Packed with some of the most eye-popping images to hit screens this year, the body modification documentary “Modify” makes Extreme Makeover look like Romper Room. A brief but ambitious look at the various ways in which we humans seek to push the limits of our physical selves through tattooing, piercing, plastic surgery, bodybuilding, scarification, gender reassignment, and more, “Modify” delivers in spades in the shock and awe department. And although the piece ultimately comes off more as a boisterous cheer for sticking metal in your face than a balanced discussion of the topics at hand, the voice of the community profiled and images themselves have an undeniable impact.
Filmmakers Jason Gary and Greg Jacobson have set out to create a definitive portrait of the body modification community, and their intent is certainly a noble one. Their subjects, most of whom are covered in tattoos, piercings and sub-cutaneous jewelry (you’ll have to see this for yourself), are generally the people that your mother would cross the street to avoid, based solely on physical appearance. The subjects — quite varied in both their choices of adornment and philosophies on the topic — range from a professional drag queen who has turned non-intrusive body modification into a lucrative career in Las Vegas to people who hang from hooks through their skin for the sheer enjoyment of it. While most of the people profiled are fairly articulate (some seem self-consciously so), in the end the common message seems quite simple: it’s my body, and no one has the right to tell me what I can do with it.
The piece breezily covers a variety of topics, from addiction (it’s refreshing to see a man who has 85% of his skin tattooed and who puts steel balls under the skin of his penis — on camera — freely admit that he has a body modification addiction; others claim that they can “stop at any time”, which is the textbook claim of an addict, if I’m not mistaken…) to mutilation (most agree that modification versus mutilation is in the eye of the beholder) to religious issues (surprise — organized religion is not popular, although most of the subjects seem to be very spiritual in their own way). And while these touchpoints move the discussion along nicely (and of course ensure a continuous supply of graphic footage of plastic surgeries, genital piercings, and skin branding), they are ultimately too one-sided to offer a thorough investigation into the topic.
Now, I completely agree with the filmmakers that adornment is simply that: a person with a tattooed face is by no means any more dangerous or freaky than one without, and piercings and such are simply expressions of a certain aesthetic sensibility, nothing more. A high threshold for pain and a taste for stainless steel do not make someone dangerous, or even strange, and it’s nice to see people who are generally judged in a glance on the street given a chance to talk about their modifications freely. But that’s not to say that the choice to burn a scar into your skin or lift weights for hours a day is a simple one, or one that’s limited to appearance alone. The one thing that’s rarely asked in “Modify” is not “Did it hurt?” (this one comes up a lot), but rather the more logical question: “Why?”
And how about the tolls that these procedures can take on the body over time, or the potential hazards or complications? There’s offhand reference to ill-advised facial tattooing (which was easily removed with a laser) and a regrettable earlobe-stretching, but it’s an afterthought. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have, over time, come to regret irreversible changes made to their bodies, or suffered complications from some of the decidedly invasive procedures, and might have something to add to the discussion. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Modify” is irresponsible in excluding the other side (it does position itself as more of a portrait of enthusiasts than a thorough investigation of the subject), these potential long-term effects or backfires could only serve to deepen the complexity of these stories. As it is, it’s cut and color until the cows come home.
Also missing from the piece (although it’s referenced offhand several times) is the highly controversial topic of voluntary amputation, a subject profiled to highly disturbing effect in the doc “Whole”. While it may be a decent challenge to convince a square audience that hanging yourself from meathooks is not all that scary, how about making a case for people who remove the limbs that they don’t feel belong to them? Was this just too intense, or too difficult to justify here? The idea that all body modification is on a scale — from waxing your legs and coloring your hair to splitting your tongue or tattooing your face — is a fascinating topic, but without exploring the far end of the spectrum (the low end of the scale — waxing, tanning, that sort of thing — is also not represented), the argument falls short, and the film comes off as more of an endorsement of the piercing industry than anything else.
Likewise glossed over are the potential psychological origins and implications of the compulsion to continually make changes to one’s body. Especially considering the sensational discussions of “cutting” in the media over the last few years, this certainly could have been a jumping-off point for a more in-depth investigation into the practice (as it is, a girl mentions that she cuts herself to commemorate her time with her partner, but no one bothers to ask her, “wouldn’t flowers do the trick?”). Gender reassignment — a highly complex topic, psychologically — is only discussed by a surgeon; the views of an actual transsexual are never included. And given that footage of sex-change surgeries are included, the focus definitely seems to be more on grossing the audience out than educating them.
“Modify” does deliver in its discussion of the pioneers of the field and technological and aesthetic innovations that have been made along the way. I can’t fathom how these people came up with the ideas that are so colorfully illustrated here (Metal mohawks? Silicon sub-cutaneous implants? Tandem suspensions? I can hardly pick out a new shirt…), but the impacts of their experiments and breakthroughs are undeniable. When Stalking Cat (who is recognizable from various talk shows as the guy who is having himself bodily transformed into a tiger — and not in the accidental Jocelyn Wildenstein sort of way) talks of fur grafting and tattooing eyeballs, these things seem almost logical. And given the boom in popularity and acceptance of cosmetic surgery in recent years, it’s certainly not ridiculous to imagine that there are other people out there who would undergo these procedures. Considering that half of the people in “Modify” already have horn implants in their foreheads, it’s safe to say that we’re already further along that path than many people may realize.
Even given its rah-rah enthusiasm and decidedly safe discussion of the topic, “Modify” does manage to paint a colorful, diverse, and fascinating portrait of an oft-misunderstood community. As a guy who’s near the bottom of the spectrum (a few tattoos and a half-dozen piercings, most removed by this point), I was certainly impressed by the dedication and innovation of these folks who have made body modification their life’s work — not to mention shocked by some of their masterpieces. And while blending in more of the cautionary aspects of the topic would have made for a more compelling piece, it’s pretty hard to deny the visceral potency of the image of someone getting their tongue split in half.
“Modify” is screening as a part of the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 19th to May 1st in New York City. For a full list of screenings, check out the fest’s official website.