okay, and I asked if he wanted to see me again. He said, “Okay.”

All Caveh wrote about me in his diary was:

And from what he’s told me, all he thought about me, after all that confession, was that I was pretty but that I wasn’t “wise,” that I was trying to “seem smart,” talking about French literature too much. I was some sort of corporate “sell-out.”

I was disappointed, too. I had felt understood, watching him in a little box, in an empty bed, my laptop making my stomach sweat. But face to face, across a half-eaten curry and shivering in the November cold, he was just another person asking me about my job.

I don’t know what happened next, and Caveh doesn’t know. You’re always flubbing it when you talk about the past, introducing a coherency that wasn’t there, filling the gaps, reifying what you felt the other person felt. What you felt you felt. And then you leave almost everything out. You have to.

So I can tell you that I remember texting Caveh, from the Yale Club, where I often went to give my boyfriend “space.” I can tell you that we talked about honesty and Paul Valéry. I said there was some value in alienation; he said I was being dishonest with myself.

I remember I felt frustrated at how badly things had gone, and wanted a second try. I asked if he would still watch a film I’d been trying to see for years, that he had a copy of. I remember going to his house and how boring the film was, and how relieved I was when he said “this is unbearable” and stopped it. I remember it being a little better between us, and I remember afterward, him texting me that he had had to keep himself from touching me.

But maybe things shifted after the third time, when I came back to shoot a camera address for him and he insulted my technical skills and told me I was a sweet person, deep down, with an affected and acerbic exterior. We both know I cried, that night, but he thinks it was from the camerawork comment, and I think it was from the second comment.

When he said I was a sweet person that was hiding it, I felt both seen and judged by him, judged harshly. I resented the people he felt were “honest,” as he often described others. I felt he didn’t understand how honest I was. I may have been wrong about this. I later read in his diary:

I remember texting him on Thanksgiving, feeling guilty about my boyfriend, with no idea what I was doing:

When I was falling in love with Caveh, I struggled to explain to my friends that something amazing was happening but that it hurt. It felt like I was getting cracked open. It felt like Caveh was forcing me to speak in my inner voice, a fragile and tender inner voice that couldn’t survive on the outside, that no one wanted, that I had written poems in until I stopped writing. And then lost. So when Caveh read my poems and talked about how artistic I was and what a beautiful soul I had, I felt like I was myself again. I wasn’t just a corporate lawyer. And when he told me I was being dishonest I knew he was right.  My friends just told me he sounded like a cult leader and to watch some HBO show about the NXIVM cult.

I was annoyed that Caveh kept asking me if I wanted things to “get physical.” But was I annoyed because I wanted to make things work with my boyfriend? Or was it because he always asked right when I felt close with him, and I hated the tension after I said, because I had to say, “No, I have a boyfriend?” Maybe I just wanted him just to touch me and see. Maybe I didn’t know what I wanted.

I showed him my texts to my brother’s girlfriend where I said I wished we could touch each other but it not be sexual, that he seemed like a wounded animal, that I just wanted to hold him, for it to not be so unbearably tense.

And then I told him, again, that I wanted to lie in bed together but not to touch each other, and of course, he did touch me.

There was no going back. I began to stay nights at Caveh’s, and my boyfriend didn’t notice I wasn’t coming home.

As I write this, it  has been almost five months since Caveh first reached over his bed and touched my waist.

Caveh is crazier than he seems on The Show. After we first had sex, he asked to read my poems and said I was his soulmate. After we first fought, the next morning, he thought I was “fucked up,” and planned to abandon the relationship. After I broke up with my boyfriend and flew straight to Florida to escape the pain of it, even as I sat late at night by the pool at my brother’s, sobbing on the phone about the end of my relationship and my shame over cheating, Caveh excitedly asked if he and his kids could stay at my apartment in New Haven. Right away, he would say we should move in together, right away, should get married, right away; if I wanted kids, we could have kids. Now he doesn’t say that stuff. That hurts.

But then, if I had simply done it all, committed my all, perhaps Caveh would have. He had been crushingly alone since his break-up. He had spent his whole adult life, in a way, pining for his college girlfriend, the woman who he thought made him see the world as beautiful rather than ugly and sad. He saw her in me—he kept telling me—he saw an artist. Finally, I was getting what I’d wanted: to be told I was the character I wanted to play.

The moment I broke up with my boyfriend, he was all-in. He wanted, he told me with a lot of shame, to be like Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. I was thrilled.

He kept saying that he should be writing about us more, that he was “losing all this gold.” On Christmas, we sat in bed, and as he later wrote in his diary: “I started crying at how much love I was feeling and also, I think, how long it has been since I’ve felt this way about someone.”

A few days later, we had been fighting—I’d told him about a scriptwriting session with a friend and he’d said something like, “What’s the point of writing that?”—and he was jumping around trying to swat a roach. He was wearing long johns and a beanie. I suddenly saw him as an old, frail man, pallid and spindly. It was 4AM and I was disgusted by everything, disgusted by all I had lost, by my measly future, by the feeling that I was a rat running over and over again into the same wall of the maze. I told Caveh I thought the age difference was too much.

Caveh was devastated.

 He was sixty years old, he lived in a one bedroom, and he was alone. He went out of town with his kids and I slept on the futon, watching the roaches crawl through the floorboards and up the black backdrop for his monologues, filming every object in his apartment because I thought I would never be there again.

But I came back, again and again.

But how do I tell the story of the last one hundred-fifty days without saying he was the victim or I was the victim, or everything was just great? We are two difficult people, very possibly “doomed.” And extremely age-inappropriate.

I can write a little summary of the relationship, and remind you, a little hastily, to imagine the passage of the days, the pleasure and melancholy of getting a little closer to the end, together. I can include a few details by way of synecdoche and symbol, the overcooked eggs and his bed with the broken frame and the turpentine smell of a certain windowsill and his almost unbelievable sweetness, a sweetness irreconcilable with his mercenary and unrecognizable selfishness.

But this is already beginning to drag.

This story probably will get told on The Show, told in twelve-minute webisodes edited to a breezy pace, 48 frames on video portraits, cutting on laughs, with Brechtean distanciation and a Woody Allen quality to the narration. I’ll become a character, the way people refer to the fan he dated as a “character” or an “actress.”

Everything will, by necessity, be truncated and simplified for dramatic effect, the way some characters on The Show become artificial saints, like the actress he has a crush on, and others become artificial villains, like the wife that cheats on him. The person closest to him.

It’s like Caveh punishes people for getting close to him and sabotages his relationships in advance. Caveh is obsessed with closeness, more than anyone I’ve ever met.

But fighting, he pulls away almost instantly; any distance from me, any unrecognition, any misunderstanding, makes him so uncomfortable that a hairline fracture becomes a colossal earthquake. And at those times, he storms off, like a wounded and petulant child. It is like he’s never met me.

Combined with The Show, this becomes unbearable. At those times of unrecognition, I fear that everything I’m saying is being recorded against me. He’ll repeat things I said back to me, and I’ll fear that he’s swishing them around his mouth for a script, trying them out for dramatic effect. I fear that he aggravates situations for dramatic effect, that he’s performing, that we’re both performing. He narrativizes compulsively, and tragically—he’ll say our relationship ended the day we had our first fight, or the day he told me he had fantasized about a certain girl, and I told him not to tell me about his fantasies. He feels muzzled by any constraints, he’ll say it feels like I’m choking him. He is a perfectionist in love; he is also selfish. He liked Ayn Rand as a young man. And like her, he still dreams, I think, of a perfect coincidence of desire, of a woman with whom there would never be any friction, never any limits.

He is a master projectionist. His mind is an oyster laboring at a grain of sand. He falls in love at first sight, over and over and over again. And everyone, at least anyone that comes to love him, that sticks around, will come to disappoint him. And disappoint him brutally.

And then they’ll be on The Show.

One unusually warm morning in early spring, Caveh and I were lying in his bed, touching each other’s hands. The air from the window gave me some expansive feeling of waking up as a child in the summer, before the sun was fully up, a feeling of happiness and of the memory of happiness. And the knowledge it was gone. Caveh asked how I was feeling, and I told him the truth: I felt an intense happiness and closeness, at that moment, and the bittersweet feeling that this might one day be lost, would be a memory of happiness, and one day I would be on The Show as just rising action-climax-denouement. And all the sweetness in between, like this moment, would disappear.

And it did. Caveh was furious. He stormed away. He told me that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if he vilified me on The Show it would be because I was afraid he would vilify me on The Show. And because I asked him about it.

And so I couldn’t ask about the thing that scared me the most without Caveh making it come true. And at the same time, Caveh demanded perfect and complete openness. It felt like blackmail.

You want your lover to see you, to see you in every detail and see how you are more than the details, how you are an entire world, an irreducible frequency.

You don’t want your lover to reduce you to the well-chosen modifier or the defining gesture. You don’t want your lover to think of you as the “smart one,” or the “clown,” or the “life of the party,” or whatever.  As Zizek said, “If you have reasons to love someone, you don’t love them.”

But with Caveh, you know he’s always casting you. And the casting gaze is anti-love.

In an unreleased episode of Not Getting Stoned With Caveh, the philosopher Markus Gabriel says that people hate The Show because they hate God. But I don’t think that Caveh’s gaze is a godlike gaze. The godlike gaze is the omniscient narrator of the realist novel, with unbounded understanding of and empathy for everyone; Caveh’s is a world without God, without total knowledge, with just the loneliness of the self, talking to itself in the dark. He isn’t the narrator speaking the world into being; he’s the narrator reducing the world to twenty-second sequences.

The horror of The Show is that he is a round character, and everyone around him is horribly flat. You have this fear that you go around, the center of your world, full of ambivalences and ambiguities, trying to love and be loved, but that to everyone else, you’re just a character with a one-episode role. You walk on stage, you play “the crush,” or “the coworker,” or “the girlfriend,” and then you walk off. And the horror of The Show is to see just how reduced you can be, just how much less you are to Caveh than you are to yourself. Just how little anyone is to anyone else.

It’s isolating. Caveh is obsessed with closeness, but he’s so afraid of it and does so much to damage it. On The Show, Caveh says that confrontation unites people, and lying pushes them apart. But he’s misguided. He doesn’t understand that he pushes and tests relationships until he ruins them, that he doesn’t show care for people, that he retreats into himself and his bloodlust for reaction, and then he puts the people that could have loved him, that wanted to love him, in his art.

You could call that honest and you could call it sadistic. That’s another thing Markus is wrong about—Caveh is sadistic. He wants to make a film out of Sade’s Justine and in college he wrote a rip-off of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience. And he’s sadistic in his relationships. At a bad moment, when Caveh didn’t want to see me, I told him I was thinking of flying to California. He just asked for his Ulysses annotations back. So I flew to California and ate breakfast with Greg, one of Caveh’s principal collaborators and closest friend from film school. I told him about our problems, about my feeling that Caveh’s idea of honesty was saying things in the way that wounded me the most.

Greg told me that I was right. For Caveh, he said, the honesty isn’t just about “truth”; it’s about the rush and tension of provoking people, shocking them. For him, nothing is really true unless it hurts. And the more primitive and painful and impulsive it is, the truer it is. Caveh loves that Blake line: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

But Greg loves Caveh. And he understands that everything that makes a person difficult is what makes them wonderful. Caveh is right and wrong about everything. He’s right that there’s some horrible repression and silence all around us, that everyone is terrified of approaching each other, of telling the truth. I understand, completely, I think, wanting to have your crush play herself in a film about your crush, wanting to give your parents ecstasy, wanting to film a year of your life, to not lose the passage of experience, even knowing you’re deforming the experience. I can understand wanting to make The Show.

And in my own way, inevitably, I did. When I broke up with my boyfriend to be with Caveh, I was terrified about how to do it without sending him further into his already troubling depression. Caveh simply told me to “do it the way that’s best for your film.” In fact, Caveh tried to convince me to film it. My camera stopped working the day before, which I took as a sign from God not to. But I still recorded the sound. I filmed him walking away, putting on his headphones, giving up. I made a film of it.

When I showed it to my best friend, she said I needed to get rid of the real audio because it was too sad. She and I don’t talk these days.

This stuff is sad. Underneath all of Caveh’s work there is a total sadness, a fear of loss, an effort at capturing happiness which destroys it, like a butterfly in the net. When people meet him, they’re surprised at how quiet he is. And if they knew him better, they’d be surprised by how dark he is. He says he believes in God, that he has faith; but he’s also told me that every time he goes to the doctor he hopes they’ll tell him he’s dying. That that would be freedom.

One of the first things I told Caveh, the night I came over to edit Season 3, the night he says was the best night we had, before everything happened, was that The Show made him undateable. “Oh,” he said, and turned back to Final Cut.

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