Performance, the idea that artifice can reveal deeper truths, is a keystone of art. But what’s more revealing, a “good” performance or a “bad” one? Is there any inherent, fixed core of personality at the heart of an individual or are we all the sum of the various performances we give?
With a minuscule budget and a deceptively simple set-up, directors Nathan Silver and Mike Ott raise these unanswerable questions and more in Actor Martinez. A hybrid of documentary and fiction, the film features its directors as integral characters and centers on Arthur Martinez, by day a good-natured tech repairman and by night a striving actor and member of Denver’s independent film community. An early scene shows a meeting of local filmmakers, all of whom seem earnest and kind, but unlikely to ever find the kind of mainstream success that Arthur desires. To this end, he agrees to star in a role for Silver and Ott. The elephant in the room from the beginning is that the directors and star clearly have very different views of the film they’re making.
Seemingly oblivious both to his directors’ resumes and his own qualities as an actor, Arthur talks to the duo as a producer and as a “cold-hearted marketing guy,” trying to make decisions based on his idea of what gives films mainstream success. Meanwhile, Silver and Ott do everything possible to push Arthur out of his comfort zone and get at something underneath his placid exterior. They craft situations to collapse the distance between Arthur’s “real” life and the performance he is giving, such as casting a romantic interest as similar as possible to Arthur’s ex-wife.
Despite mostly consisting of conversations between the same people in dingy kitchens, the film is thrilling because its formal construction keeps the audience unsure how real or staged the action is. Arthur is acting in a movie for Silver and Ott, but most of what’s seen in Actor Martinez is behind the scenes, arguments over what exactly they’re filming and why, a liminal state between performance and reality. Silver and Ott have explicitly claimed to be working in the tradition of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, the formally slippery real-life story of deception told in re-enactments of the incidents with the real people involved – explicating artifice with more layers of it. Silver and Ott emulate Kiarostami in their endless appetite for slow zooms, but also more importantly, by blurring the lines between reality and performance - less to paint a thorough picture of their specific subjects (though both films successfully do this) and more to pose fundamental questions about why we perform and to what end. Close-up asked these questions in a judicial setting, providing a more absolute point of reference, but Actor Martinez, by operating in the film world, strips away any firm “reality” that the artifice can be compared to – the film has enough layers of performance and manipulation to easily get lost in. This is both disorienting for the audience, and somewhat tragic: Arthur is also lost in these layers and he will go along with the manipulations as long as he thinks the film might bring him success.
The result is a film defiantly impervious to being summarized by a “cold-hearted marking guy,” yet exciting, inquisitive, and alive with new possibilities.