“This is the best film I’ll ever be in,” declares Arthur Martinez, the eponymous star and subject of the singular, serpentine mockumentary “Actor Martinez,” in a tone that simultaneously brags and admits defeat. He’s probably not wrong. Most schlubby would-be actors can only dream of headlining a film as thoughtful and playful as Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s first directorial collaboration, though it’s a double-edged honor — one that gives Martinez the showcase of a lifetime primarily by highlighting his personal and professional failings. Are we watching Martinez, however, or the character he’s made of himself? As the directors-for-hire of his flailing ego trip, are Ott and Silver being themselves or playing themselves on screen? Narrative and reality clash, tussle, and are eventually rendered indistinguishable in a witty, tortured puzzle picture — one in a growing subgenre of hybrid inquiries into the nature and limits of performance, which is not to say there’s anything quite like it out there.
For Ott, “Actor Martinez” continues his filmography’s ongoing exploration of the glimmering, uncanny space between real and reconstructed lives; for the equally restless, prolific Silver, this exercise in cinematic gamesmanship represents a departure from the observational humanism of his previous work. (That said, Silver’s last, seemingly unscripted feature “Stinking Heaven” offered a suggestion of the new film’s actor-oriented funkiness of form.) It’s a fruitful pairing, in which Silver’s earthy brand of character study warms Ott’s experimental manner of human scrutiny — the result might best be considered alongside the work of avant-garde docmaker Robert Greene, another keen navigator of the fine line between an actor’s life and performance. Where Greene’s hard-to-classify films wind up on the documentary shelf, “Actor Martinez” tips over into narrative, though its balance of artifice and authenticity is hardly any easier to determine.
The film’s fiction begins with the idea that Ott and Silver aren’t the driving minds behind this strange endeavor at all. Rather, we are told, they have been commissioned by Martinez, an unprepossessing computer repairman and moonlighting character actor based in Denver, to helm a film with him as the lead — the only way, one might surmise, that a guy like this might get the spotlight to begin with. Yet as filming continues, the directors unceremoniously dismantle the heroic genre vehicle Martinez had imagined for himself, instead turning the camera directly on him and his unremarkable life. Unwillingly turned from star to study object, the blindsided actor resorts to protecting his privacy with a distorted facade of himself, thereby giving a far more complex performance than he’d bargained for.
And so the viewer is plunged into a teasingly infinite hall of mirrors. Martinez is playing a version of himself playing a version of himself, so it’s anyone’s guess how much of the personal discomfort and thespian anguish caught on camera is acted or involuntary. This tension reaches breaking point when the directors appoint a female co-star (Lindsay Burdge, excellent) for Martinez, deliberately agitating him by seeking a facsimile of his ex-wife. As they prod him into simulating intercourse and argument with her, the overburdened actor’s coping method of self-performance begins to collapse inward — unless that breakdown, too, is a staged ploy. Art doesn’t imitate life in “Actor Martinez”; life imitates life, complicated and convoluted as it is with the pretenses and deceptions that are universally part of living.
As for the filmmakers, whether Ott and Silver reveal any of their actual process in their act of self-impersonation, or are merely parodying their mega-meta approach with deadpan absurdity, is entirely open to question. Are they all, like the semi-fictional Martinez, masking themselves through performance, hiding in plain sight, or revealing more of themselves than they intend? The directors on screen demonstrate little of the overt sensitivity required to conceive any project as intellectually and psychologically expansive as “Actor Martinez,” though they’re shown to push and pressure their captive star with a degree of sangfroid that must have gone into the real-life production — the film’s cruelest moments hint at the relentlessness that many a great director has exercised in pursuit of emotional truth.
As we watch Martinez either wilt or blossom, knowingly or otherwise, under the filmmakers’ wily gaze, one is reminded of Joan Blondell’s bewilderment at Josh Cassavetes’ tough, new-school technique on the set of “Opening Night”: “There’s a camera lurking around every camera,” she complained. There may be just one camera in “Actor Martinez” — its lens a dim, grungy one — but multiple movies are shadowing each other in its lean 75-minute runtime.