Not quite as excruciating as unanaesthetized body piercing itself, “Modify” could nevertheless a cult following if only for its extensive, intimate and vicariously painful footage. Some people may faint, others retch and still others sit transfixed by this morbidly fascinating movie, which is sure to propel some body-modification enthusiasts onward, and bring others back to the safety of stick-on tattoos.
What is body modification? According to the definition employed by “Modify” directors Jason Gary and Greg Jacobson, it’s liposuction, body-building, plastic surgery, tattooing, piercings, sexual redesignation and suspension — the hanging of one’s body on hooks. “Once you’ve done this,” says one suspender, “the rest of your life is a piece of cake.”
A plastic surgeon suggests that even shaving, or combing your hair, is a manipulation of your body and therefore eligible for the category. Such a wide definition allows “Modify” to make parallels between the most benign and the most radical transformations.
And while the editing is slick, the photography fine, the pace brisk and the interviews done under dramatic lighting, the subtle promotion of modification becomes suspect.
Filmmakers break pic into chapters with headings that pose good questions — “Modification or Mutilation?” for instance, or “Addiction?” Unfortunately, only the people on either end of the various operations get to testify — people, in other words, who might have a personal interest in justifying whatever they’ve done to themselves or others.
There is surgery and lots of it, all shown in exquisite, mortifying detail; particularly mortifying is the sight of a tongue being split, and then stanched. A few women appear in “Modify,” but most of those featured are men.
What the film cries out for amid all of this is the voice of a psychologist, a medical ethicist, even a clergyman — not to refute anything anyone says, necessarily, but to give an outside view on why some people are attracted and others repulsed by all this drastic rearrangement of flesh in even the most delicate of areas. Pic might also have made use of an anthropologist to explain the history and cultural reasons of body modification, and why it may, or may not, be a symptom of this specific time and place.
One needn’t have a negative, visceral reaction to what goes on in “Modify” to have a few doubts about what lies behind the implanted horn-buds sticking out of some piercing enthusiast’s forehead. By extension, is there a homoerotic, even sado-masochistic element to genital modification? No one poses these questions and they’re crying out to be asked.
Directors Gary and Jacobson have taken a defensive tack on “Modify,” allowing each of their subjects to argue away objections to what they do, on the presumption that whatever makes a person happy — from a tattoo to a sex change — is OK. But while live-and-let-live is a fine credo for getting along with others, lack of objective argument is one of the things that differentiates good documentary from propaganda.