First off, I’m not going to criticize anyone who says I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore is the worst film ever made. One could make that case. It’s either really, really bad in a way that has a certain irony or frankness that sort of turns the gross amateurism of it into a positive, or it’s just really, really bad, period.
Indeed, one of the first things I felt compelled to do after watching it was to investigate if the whole thing is a put on, since Borat and his assistant could make a better film. For one thing, though it purports to be an autobiographical documentary about the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and his family, at the end there’s the boilerplate disclaimer about all characters being fictitious and any resemblance to real—blah, blah, blah—is purely coincidental, which is suspicious.
There’s very little information anywhere online about this 1994 micro budget documentary, not surprisingly. What little I did come across, including an interview with Zahedi, inclines me to believe that there’s no put on here, that it’s exactly what it purports to be. Plus I saw Zahedi in the compilation film Underground Zero, and he has very much the same personality there, so I don’t think he’s playing a character in this movie.
Anyway, here’s the backstory as I understand it: Zahedi has had some modest success as a documentarian and working on other people’s films. He decides he’d like to do a film based on his own family’s dynamics, and their regularly taking trips to Las Vegas all his life.
So he goes to Vegas for a few days with his father and his teenage stepbrother. Instead of taking notes, he brings along a tape recorder and records their conversation the whole trip. I guess the idea is he thinks his film will be more real if he incorporates as much real life dialogue into it as possible. Whether the film he’s envisioning at this point is intended to be about his family and they’re going to reenact certain things that happened, or he’s just getting ideas for a work of fiction, I don’t know.
When he gets home, he has the tapes transcribed, writes a script based on them, and seeks investors. The most he can raise is $20,000, which will be well short of what his script calls for, since it has underwater scenes at a hotel pool and various complex, expensive things like that. He decides he’d prefer to just make a different film entirely with the $20,000 since this one can’t be done, but the investors say they’ll withdraw the money unless a film is made at least vaguely like the original idea of a family on a trip to Las Vegas.
So Zahedi hires the cheapest camera crew (his friends, apparently) with the cheapest equipment (honestly, the private films I make with my camcorder have better production values), and takes another trip to Vegas with his father and stepbrother, not as a re-creation of the prior one, but starting anew.
They proceed to basically make a home movie of the trip.
When I see something like this, I’m always reminded of one critic’s reaction to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV-movie: “The idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus…and to film whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.” It’s so dumb, and so uneventful, and so technically hopeless that it becomes fascinating just to see how bad it can get.
They shot plenty of footage along the way about the process itself, where mostly Zahedi, but also his family and the crew, talk about their intentions, and how it’s going, and how they’re feeling, etc., sort of like on those reality TV shows where the participants are shown commenting on what’s just transpired. Except—and this is the saving grace of this film, if it has one—with nothing like that kind of phony, staged feel to it.
It becomes at least as much a “making of” film as a film. It’s pretty much a story of the utter failure to make a movie with any conventional reason to exist.
The father tries his best to be cooperative, but the chemistry a lot of times is off and he can’t seem to do what Zahedi wants. The 15 or 16 year old stepbrother is intermittently uncooperative (he starts off by insisting on $500 instead of $300 for agreeing to allow himself to be filmed on the trip, since he knows that the whole thing falls apart if he pulls out at the last minute). The crew is completely incompetent. One disappears for a while because she’s an alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon. Several scenes have no sound. One scene is inadvertently shot by reusing a roll of film. Routinely people are out of the frame.
Now, I’m not a hundred percent sure that some of that isn’t intentional, that they were capable of making a more professional film but purposely did it this way for some reason of humor, irony, or art. Certainly you’d think even before digital editing and even with a shoestring budget you could have cleaned up 80% or more of the most egregious blunders in the editing. The fact that they’re there means they’re intentionally there. Not that they were necessarily intentionally filmed that way, but at least that a decision was made just to go with what they got—good or bad—and not try to clean it up.
I laughed out loud multiple times at this movie. I honestly don’t know if that’s the audience reaction Zahedi wanted or not.
The purported purpose of the trip is for Zahedi to get closer to his father and stepbrother, to communicate with them, to improve his relationship with them.
Also, he announces at the beginning of the film that in keeping with his spiritual philosophy, he intends to prove the existence of God by showing that whatever happens on the trip, it’s all good, it’s all for a reason.
Again, you have to wonder if this is a parody. It turns out he’s a Yale Philosophy major, so you’d hope he’s not a complete blithering idiot, but the philosophical ideas he espouses in the film really are on the level of a combination of Stuart Smalley and a fundamentalist 14 year old girl.
Of course if you start with the hypothesis that everything happens according to some benevolent God’s plan, and you’re determined to fit everything into that framework, you can always do so. When some self-help platitude that you refuse to allow any evidence to falsify is your philosophy of life, the lack of falsification doesn’t count as “proof” of anything (except people’s ability to practice self-deception when they think there will be some emotional benefit to doing so).
(By the way, in the film and in the material I read there are references to women Zahedi has dated and later to his wife—if this guy’s straight, you’ve got a hell of a scoop.)
To me at least, Zahedi himself comes across quite poorly in the film. He’s an annoying New Age doofus, and the longest section of the film is him strongly pressuring his father and stepbrother to do drugs with him. (He laughingly recounts tricking his stepbrother into doing drugs when the stepbrother was 8.) The father resists but tries to do so as nicely as possible, and the stepbrother pretty much tells him where he can stick the drugs, but he just keeps badgering them about it.
Still, at a certain level I can’t help but respect the honesty of this film. He has to have known when it came time to edit this footage that he looks like a stammering, babbling idiot at times, and that it doesn’t exactly look good to be twisting a minor’s arm to get him to take illegal drugs. How do you leave all that in? I don’t think I could. I have autobiographical elements in many of my little films, and I can’t claim to be this honest in showing me at my worst.
But just as the technical flaws are retained—shooting with the lens cap on, forgetting to turn on the microphone, etc.—he leaves all his personal flaws up there on the screen as well. (Or maybe he genuinely thinks he comes across fine.)
The only movie I’ve written about so far that I can even vaguely compare this to stylistically is The Talent Given Us. But The Talent Given Us is more fictionalized, and it’s nowhere near as (intentionally?) technically inept as this. Plus I’d say the characters on the whole are more interesting, and though certainly they are weird and flawed, none comes across as being as much of a prick as Zahedi.
In the end, I suppose I’m a little closer to the “It’s so bad in an artistically interesting and psychologically honest and revealing way as to be worth watching” camp than to the “This is complete and utter garbage” camp, but like I say, one can make a case either way about I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore.