Arthur Martinez is a Denver computer technician who moonlights as an actor. He looks something like the late comics writer Harvey Pekar: schlubby and with sideburns, a heavy brow, and a mess of thinning hair. As the star of Actor Martinez, in which he plays himself, Arthur comes across as “a character”—not a Pekar-esque grouch, but a sweet and needy puppy with personal issues that he is unequipped to address. How much of this is real or a performance is unclear and maybe even irrelevant; besides, movies that play with the difference between being yourself and playing yourself work best when they can keep their exact recipes secret. Because what this funny, low-key head-scratcher presents, in pieces that viewers sometimes have to put together themselves, is a story about two indie filmmakers (Mike Ott and Nathan Silver, also the film’s real directors and also playing themselves) who agree to make a movie that stars Arthur as a fictionalized version of himself.
The plot of this film-within-the-film is foggy, as Ott and Silver seem to be making it up on the fly, while offering almost no direction to Arthur or Lindsay Burdge, the professional actress they’ve cast as his girlfriend. Actor Martinez is mostly shot in long takes, often running a minute or more, with zooms that can zero in on a facial expression or stretch out to reveal more actors and crew members in the middle of a scene; often, it’s hard to tell whether the audience is watching the fake outtakes and daily meetings of a fictional production or the behind-the-scenes footage of a real one. But underneath these layers of reality is a more familiar story of havoc being wreaked for the sake of art. Burdge (also playing herself) is its voice of reason—though, ironically, her “character” is a fantasy, as the real Arthur is a divorcée whose social life consists of networking with other struggling actors.
Ott and Silver are both prolific micro-budget indie directors (Silver, who directed Stinking Heaven and Uncertain Terms, is somewhat better known), and their collaborative project is as much about the foibles of indie film as it is about Arthur. In one memorable and deeply uncomfortable sequence, the directors try to talk Burdge into taking her top off in a sex scene that she had never been told about. In another, the zooming camera draws a bead on Arthur’s blank look as the crew redecorates his bare apartment with tchotchkes from Ikea. One might call the film’s mix of disorientation and non-sequitur humor a kissing cousin to both the life-as-performance documentaries of Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine) and the darkly funny studies of American weirdo-hood made by Joel Potrykus (Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook). There are, in fact, a couple of references to Potrykus in Actor Martinez; for those who know their indie fringe, they provide clues about how many of the seemingly documentary sequences of the movie are really fiction.
Supposedly, the project came together quickly after Martinez, a volunteer for the Denver Film Festival, asked Ott to cast him in a film; what he and Silver ended up creating is a play on the fine line between exploring and exploiting a subject. The characters of “Mike Ott” and “Nathan Silver”—who are more often than not heard from behind the camera—think that they are probing Arthur’s psyche for his own good: making him cry on camera; casting a local actress who reminds him of his ex-wife as the girlfriend before giving the role to Burdge; inserting her fictional character into his solitary daily rituals of tai chi and high-quality marijuana. The film becomes what it’s critiquing, because as soon as Burdge starts accusing the directors of making the movie about themselves, the viewer’s attention can’t help but turn from working out Arthur’s motivations to working out theirs. It’s a clever but self-defeating exercise: a meta-fictional cautionary tale about itself.