The short route 

Cinemaphiles across the country are learning a secret that patrons of the Florida Film Festival have known all along: A movie's merit isn't always defined by its length.

Keeping tabs on short subjects is becoming a national pastime, both for viewers in search of a quick artistic fix and studios on the lookout for promising young directors. A number of websites have sprung up in recent years with the purpose of bringing bite-sized, downloadable epics directly to the public. But no matter how many miniature gems can be discovered sitting alone in front of a computer, it's the chance to experience a hit-and-run winner in a group setting that's made the FFF's shorts programs consistent leaders in ticket sales.

This year, the festival increases its commitment to the genre with seven separate menus, exposing a wider spectrum of unknown and known talents. The International Showcase compendium (showing at Enzian Theater and Colonial Promenade) meets the latter goal with a screening of Alexander Petrov's "The Old Man and the Sea," the 1999 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Short. The 22-minute masterpiece is every bit as gorgeous as its brief Oscar-broadcast clip hinted: Its richly detailed, finger-painted pastels lend a joyously visual dimension to Ernest Hemingway's deep-water parable. Petrov's reverent translation isn't out to impose an ironic second voice on the literary classic, but parallels can be drawn between the aged Santiago's dogged pursuit of his fishy quarry and the animator's triumphant vindication of old-fashioned techniques in the face of computer-generated competition.

Academy approval, however, can't always be taken as gospel. The Harlem to Hades program will doubtless gain attention from the inclusion of "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York," Oscar's pick as Best Live Action Short. In Barbara Shock's comedy, a widow (Helen Stenborg) finds unexpected camaraderie with the greasy members of a Manhattan bike gang. The film is a cute diversion, but ultimately unexceptional; it's hard to believe there were no worthier contenders for the prize. Elsewhere on the same program, more fun is to be had in "Tex, the Passive-Aggressive Gunslinger," a sepia-tinted period piece that casts Seinfeld guest player Bob Balaban as a psychologically manipulative cowboy who defeats his enemies by aiming to please, not shooting to kill.

In Gods and Gals, the heavenly component is supplied by "Editing Is Everything," a black-and-white spoof that envisions the Bible as an art-by-committee initiative overseen by an angelic team of publishing executives. The "princess" Mary Magdalene, they reason, works better on the page as a hooker with a heart of gold; it's but one in a series of book-industry barbs that hit their targets with stinging force. New York writer/director Kim Cummings isn't as successful in her "Weeki Wachee Girls," trying to cram too many narrative developments into an otherwise astute story of two teen-agers who reach a crisis point in their friendship. Its 22-minute running time simply doesn't do justice to this sensitive drama, which cries out for either expansion or ... um, editing.

The Bachelorama program's (showing at Enzian Theater and Colonial Promenade) "The Last Real Cowboys" is a close cousin to the previously mentioned "Tex" -- it relies on the same Old West setting, faux-yellowed photography and therapy-derived gags -- but even the presence of Billy Bob Thornton can't compensate for its uneven scripting. Moving into the modern world, "The Dancing Cow" introduces us to an amateur filmmaker who tries to take credit for an indie project he didn't actually direct. Insider humor is the agenda, all the way down to rib-poking references to Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. As shorts become the new resumes in the Hollywood job hunt, a little brown-nosing is a canny move.

Living up to its title, the festival's Moodswinging omnibus (showing at Enzian Theater and Colonial Promenade) veers from the wild to the sedate. Little can be said that will prepare innocent viewers for the gauntlet-throwing work of audacity that is "Titler": Some experiences can't be expressed in words, and watching a Hitler look-alike in drag sing show tunes is one of them. Easier to pin down is "Changing Directions," an American/Swedish co-production that dramatizes the fateful day in the latter country's history when motorists began to drive on the right-hand side of the road. Personifying the upheaval are a shy minister and a lonely engineer's wife who forge a personal covenant as the momentous event transpires. Despite its atypical subject, the treacly weeper proves that a garden-variety romantic comedy can hit all its clichéd marks in only 20 minutes.

Ambiguity is revived in Animated Shorts, with stop-motion artist Dave Fogler's "Chum" taking us into a neighborhood bar frequented by horrifically surreal toy dolls and dinosaurs. A Howdy Doody-like bartender drones on about his tapeworm while an ominous outsider inches up the stairs; if there's an ideological stance to the bizarre, obscure goings-on, it's known only to Fogler. Likewise cryptic is Ann Lavinge's "Where Monsters Lie," in which stark, intentionally crude line drawings illustrate a woman's fears that predators are following her everywhere. Her alleged tormentors certainly look nasty -- they resemble Pac-Man with fangs -- but it's unclear if we're listening to a story of emancipation or the ramblings of a dangerously diseased mind.

Off-kilter perspectives are the stock in trade of Midnight Shorts, an after-hours showcase of films with extreme content or specialized appeal. It's worth staying up late for "Heat Vision and Jack," one of the most clear-headed satires to see the light of a projector in many a moon. Director Ben Stiller doesn't miss a trick in his mockery of TV-action cheese, casting Jack Black as a former astronaut who becomes a mental giant when the sun sets. Don't be put off by the knowledge that this uproarious fantasy isn't a short film per se, but an unsold pilot that was rejected by the Fox network. Like the best quickie treatises the Florida Film Festival has to offer, Stiller's wastes no time in getting right to the point.


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