By Matt Zoller Seitz on 07/30/2009

“I Am a Camera” could be an alternate title for Kristian Fraga’s “Severe Clear.” This documentary about one Marine’s experience in Iraq is opening for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run at New York’s IFC Center (it’s part of DocuWeeks 2009, a July 31-August 20 program that includes 18 nonfiction features and a program of shorts). Fraga is a friend and a sometime filmmaking collaborator, so I hesitated to include the movie in this column for obvious reasons; I’ve never before reviewed a feature by someone I consider a close friend. I’m making an exception in this case, because “Severe Clear” needs to be seen and appreciated; it’s a great movie as well as a deceptively complex work of popular art.

Built around camcorder footage shot by former U.S. Marine and writer Mike Scotti, who participated in the 2003 advance on Baghdad, the movie blends traditional documentary devices and elements we associate with fictional war movies. Narrated by Scotti in a Michael Herr-style deadpan, broken up into numbered chapters and interspersed throughout with hand-scrawled titles, the movie is the book Scotti carried around in his head but never got around to writing. The result is equally indebted to Jonathan Caouette’s first-person documentary “Tarnation” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

There’s the expected amount of raw handheld footage of artillery barrages and gas mask drills, but Fraga also finds space for Scotti’s wistful remembrances of a friend who died on 9/11, and comic imagery of grunts acting like grunts on aircraft carriers and in desert encampments. One of the movie’s best sequences is Scotti’s monologue about what it means to be a Marine, which intercuts snippets of TV news video and straightforward archival training footage (the Official Image of the few and proud) with down-and-dirty images of Scotti and company dancing and cursing, pulling pranks and participating in “Jackass”-style stupidity, wrestling and dry-humping and otherwise acting like what they are: young men hopped up on testosterone. (The sequence is scored to the overture to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” — a cue that was famously used in another film about violence and social conditioning, Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”)
Fraga’s goal is to create the motion picture equivalent of a first person, inherently unreliable memoir. What we’re seeing isn’t a dry representation of what happened, nor is it characterized as such. Events are compressed, heightened by sound effects and music, stylized through inventive transitions. We’re seeing Scotti’s account of what happened — memories recollected in tranquility, colored by his thoughts and feelings. If Fraga’s tone weren’t so aw-shucks humble, the movie’s fluidity and virtuosity would be more apparent; but if it were more apparent, “Severe Clear” wouldn’t be half as impressive. The movie is art posing as journalism posing as entertainment, no small feat.

Cliff Martinez’s dreamy score, Fraga’s sharp but largely invisible edits and Scotti’s straightforward prose combine to create an essential combat picture that would fit nicely on a double-bill with Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” — not just for its non-ideological approach to a controversial war, but for its nonjudgmental depiction of a soldier’s life and mindset. It’s a must-see for anyone who’s interested in an honest look at war and its casualties, and essential viewing for anyone who has served in combat or knows someone that has.

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