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Denver Film Festival favorite Mike Ott has been bringing his low-budget films to DFF for years. His films are low-budget dramas, offering sympathy and empathy for hard-luck California youths. The characters in Ott’s films have often shared the names of their actors, blurring the line between performance and documentary.

In Actor Martinez Ott returns (with co-director Nathan Silver) with more low-budget experimentation, and perhaps a bit less sympathy for his characters and actors.

Character Martinez

Arthur Martinez plays Arthur Martinez, part time actor and part time computer repairman. Before the character’s story can take off, we are interrupted with the process of filmmaking, with conversations between actor Martinez and directors Ott and Silver, discussing the character Martinez.

Actor Martinez portrays character Martinez
Actor Martinez portrays character Martinez

Soon the filmmakers and actor are casting for a girlfriend for the character. Lindsay (Lindsay Burdge) shows up as Arthur’s girlfriend before we know she has been cast, and a few scenes between Arthur and Lindsay add a little development to character Martinez’ plot.

But then we’re back to the process of filmmaking. We have scenes of Nate and Mike deliberately trying to push Arthur’s buttons to get a more interesting performance out of him. Ott and Silver even enlist the help of Lindsay to see if they can cause Arthur to reveal his deeper self. They want to see if they can make Martinez cry for the camera.

The audience is in on the experiment (or so it seems), which almost means we know more about what’s going on than Actor Martinez himself. We are made complicit in Martinez’ emotional torture at the hands of the filmmakers.

Layers on Layers

You could imagine that there is yet another layer to Actor Martinez — one where it turns out that whole thing has been scripted. To an extent, that seems to actually be true, though it seems nobody involved can actually agree about what’s true and what isn’t. At that point, finding the line between acting and reality seems hopeless.

All of this is mildly interesting. But two thirds of the way through, after Lindsay has left the state and quit the film, I wondered how the cast and crew could possibly find a satisfactory ending.

Rather than moving forward, the film moves backwards and inwards, spiraling in to a late night conversation. Ott, Silver, Martinez, and Burdge sit around a kitchen table, fueled by beer and possibly other Colorado substances, trying to understand what it’s like for Martinez, living as he is at the center of an identity-fracturing process such as this one.

The questions raised — about identity and artifice — seem applicable to anyone who acts. In fact, the premise of Actor Martinez isn’t entirely original. Ott did something similar in Pearblossom Hwy, interleaving video diaries from his actors into the narrative arc. Fans of the Criterion Collection might remember an film experiment from 1968 called Symbiopschyotaxiplasm. Heck, even mainstream audiences are familiar with the genuine terror the tormented actors felt in The Blair Witch Project.

Festival Favorite

Perhaps because I’ve seen those experiments, I’m less enthusiastic about Actor Martinez than I was about Ott’s earlier films, including Littlerock and Pearblossom Hwy.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to see Ott’s work continue. One of the joys of attending film festivals is recognizing prolific filmmakers who keep coming back. In addition to seeing a lot of films, you start to see careers, portfolios, and canons. I’ve never met Mike Ott, but through his work, I feel like I understand him reasonably well. Here’s hoping that through festivals like DFF, Ott is able to sustain a career that doesn’t look very lucrative, but which looks healthy, productive, and creative.