Being square with you.

From the 5.5 series by Brent Houston.

From top to bottom:

The Commute
Map to Nowhere #3
The Delegates

These oil paintings measure 5.5 inches by 5.5 inches square. When Houston has shown them in the past, he has welcomed viewers to arrange the small works in any order they like, in return for which they must offer their interpretation based on arrangement. Each could represent a line of poetry or a pictorial piece of a narrative determined by the viewer, and each has the power to elicit a response as unique as the individual who experiences the 5.5’s. Houston wants to hear your stories.
See more of the 5.5’s in the grippinglyauthentic! gallery.

A brief trip with Caveh Zahedi.

From the biography on his website: “Caveh Zahedi began making films while studying philosophy at Yale University. After graduating, he went to Switzerland to try to work with Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard refused to meet with him after he phoned Godard at three in the morning to offer his filmmaking services. Disappointed, Caveh returned to the United States and got a job trying to teach video to autistic children.

When fellow workers started mistaking him for one of the autists, Caveh quit his job and moved to Paris to try to raise money for a film about French poet Arthur Rimbaud.”

The story continues in both heartbreaking and amusing directions, and might be one of the most self-effacing biographies you’ll read about someone on their own website. It also proves that nothing can stop Caveh Zahedi.

He is the winner of an IFP Gotham Award for “Best Feature Not Playing At A Theater Near You,” the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, and  a Sundance Documentary grant. His films have won critical acclaim, yet they haven’t been widely seen. Each is autobiographical and fearless in the way they investigate Caveh’s idiosyncrasies and addictions, which probably doesn’t equal box-office success, but the film maker creates what is true to himself, and we like that quite a bit.

Caveh was good enough to speak with us over the last couple of months, and here’s what he had to say:

grippinglyauthentic: Let’s start with where we first “met” you, so to speak, which was the segment of Waking Life – Richard Linklater’s beautiful and ground-breaking film – called “The Holy Moment.” Can you tell us how you got involved with the project and how your segment was set up? Were you simply asked to have a conversation or was it scripted?

Caveh Zahedi: I got a package in the mail one day from Rick Linklater, who I’d met at Sundance in 1991 when we both had films in competition there. I was there with A Little Stiff and he was there with Slacker and we liked each other’s films and became friends.

The moment I got the package in the mail is actually documented in my 1999 year-long video diary film entitled In the Bathtub of the World.

In the package was a scripted scene as well as animation samples by Bob Sabiston, the head animator, to show me what it would look like. I loved the animation but I didn’t think I could deliver those scripted lines very convincingly. I explained this to Rick and he said “No problem, we’ll figure it out when you get here.”

So I flew to Austin and Rick asked me if there was something else I’d rather say instead. I said I had four ideas for things to talk about and he asked to hear them. I told him the four ideas and he said he liked all of them and that we might as well shoot them all and that he would decide later. We shot the four scenes in about half an hour and that was that.

He later used one of the deleted scenes for his own segment about Philip K. Dick. That scene (about a dream I’d had) was pretty much verbatim what I had said on tape, and he simply re-enacted it. If you listen to it carefully, you can hear the same verbal rhythms and inflections that I typically use. I thought it was a really good idea to put that scene in the movie at that point but with his character saying it.

The idea of the holy moment I kind of just made up, but the term is used in a slightly different context in A Course in Miracles, a “channeled” book that I was obsessed with for many years. In that context, it refers to a moment in which two individuals surrender their egos to what the Course calls the “Holy Spirit.”

ga: We’re not surprised that you talked about what you wanted to. You seem incredibly adept at being Caveh Zahedi, at stating your mind and being present, for better or worse. The performance felt spontaneous. What you were saying and how you said it, along with Sabiston’s ethereal animation, reminded us of those perfect little epiphanies we have when a degree of clarity enters our minds and we see what is truly important to us. We’d like to live in those moments, though it would probably be exhausting.

Experiencing someone on a level that feels authentic and sincere is always elevating, almost like a kind of high. Can you talk about some of your own epiphanies, when some piece of seemingly divine information opened up to you and maybe changed the way you saw the world around you or the way you lived in that world?

CZ: A lot of my epiphanies have happened on drugs. I was on LSD once and I “saw” a Buddha with a flower in his outstretched hand. And what I got from that was that “beauty” (symbolized in this case by the flower) is always available and right in front of you and that you don’t have to go looking for it – it’s right there in front of you!

ga: It seems that accessibility is an issue you constantly deal with, whether or not anyone will see your work. Admittedly, it took Richard Linklater to introduce us to you, and fortunately what we saw in Waking Life was compelling enough to inspire some investigation, to make us seek out your work.

You’ve collaborated with film makers who reach larger audiences with some regularity, whether working with them in creating a film or staring in their work. Is there some level of frustration you feel regarding the size of your audience?

CZ: There is definitely a level of frustration regarding the limited audience I’ve been able to reach. It may be that having a small audience is a condition of the type of work that I make, but I love a lot of films that reach a much larger audience, so I would prefer that.

One of my favorite filmmakers is Lars Von Trier, and he manages to reach a much larger audience without sacrificing depth or extremity or innovation. If I could have the filmography of anyone other than myself, I would choose his filmography (with the exception of his pre-Breaking the Waves films).

ga: Even when Von Trier makes a film that isn’t necessarily easy to “enjoy,” he seems faithful to his ideas and faultless in his integrity. These are qualities we appreciate in your work as well, admirable in a business where art is often turned into product, integrity traded for market appeal. Though Von Trier reaches a large audience in Europe, there’s still some strong resistance to a lot of his work here, especially because of the explicit sexual content.

Do you think your willingness to talk about drugs in your films is something that scares people?

Caveh Zahedi by Michael Grimaldi, 2008.

CZ: I don’t know if my openness about drugs is holding me back from broader acceptance. In a way, it’s part of the appeal of my work, I think, since there aren’t a lot of filmmakers who are open about it.

I gave a talk on hallucinogenics recently – really just the autobiography of my drug use, and it was given at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn – and  it was pretty packed and people seemed pretty hungry to hear and talk about this stuff. It would certainly be great if there were an intelligent debate about drugs for a change, and I’d totally be interested in participating in that. I love marijuana, but I think hallucinogenics are the really interesting drugs.

ga: Does being a parent have any impact on drug usage for you?

Caveh Zahedi: My wife doesn’t like me to get stoned in front of our toddler, so it means there are fewer opportunities.

ga: As far as audience-friendly films, is directing someone else’s story something you would consider?

CZ: I would certainly consider directing someone else’s story if I loved it (which is rare). I once got hold of the last screenplay that John Cassavetes had written before he died, and I thought it was ASTONISHING. I tried to get the rights to direct it but I was unable. I would have loved to direct that particular script. But it’s probably the only one I’ve ever read that I was DYING to make. The directors, other than Cassavetes, that get me excited – Von Trier, Ken Loach, Lukas Moodyson, Michael Haneke, Frank Capra, Mike Leigh, Andrei Tarkovsky.

I recently saw a film by the Safdie brothers called Daddy Longlegs that I loved. Other films I saw recently that I loved are Head On by Fatih Akin (which is not terribly recent but which I only saw recently) and Precious by Lee Daniels.

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Buried treasure.

We think it’s a perfect time to look at paintings by Scott Johnson.

 
From top to bottom:

South Pacific
Terror Forming
Terraforming
Last Dance

All paintings are oil on linen mounted on wood, measuring 12″ x 12″ with the exception of Last Dance – which is 30″ x 32″ – and were painted in 2009.

Let’s just think about all this oil, about what’s happening and what this will really, truly, do to our world. It’s not just a “large group of carbons where they shouldn’t be,” as some people in some mindsets would have us think; and why is that something we would dismiss as no big deal, anyway? Carbons. One of the (what, three?) essential elements that we’re made of? Why is that what we’re willing to accept as the reasoning to not worry about it? A large group of carbons where they shouldn’t be… That is exactly what we’re concerned about. What’s a nuclear explosion? Oh, don’t worry about it. Just a large group of really little hot things.

Please note that these images can be clicked multiple times to zoom closer. And they are all totally worth your extra clicking.

The Anima of Amanita.

Amanita Design is an independent game development studio founded in 2003 by Jakub Dvorsky. The Czech studio has created games for the BBC (Questionaut) and The Polyphonic Spree. They’ve won several Webby’s and have been nominated for a BAFTA. They’ve collaborated with Bjork for a point and click “toy” called The Pantry, and recently released their first full-length masterpiece, Machinarium – three years in the making – in which a self-made robot journeys through a bizarre and beautiful landscape.

Amanita’s work is magical and visually complex. They create unique worlds which require focus and concentration, which are non-violent and bereft of smash cuts, nor are they filled with thrashing music and the vibrating impact of bullets in bodies. They won’t tweak your blood-lust, nor will they train you for combat. The ten artists at Amanita seem more interested in making us think.

Machinarium presents breathtaking scenes navigated by unusual and unlikely heroes who poke and prod their surroundings – which vary from swampy garbage dumps to robot-filled cities in dank decline – for clues and tools to reach some far off destination. A character might find a bit of rope, the keys of a saxophone, or a houseplant, not knowing the purpose for any particular item until later in the game when they meet a musician, find a greenhouse, or approach a bridgeless ravine. The inventory of odd objects grows, and creative problem solving must be employed to fit the pieces together.

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Half the sky, all your attention.

We recently attended a community conversation with New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, who was speaking about the oppression of and cruelty toward women throughout much of our global society, as illuminated with provocative bluntness and intelligence in the new book Half the Sky. A collaboration with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, the book earned the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a wife and husband team. WuDunn was not present for the conversation, but Kristof illustrated one of her connections to the subject matter by relating a story about WuDunn’s grandmother, who grew up in China and was a victim of foot binding.

The conversation was made possible by Facing History and Ourselves, an “international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism,” with the intent to promote a more informed and humane citizenry.

We are uncertain as to why the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University in Chicago was not fully attended; there must have been at least 732 people in the Chicago area who had time for this event, who might have walked away from the evening filled with a certain shock after finding that their quotient for compassion had increased considerably, which we would credit to the in-depth interviews and profound friendships embarked upon by WuDunn and Kristof as they spent time in Africa, Asia, and South America.

According to Kristof, the central moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery. In the 20th century it was the battle against totalitarianism. And in the 21st century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle against discrimination of women and children. One might argue that the former still exist in the latter, but by the end of the presentation, that women are still treated like second-class citizens – especially in third-world countries, but certainly not limited to them – becomes quite clearly a truth beyond argument.

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