Despite the heartwarming appeal of its title, Jim Finn’s Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (which top-lines this year’s AFI Fest shorts program) at first looks like an opaque joke: creepy footage of people (mostly teenagers) drowning under ice, lifted from Damien: Omen II, The Dead Zone and Our Mutual Friend, all set to Judy Garland’s lived-in rendering of “The Man Who Got Away.” Its power to haunt comes only well after Finn’s two-plus minutes have run their course — when the title, and our memory of those kids sinking horribly in their heavy gear, become an indelible dream image of young lives wasted. Such aftereffects are the proper aim of all short-film work. Don Hertzfeldt’s I Am So Proud of You, which dazzlingly mixes stick-figure animation with live-action footage, compresses one sad sack’s whole life and family history into a handful of minutes. Events are narrated in non sequiturs as dryly funny as the drawings (“Her father once strangled a rock in a fit of religious ecstasy”); the overall effect is as ecstatic as the bars of Wagner, which fill its final minute. Andrew T. Betzer’s John Wayne Hated Horses builds great tension in its first minutes, as a macho father (Anton Saunders) discovers the homoerotic postures into which his son (Mark Derbaremdiker) has organized his G.I. Joe collection. But wait: Is that Dad’s set of G.I. Joes? Are they really even father and son? Where Betzer’s film, like Finn’s, backs away from being understood too quickly, Todd Luoto’s Oil Change instead charges at direct confrontation (to satisfying effect), as a musician and his lover (Pat Healy and Michelle Lawrence) suffer a superbly acted dinner from hell with her upscale friends (Zeenath Shareef and Corey Brill). Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Citizens finds its way to a beautiful, long-buried interview with Muhammed Ali in his 1970s prime, among other clips of civil rights leaders and activists. A History of Aviation, by Hungarian filmmaker Bálint Kenyeres, passed one important test for this critic: the English-subtitle option malfunctioned on my preview DVD, so I had to watch it in Hungarian; Kenyeres’ visual storytelling was equal to his complex theme. A family on a seaside picnic panics over a lost child, and thereby miss the phenomenon that has so astonished their little girl. This is something ambitious: a cinematic analog to Auden’s verse about Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, and how the miraculous happens while the rest of us plod dully along. Of the dozen films in this program, only half were available at press time — but each had the power to pierce one’s heart and memory. (Mann Chinese 6, Mon., Nov. 2, 4 p.m.)
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