IN this golden time-killing era of YouTube.com, it can sometimes feel as if everyone’s a short-film auteur. In fact, the home-video geyser aesthetics that result from the combination of Mentos and Diet Coke may be the only category not offered in this year’s wide-ranging Los Angeles International Short Film Festival at the ArcLight.
The festival has more than 600 live-action, animated and documentary films arranged into nearly 100 programs, with themes such as eccentric characters and children’s adventures, vengeance and unexpected twists, “what if” scenarios and so forth. Those with treasure-seeker mentalities may view it as a hunt for potential Academy Award short film honorees, because the L.A. Shorts Fest, as it calls itself, has a solid record of screening eventual nominees, such as the 2005 animated Oscar winner “The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation.”
This year, the animated selection includes a new hand-drawn, seven-minute Disney short, “The Little Matchgirl,” a quietly beautiful, poignant adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story that plays like a master animation class in transformational imagery and the colored interplay between winter snow and burnished light. Directed by Roger Allers (“The Lion King”), it’s also that rare animated film that actually concerns a child, in this case a Russian beggar girl whose loneliest moments lead her to fantasize of a warmer world beyond the glow emanating from her matchsticks. Silently played yet memorably scored to Alexander Borodin’s yearning String Quartet No. 2 in D major, this is a small, sentimental gem and, in its tale of dangerous neglect and fierce hope, a reminder that traditional animation shouldn’t be allowed to die.
When Disney got involved in revitalizing Times Square in New York, though, preserving what had become a low-income, culturally diverse if vice-ridden neighborhood wasn’t a priority. Paul Stone’s absorbing 11-minute documentary “Tales of Times Square” -- inspired by Josh Alan Friedman’s book of the same name -- attempts a strange mix of grimy nostalgia and hip cynicism, through the use of ‘70s and ‘80s-era still photographs of hustlers and prostitutes, tough-guy narration and 1989 interview footage of a proud Times Square denizen named Gerard “Skids” Jones, who had been moving from empty porn palace to empty porn palace as the forces of urban renewal arrived with the brooms.
For the late 19th century French entertainer Joseph Pujol, however, certain baser amusements had their rewards. Yet audiences who first caught Marseilles-born Pujol’s unusual stage act -- the willful, sonically complex passing of gas with the control of a skilled musician -- might have assumed they had stumbled into the wrong theater. It is only one of the wry sources of humor writer-director Steve Ochs milks in his lavish biopic parody “Le Petomane: Parti Avec le Vent.” Though the film is overlong at 32 minutes, Ochs at least trades the rude humor that could have overwhelmed his subject for the delicious absurdity of tortured-artist cinema, culminating in a scene in which Pujol (a perversely serious Ben Wise) points his hindquarters to a mirror, turns his head around and says: “Are you a blessing or a curse?”
Of course, the blessing of short films in this age of 2 1/2 -hour summer event flicks is that they can whip in and out of a narrative that at feature length would feel superfluous or stretched thin. The 15-minute “The Shovel,” -- directed by Nick Childs and featuring David Strathairn as a man whose late-night confrontation with a neighbor turns nightmarish, feels like the spiky short story suspense author Stanley Ellin never wrote. And director Adam Kane’s boxing tale “The Fix,” starring Robert Patrick as a washed-up fighter watching his sins visited upon his up-and-comer son (Travis Aaron Wade), has a brutally efficient way with emotion that recalls the charge of old B-movies.
The feelings that run through the documentary “Mind Over Matter: A Spiritual Journey,” however, are inevitably more complex, even if the circumstances they detail are indisputably sad. In 1998, then-25-year-old Scott Gerow began the film as a chronicle of his obese father Dave’s struggles to lose weight, but the emphasis changed after Scott was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, which meant dad and son were simultaneously in the throes of debilitating diseases. But issues of health must also contend with deep-seated family problems, and inevitably the film is less the inspirational beacon it wants to be, and more of an indirectly poignant portrait of denial and loneliness. Because while Scott’s easygoing smile and good humor in the face of countless radiation treatments are undeniably powerful, what may be impossible to forget is the slow crumpling of Dave’s once-jolly face as he deals with disappointment and tragedy.
Los Angeles International Short Film Festival
Where: ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: Tuesday to Sept. 14
Price: $10, film programs; $15, panels; $25, opening night and closing night award ceremony
Info: (323) 461-4400, www.lashortsfest.com
* “Mind Over Matter: A Spiritual Journey”: 3:15 p.m. next Thursday
* “Tales of Times Square”: 7:45 p.m. next Thursday
* “Le Petomane: Parti Avec le Vent”: 1:15 p.m. Sept. 8
* “The Little Matchgirl”: 1 p.m. Sept. 9
* “The Fix”: 5:45 p.m. Sept. 10
* “The Shovel”: 10 p.m. Sept. 12