Houston filmmaker Alex Georges wasn't hard to pick out of the crowd of cinephiles entering Austin's venerable Dobie Theater last Monday. The Dobie, one of the venues for the new South by Southwest film festival, could barely contain the big, dark-haired, square-jawed Georges. Built more along the lines of a Brian De Palma than, say, Woody Allen, Georges, in his ballcap and 7:30 (p.m.) shadow, was the most commanding presence there. Which is not to say that he was the most relaxed.
Rather, he was publicly fretting about that morning's Austin American-Statesman review of his film Cultivating Charlie, which he premiered at the festival. (The film had had its first screening two nights before.)
"Have you read it?" he asked, in a certain amount of anguish. "I heard [the critic] only gave it two stars." Out of how many? came the question. "I don't know. Probably a hundred."
Georges couldn't be consoled by the notion that the review was just one man's opinion. In his case, it is much more than that. Though he's made a number of shorts, Cultivating Charlie is his first feature. He doesn't have a distribution deal and can only hope to get one after his film has appeared in a number of festivals and garnered reviews. Positive reviews, that is. "Glowing" would help.
Georges, 30, is a native of River Oaks. He has wanted to be a filmmaker ever since the night in 1972 when he watched a party scene from The Thief Who Came to Dinner being shot in the house of his neighbor, Bob Lanier. He recalls being impressed that "everybody got to stay up late" for the filming, and he decided he wanted a job that would allow him to do the same. "My life was never the same [after that night]," he says now. "I never could study."
That may be one reason he was kicked out of St. John's High School after accumulating a less than distinguished 0.5 grade point average. "They were real nice about it," he recalls. "I've never seen anyone so reluctant to kick a kid out of school." The school apparently harbored no long-term ill will, as Georges was allowed to film Cultivating Charlie on its campus, including a scene in which the school library catches on fire. Georges says he doesn't bear a grudge either, but he also admits with a laugh that "I've dreamed of burning that place down for 15 years."
After leaving St. John's, Georges enrolled at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It was there that he began making short films. And it didn't take him long to show promise; at the 1979 Houston film festival he won a prize for a six-minute color short ("a sort of pre-MTV music video") he shot when only 16. He finally ended up in the film program at the University of Santa Fe, where he continued making shorts.
But shorts don't make a career; features do. That's why Georges was so concerned about the response to Cultivating Charlie at the SXSW Festival. (Dedicated to independent Texas filmmakers, the festival also showcased work by Houstonians Eagle Pennell and Gary Chason.) Cultivating Charlie is in part a retelling of Voltaire's classic novel Candide. When asked during a post-screening question-and-answer period why he chose to use that particular novel, Georges quipped that it "was in the public domain, so we didn't have to pay for the rights." But when pressed, Georges says he was drawn to Voltaire's story for "its tonal changes." "It is very satirical," he says, "but also naive. It is saccharine-sweet, happy-go-lucky, but on the same page the army will come in and cut off the legs of a villager." Combining scenes of his own protagonist's naivete with a mass murder committed by an archetypal disgruntled post-office employee, Georges hoped to reproduce these "tonal changes" in his film.
Georges' Charlie (played by Jake Weber) is the addled vegetarian son of a hamburger magnate. When the boy's reluctance to eat meat plays into the hands of anti-beef protesters, the father sends his son on a quest to find the "perfect burger." Unfortunately, Charlie keeps getting photographed either looking sick or spitting out a chunk of meat. He abandons his father's quest and sets out on his own. Along the way he encounters two guides: one with a wildly optimistic view of the world, the other deeply pessimistic.
"I was never as naive and childlike as Candide, but I'd like to have been," Georges says.
Based on ideas rather than sensations, and asking earnest questions, Cultivating Charlie doesn't feel like many other films being made today. That was Georges' intent. "People are getting off on dark, ultra-violent crap," he says. "Most films are about style over substance, and they're all starting to look alike."
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He and his "12 to 15" financial backers are gambling that people will pay to see something different. Dispelling the notion that because he is from River Oaks he can simply write a check and shoot a film, he says, "I got one shot to make the movie I wanted." If it doesn't make at least its $1.6 million budget back, he wonders if he'll ever get to make another film.
But he's happy with Cultivating Charlie. When asked about the film's wild variety of motifs and its intellectual ambitions -- its satire recalls Bunuel, for God's sake (a filmmaker Georges doesn't particularly enjoy) -- he says, "It wasn't ambition. I just wanted to do everything, because I didn't know if I would get a second chance."
If the Austin crowd that night had their way, he would. When told that this was his first feature, people nodded their heads in approval and sent him off with applause.
Cultivating Charlie will screen May 31-June 2 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515.