365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die is a podcast that experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi started at the beginning of this year. Each episode is a short story, ranging from six minutes to 30 seconds, told directly to the audience. Zahedi has been a quiet star of the American indie scene for decades. His films are almost always autobiographical, and his podcast, with episodes titled ‘My Least Favorite Person’ and ‘My Therapist Insists I Tell Suzanne About the Prostitute’ and ‘What Richard Linklater Said To Me About Why I Was a Failure’, is no different. The subject matter ranges from past sexual experiences, failed film projects and parenting to run-ins with famous people, and his ex-girlfriends.
If Zahedi can be called a superlative artist, it is in the category of openness. The Show About the Show, his television show that has a cult-like following, is a docuseries with a seemingly simple premise: each episode is about the making of the previous episode. It depicts his life with an intensity — and intimacy — that is unmatched even in the age of reality television. Zahedi’s insistence on showing himself smoking weed with his students on set — because it happened — results in his near-termination from a professorship at the New School. The pressures of reenacting their entire life on camera pushes his wife to pursue an affair, and eventually she divorces him and takes the kids — only after Caveh has directed a sex scene between her and the lover. Zahedi’s most acclaimed film, 2005’s I Am a Sex Addict, tells the story of his ‘compulsive honesty’ and addiction to paying for sex as he prepares to embark on a third marriage, freed from his addiction.
365 Stories is no less honest than his other work. It does, however, stray from his work as a director, in which he (or his onscreen persona) usually stays buoyant, even chipper, in the face of tragedy. On the podcast, Zahedi allows himself to mine even the most mundane stories for their woeful core. Frequently, at the end of a story, he finds himself in tears. In more than one episode he details tracking down an ex-girlfriend to try to reconnect after one of his many divorces and being rebuffed. After discussing his estranged older sister who he realises cares for him through small acts of affection, Zahedi begins weeping, reminding himself to tell her for the first time that he loves her in case she should suddenly die.
One entertaining genre of story Zahedi likes to tell is ‘run-in with major artists’. In one episode, Paul Auster detests a translation Zahedi did of a book by Maurice Blanchot. In another, Zahedi recalls asking the playwright Amiri Baraka to write a play for his anti-apartheid student group at Yale. His request is granted, and he directs the play, but then loses the sole copy. In one of the best episodes, Zahedi gets stage fright while accepting an award for ‘Best Film NOT Playing at a Theater Near You’ and stands frozen on stage, which makes Bill Murray erupt into laughter from the crowd. In another, artist Laurie Simmons is on the panel for the Rome Prize, which he wins because her daughter, Lena Dunham, loves his films. He then feels hurt when Dunham gets famous and stops returning his emails. When people have access to the famous and powerful, they often do not tell these kinds of stories for fear of being excluded from their world. Zahedi has no problem with this. He’s interested in how the famous and powerful make him feel, more than in their fame or power, which is refreshing, and almost brave.
The revelation for Zahedi at the end of many episodes is that, more than anything, he is searching for connection. But listening to the podcast, you wonder whether Zahedi really deserves this. He is, by his own admission, cruel — a bully, a coward and self-involved. It can occasionally feel almost sadistic listening to this bumbling narcissist describe his experience travelling through the world, knowing (because he tells us) that he truly is alone.
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