There’s this clever trick in the brain-busting new docufiction hybrid Actor Martinez: as subject Arthur Martinez speaks, or does something, or does nothing, occasionally the camera starts in a claustrophobic close-up and pulls back until it reaches wide-shot range. Sometimes it holds that wide shot for what feels like an eternity, and sometimes it zooms back in, cutting once Arthur dominates the frame once gain. Directors Nathan Silver and Mike Ott certainly didn’t invent the gradual zoom-out, but its utility in this specific context turns this relatively simple move into a visual metaphor so subtly brilliant, it hardly registers. The close-ups of Arthur’s face begin as a straightforward image, but as the camera pulls back, it becomes apparent that we’re all farther away from Arthur than the camera initially suggested. That is to say, he’s being watched. Or rather, we are being shown this man.
But by whom? And who, exactly, qualifies as “we” in this narrative game of Whack-A-Mole that rejiggers the notion of performer and spectator approximately every ten minutes? These are the puzzling questions posed by Actor Martinez, a worthy successor to the unsung metafictional classic Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and a beguiling interrogation of authenticity, artifice, and the uneasy truce that cinema strikes between the two. With an uncooperative subject and directors that take apparent pleasure in messing with him, nothing onscreen can be trusted at face value. But while the events onscreen may be questionably genuine, the knotty truths it hints at are realer than real.
The premise could’ve been taken from a soundbite on Charlie Kaufman’s personal tape recorder: Computer repairman Arthur Martinez has had it with pathetic Los Angeles networking events and decides to jump-start his fledgling acting career by hiring a pair of documentarians to draw up a movie in which he’ll star. Martinez has some ideas for a flashy genre vehicle, but Silver and Ott take more interest in their new impresario and shift focus to his life, chronicling themselves as they nudge Martinez into what essentially amounts to roleplaying himself. Silver and Ott tactfully obscure their own presence when they want — there’s no shortage of “If you’re up here, then who’s flying the plane?”-type moments — but the mechanics of auto-direction aren’t even in the top five thought puzzles contained within this film. It really fascinates when the pair of directors come out from behind the curtain and exert their own influence on their semi-witting collaborators.