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.
In the process of creating a complete life for the scare-quoted “Arthur Martinez,” the directors decide to cast him a girlfriend, and their criteria while searching for the perfect actress exposes the real goal of their project: “Let’s find someone who reminds him of his ex-wife,” they conspire. “That should make him uncomfortable.” They’re not sadists, they’re just trying to get something unmediated from the heavily guarded Martinez, and the poor actress they bring in (Lindsay Burdge, currently making waves in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation) ends up a casualty of their high-concept battle of wills. The directors issue aggravatingly vague instructions both to keep Martinez in the dark and to drive him to his wit’s end, where they believe the truth of this guy is hiding. It’s an ethically murky tactic, and gets even murkier when they goad their actress into a profoundly uncomfortable (and not previously agreed upon) sex scene. Documentaries rarely gain access to these brutal depths of awkwardness, but in addition to containing some of the best cringe comedy since Nathan for You — which, weirdly enough, may have provided the closest point of comparison to this baffling film with the “Smokers Welcome” episode last year — this scene gets at a fundamental truth of moviemaking: every “fiction” film is also a documentary about a group of actors.
A review hardly does any good in capturing the essence of Actor Martinez. The film invites and resists analysis, offering up far more questions than it does answers. It’s a slippery enigma demanding further consideration, endless rewatches, maybe a dissertation or two. But it is also solution-proof, conclusively proving the inherent value in the pursuit of unattainable truth. And if all this talk of metacinema and performance makes the film sound like a grad school textbook instead of the viciously funny, bizarro character study that it is, take solace in the assurance that it also finds time for goofy stoner hijinks, a light satire of Hollywood pretensions, and a stand-up act so bad it could possibly violate the Geneva Convention. A playfully antic spirit runs through this ontological exercise, animating what may have otherwise been a dry collection of theories and hypotheses. Actor Martinez is more like a dense work of film criticism that plays like a movie, and an enjoyable one at that. Hyperintellectual and pathologically thought-provoking, movies like Actor Martinez are why people look forward to film festivals. and it’s helped get this year’s Tribeca off to an auspicious start.