There are countless human fragilities inherent in making art, which requires considerable faith and exposure on the part of its creators, though one such fragility often goes unacknowledged: the artist’s fear that unfinished art might take something ineffable from them that won’t be restored when the project fails to reach fruition. Such a failure can leave a mark of unrealized catharsis, and Actor Martinez is concerned with this sort of scar tissue. The film has a ghostly, tremulous quality that’s bound to get under the skin, particularly that of artists, the art-minded, and the lonely, distaff, eccentric people struggling to carve out a dignified life for themselves.
Directors Mike Ott and Nathan Silver play themselves in the film, which follows them as they attempt to make a movie about Arthur Martinez (playing himself), a misfit-of-many-trades who predominantly appears to fix computers for a living but who claims to be an actor, positioning himself as a local gadfly of the Denver cinema scene. Early moments with wannabes on the fringes of film culture casually capture the pain of obscurity and the qualifiedly comforting kinship of unity in misery. Arthur somewhat recalls American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar, in that he has the appearance of a lifetime loser—slumped, chubby, aging, bitter, broke—yet carries himself with a weirdly misplaced egotism that gradually scans as a kind of wounded dignity.
By force of will, Arthur is determined to have stature—a determination that manifests itself in a variety of poignantly obnoxious fashions. Arthur presumes to lecture Ott and Silver, two gifted and acclaimed directors, on the logistics of the film business, especially on what’s “marketable.” There’s more than a tinge of self-loathing in this obsession with marketability, as if Arthur knows that he’ll never be enough of a draw for a production, which leads to Ott and Silver attempting to prod their subject out of his “comfort zone” by recruiting an actress to remind Arthur of his ex-wife.
Actor Martinez is a presumed blend of fiction and documentary, one of those films in which we’re deliberately not supposed to know what’s what, like, say, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. That film was earnest in its inquiries while Ott and Silver exhibit a playfully nasty streak of impudence, rendering themselves unsympathetic, riffing on the parasitic nature of art, pointedly refusing to caricature themselves as a way of letting us off the hook via editorial orientation. The audition scenes, in which Arthur is paired with a variety of unknown actresses, are distinctively, specifically uncomfortable, capturing how art and intended commerce confuse reality and obscure humanity, as simulated intimacy crosses over into the actual world of the participants. It’s this crossover that Ott and Silver are obsessed by, as we begin to lose track of the “real” Arthur and the film’s Arthur, only to remind ourselves that all of these variations are contained within a film.
Ott and Silver eventually choose Lindsay Burdge (as herself) to co-star with Arthur, and the film veers into a neurotic realm of objectification, commodification, and outright longing in which Ott and Silver nudge Arthur and Lindsay to fight and simulate fucking so as to juice up their production. Arthur, who has scanned as a blowhard up to this point, is poignantly uncomfortable with positioning Lindsay as “the girl” in this intensely insular, male-oriented world. Part of Arthur’s comparative gallantry is self-preserving, as Lindsay is a device intended by the filmmakers to shake their subject out of his defensively smug autopilot state. Ott and Silver sense Arthur’s emotional damage (we do too), and want to commit it to celluloid, painting it. The filmmakers want Arthur to cry on camera for them, and Arthur memorably counters, “You’ve got all my blood, and now you want all my bones.”
Like any film about the emotional perils of filmmaking, Actor Martinez is doomed to hypocrisy, and Ott and Silver know this and clearly get off on this possibility; in fact, they’re counting on contradiction, which is one of their subjects. Brilliantly, no singular “meaning” entirely materializes in Actor Martinez, which is most viscerally about its own single-minded efforts to exist for, what, validation on the parts of Ott, Silver, and Arthur? Partially, but that explanation feels pat, as there are intimations in this film of unreachable, inexplicable emotional realms. Actor Martinez is staged by Ott and Silver in remarkably deep and beautiful compositions that concentrate, with nearly comic single-mindedness, on actors who’re filtered through scrims, often as reflections in mirrors but also as shapes through the intermediaries of water, curtains, and store windows. These reflections and silhouettes suggest the personal essence of each person that isn’t quite captured by the camera, with zooms in the key of Robert Altman that take us close only to keep us at arm’s length. Arthur and Lindsay are here for us but not here.
Arthur and Lindsay’s relationship is a construct within the film within the film, yet it has a peculiarly, authentically existential texture, achieving a confessional intensity that’s worthy of Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes. Lindsay criticizes Arthur for his remoteness, and we can’t, of course, tell whether this is one actor critiquing another’s performance, or the two actors playing a scene, or the emergence of a real affection between them, or whether it’s poetically all or none of the above. Explanations don’t matter, as the uncertainty of the film’s “rules” comes to serve as a proxy for the uncertainty of intimacy, particularly when tethered to an element of exploitation. This deconstruction of filmmaking and relationships is also not-so-simply an authentic embodiment of the same, climaxing when Arthur, nearly wrung out, utters a profundity about art: “We just need to know that other people hurt too. I don’t know why we don’t know that, but we don’t.”