You have to tell a story of human endeavor, to uncover truths of existence, to ponder the beauty of consciousness and love. This is your chance to have complete creative control over your vision and, because of a limited budget and other factors (like not being famous), you have roughly 15 minutes to do it. Odds are — no one will see it (no one compared to how many see even the worst studio bombs). This is the fate of short filmmakers.

“I guess that’s the reason no one ever says, I want to be a short filmmaker
when I grow up
,” my roommate, who is a short filmmaker, tells me. “There’s
no audience, and there’s no money in it. Most people do it so that they can get
their work out there, so they can get bigger paychecks. They can do it cheaply
and creatively.”

The conversation turned into an all-night marathon of short-film viewing. This is a subject my roommate knows a lot about. He’s made seven shorts, all by himself. He was the director, cinematographer, editor and actor — he’s the Cindy Sherman of short films. After perusing the works of past short-festival winners, we went to British short filmmaker Neo’s Web site, where we watched one of Neo’s original arty shorts, then clicked on another link that played his commercial campaign for Nike using the same visual effects. Point made. So a short film becomes an entry on a resumé where the objective is: Get More Money. While that may seem ignoble, these films often represent the best of what a filmmaker can do, unfettered as they are by industry structures, formats and number crunching. They are samples of true artistic expression, and we the viewers get to nibble.

The Armand Hammer Museum, in conjunction with the Sundance Institute, has been serving up these little hors d’oeuvres of films in the outdoor courtyard every Friday this month. Last week, we got there late and spent two minutes in line grabbing glasses of wine from the cash bar, and 15 minutes scoping out a view that was not disturbed by a bamboo branch, a human head or a column. We found a spot, and the smorgasbord of shorts was soon served.

Ryan, a short from Chris Landreth about once-famous Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who now panhandles on the streets of Montreal, was captivating for its use of, you guessed it, animation. In the film, Ryan’s animated and disembodied face is held together with metal rods and has the disturbing look of a von Hagens model. Larkin tells Landreth where it all went wrong — booze and a woman — while the woman tells her side of the story. As far as a potentially clichéd rumination about artistic decline, heartbreak and alcoholism goes, this one floored.

Another film, by Juan Alejandro Ramírez, was the earnest Sólo un Cargador, about a cargador (human mules who carry white folks’ gear up to Machu Picchu) in Peru who laments that none of the pilgrims who “befriend” him ever follow through on their promises to send pictures. The film was relentlessly heart-wrenching. One of my friends almost cried when the anonymous cargador said woefully, “Even bad luck runs out.” Another made pretend slash marks against her wrists.

The humorous take on The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, by Matt McCormick, was a Vonnegut-esque exploration of “the government’s funding of minimalist expression.” While my friends and I laughed out loud, the art- and film-student crowd didn’t seem to get it at first. Maybe because they were college students trained in serious art criticism.

Eventually the crowd lightened up, and when people started to file out after the 84-minute program, they were buzzing about how they laughed, cried, and questioned their existences — just like when you go to a really good full-length feature.

LA Weekly