Michigan can add to its list of essential exports the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the nation's oldest experimental film fest. Started in 1963, this one is known for its quality and brevity, traits at least partly attributable to the fact that it's a touring festival. In its local incarnation, it runs a mere four hours or so, spread over two nights. But that's not to say all the entries themselves are brief. Ruthless literalists who think a "short film" should be only a few minutes long will warm to Jeff Scher's Sid, a 3 1/2-minute ode to a pug whose fierce grip on a rubber steak turns the little guy into a canine carousel. And fans of Escher and Magritte will wallow in the brain-fuck of Gregory Godhard's Mind's Eye, five vertiginous minutes of careening in and out of trompe l'oeil landscapes.
The real draw, though, are the longer entries (average running time: a tasty 30 minutes). Nicole Cattell's Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton documents visionary artist Guyton's transformation of a blighted Detroit neighborhood into a dreamscape of polka-dotted streets, trees trimmed with shoes, and found-object sculptures. This is art at its most expansive and expressive. Rebecca Baron's heartbreaking Okay Bye-Byeexplores Cambodia's grim history with a mix of historical footage and poetic narration that struggles to make sense of the devastation wrought first by U.S. bombs and then by Pol Pot. Poetic too is Jean-Francois Monette's Where Lies the Homo?, a masterpiece of the "queer collage autobiography" genre. This half-hour epic is richly allusive in constructing a gay identity out of bits of pop culture from such sources as Snow White, Cocteau, beefcake loops, and old Hollywood movies. The tone is droll ("Madonna gave tips on how to enslave rich men") but poignant. Old Hollywood also provides the text for Mar- tin Arnold's seizure-inducing Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy. Arnold is renowned for meticulously reworking footage from old movies, repeating frames backward and forward to dizzying effect. In this film, a simple act like opening a door becomes an existential exercise. Familiar faces like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and a doting old movie mother become unwitting players in an incest melodrama. D.H. Lawrence said repetition is death; in Arnold's hands, it's art.
The fest, sponsored by the S.F. Cinematheque and SFSU, plays Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19 and 20, at 7:30 p.m. at SFSU's Fine Arts Building 101, August Coppola Theater, 1600 Holloway, S.F. Admission is $3.50-7; call 558-8129.