In Your Queue: The Amy Seimetz Triple Threat (“Upstream Color”, “Sun Don’t Shine”, “Silver Bullets”)

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It’s going to be a big year for Amy Seimetz. The multi-hyphenate St. Pete native will spend the summer trying to stay alive on season three of AMC’s crime drama The Killing, and later this year can be found as a recurring character on the Christopher Guest-created Family Tree on HBO. It’s a big break for someone who has toiled in indie films for so long without a breakout, but it’s those indie films that kick off her big year, and three new releases she has a role in can be found on VOD this month.

In Upstream Color (Amazon, OnDemand), Shane Carruth’s long overdue follow-up to the time travel mindbender Primer, Seimetz plays Kris, a young film producer whose life is upended when she is victimized by a highly sophisticated type of fraud, sort of a walking biological hypnosis that her brain has no defense against. She signs away her life to a thief, but doesn’t remember it upon awaking. Carruth plays Jeff, a man with his own mysterious past who is drawn to her, though he doesn’t quite know why.

In a film that will leave you guessing and then constantly changing your guesses with each new piece of information, that curious magnetism stands out as the central question. It’s the easiest to answer, and maybe that solidity makes it the most satisfying part.

Films like Upstream Color can frustrate more than they entertain if the mystery isn’t perfectly drawn out and conceived, but Carruth uses his experience as an engineer to his advantage to craft a puzzle of exceeding quality that will have you going back to watch it over again and pick apart everything you missed.

Written and directed by Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (Amazon, OnDemand) is a frantic and paranoid road movie that finds a pair of lovers, Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley), trekking from Tampa to the Everglades. It was IndieWire’s pick for Best Undistributed Film after a big debut at SXSW 2012.

Crystal and Leo, though, barely seem be lovers at all through their constant sniping and fighting. Most of the tension is because there’s actually a third passenger along for the ride: Crystal’s husband, who is in the trunk, dead after a vicious fight didn’t go the way he planned. Dead husband aside, the film is an engrossing examination of Crystal’s mental state, which runs up and down the entire spectrum throughout the film. Sheil is electric to watch in a performance that’s powerful and nuanced as she struggles to control her anger, flitting back and forth between a madwoman and graceful child.

It was actually on the set of Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets (Amazon, iTunes) that Seimetz and Sheil met before teaming up for Sun Don’t Shine. They play best friends, both actors, in this ultra-low-budget short feature about Claire (Sheil), a budding starlet, and the jealousy that slowly builds up when her boyfriend Ethan (Swanberg) casts Charlie (Seimetz) to replace her in one of his films, eventually drawing a dark revenge fantasy out of Claire.

Though Seimetz ends up mostly wasted here, stuck playing more of a catalyst for Claire and Ethan to have it out than a living, breathing character of her own, Sheil is exciting to watch once again as she turns the struggle with sanity into an essay.

Does Film Need a New Hays Code?

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It’s been almost a week since Lena Dunham’s Girls debuted on HBO. Girls, the story of a group of rich/upper middle class white girl post-grads living in Brooklyn who have yet to figure out their own lives, continues the deconstruction of the director’s own life that was started in her previous film, the polarizing digital indie Tiny Furniture.

The director, her films, her characters and her castmates have all been routinely pegged as insufferable and obnoxious. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we were all insufferable and obnoxious between the ages of 13 and 25. Some of us even earlier — and later — than that.

The somewhat troubling part of the whole thing is that her films inhabit a world without self-censorship or sense of self-preservation, where nothing is too embarrassing or private to show to the world. In fact, the more embarrassing, the more private, the more it seems to be embraced in her films, and she’s hardly alone in that fact. The cinemascape is heavily dotted these days with stories in the same vein, where sex means demeaning sex at worst, pathetic sex at best, and insecurity is the primary emotion for its still shivering youth who have only begun to wander from the nest. In other words, these films are directly true to life for many girls, and for just as many boys regardless of age, author included.

But is it too true to life? Is there any such thing as “too true to life”? Works like this lack a buffer, refusing to allow us to escape ourselves. They are a cinematic trap: no escapism allowed. There was, after all, a long, laborious battle fought over the last decade – longer even, all the way back to Equus in the 70s, I Am Curious or Les Amants in the 60s, or even Ecstasy in the 30s — to get rid of that buffer, which seemed like the worst kind of censorship imaginable. But did the buffer actually serve only to save directors and writers from themselves (on, conversely, save us from them)? Would another Hays Code usher in a new golden age of cinema, or would the pushback at the censorship render it useless?

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Autoerotic – Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard (2011)

While this film’s co-director Adam Wingard is mostly an unknown quantity in this equation, partner in crime Joe Swanberg — the indie director of collaborative efforts Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — is no stranger to sex or controversy, both of which are courted nimbly in Autoerotic, a four-part omnibus film that takes a penetrating and at times unexpected look at exactly the topic the film is titled after.

It’s not necessarily an aim to court controversy by being explicit, though. “I am trying to document the humans around me, the same way a nature show would document elephants or lions, and a big part of our lives is spent thinking about sex, trying to have sex, or having sex,” Swanberg told me during a Hannah-era interview. “For me it’s obvious that sex would have a big role in the films.”

But while Hannah, Weekends, and Alexander the Last have been more straightforward relationship dramas with sex in them, Autoerotic returns to the thematic ground forged in the pre-Hannah films, LOL and Kissing on the Mouth, which you could say were films about sex with relationships in them. He returns to that ground a much wiser, more technically proficient director and collaborator, but one who has remained as starkly honest and continued to be able to get actors to trust him wholly, without reservation or worry about embarrassment. It’s a trust explicitly needed in the first two segments — the first, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story about a man addicted to penis enlargement pills; the second, about a girl who is turned on by a stiff breeze and delves into the dangerous area of autoerotic asphyxiation.

The trust is thanks in no small part to his wife, Kris Swanberg, who is perhaps more vulnerable in the third segment — about a sexually unfulfilled pregnant woman who lets a girlfriend try and work out what her husband can’t achieve — than anyone else in any of Swanberg’s films. She is very honest, very open, very pregnant and very naked all the while. That kind of willingness for vulnerability can so easily be considered contemptible, but I find it to be commendable.

It’s he fourth and final piece, about a man desperate to keep his old sex tapes with a girl who (presumably) dumped him — or find something a little more lifelike — is where the film hits something of a snag, though: it is just downright uncomfortable to watch. The film actually starts off with a short piece from this segment, showing a static shot of an iPhone as it shoots the now-broken up couple having rather boring looking sex. This provocative whiff  works very well as a front bookend to set up the films other stories, but the actual segment, with its incredibly dry, overly honest assessment of the deeply warped spaces in a lonely guy’s mind doesn’t work as a closing bookend. It’s the one piece that asks too much. Whether that is because of an overload from the previous pieces or naturally occurring within the fourth piece, I can’t decide, but, to go with film’s motif, ends up being the pubic hair in the mouth of an otherwise thought provoking and essentially good time.

It’s a little strange thinking about people doing these things in real life. They’re almost mythic stories that you run across commonly online, but for some reason, or maybe it’s just this Catholic prude, don’t seem to be real, they seem to be the creation of fetish porn sites. But the facts are this: people take penis enlargement pills; people are into autoerotic asphyxiation; people invite third parties into their bed; and most guys do cling onto mementos of past relationships, especially the dirty ones. It’s brought to the absolute extreme here, but the last part is actually, I would think, the most common thing. Even in the relatively tame Juno, Paulie hangs on to the undies Juno wore during their big night.

This demanding, quietly confrontational film asks you to take a step back and consider your desires, and how far you let yourself go, or how much you hold back. Whether or not it’s a public conversation starter, Autoerotic should at the very least start an internal dialogue.