Topless women pole-dancing, topless women swimming, topless women snorting coke, topless women handling briefcases and biting men’s necks. Topless women bound, abused, felt up, stabbed. Topless women shaving their vaginas for their boyfriends to see while they brush their teeth. It’s not hard to see who the object of exploitation is in the “exploitation films” that Frankie Latina pays homage to in Modus Operandi.
There is an off-scriptness to Latina’s throwback to 1970s B-movie luridness, which takes place in Milwaukee, that is quite refreshing. As much as the film tries to tell its willfully hackneyed story (a C.I.A. agent seeks revenge on the man who murdered his wife…blah, blah, blah), its free-floating storytelling is more akin to the associative human mind than cinema’s traditional flow of familiar establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways. Like a found-footage film, Modus Operandi‘s logic is fragmented and unpredictable: Images of a man rowing a boat on a lake may lead to the same man getting an acupuncture treatment on his back for “no reason”—and right before we see some VHS-shot porn auditions of random women, of course. The film also includes the insertion of a stick of dynamite inside a freshly gouged eye socket and an “intermission,” announced in gaudy intertitles, during which we are encouraged to enjoy popcorn, hot dogs, and soda.
It is strangely entertaining to have a nondescript city like Milwaukee serve as muse-site for such cartoonish action to unfold. As if it were Vegas, or Monte Carlo. The color bars associated with VHS, Steenbeck flatbeds for film editing, bulky tape decks, and 16mm film stock also appear as muse-like objects in Modus Operandi, which seems to yearn for a time when getting an audience’s attention only required a complete lack of subtlety and a knack for visual, not financial, excess. I am not sure such a time ever really existed, but the film’s longing for a cinema that can be touching and touched feels real.
Modus Operandi does fall too in love with its muses to avoid some of its experimental-cum-normative conventions. Like the depressed, enigmatic, apoplexy-ridden urbanite character watching uncanny television programming, which Jennifer Reeves made compelling one last time in The Time We Killed. The film can also feel like the kind of project made by a passionate, insular clique of hipster-hating hipsters whose love for cinema stems more from a facile, anti-bourgeois anarchism—a nostalgia sustained by objects, not ideas—than on having something to actually say. While its paradigm-defying editing, exceptional soundtrack, and gritty anti-aesthetics can be liberating, it lacks the conceptual anchor to make the film something other than an exercise in cause-less rebellion.
There is a way of dealing with non-sophistication, of turning the deliberately makeshift seams of a project into its purpose, into its politics even. But Modus Operandi doesn’t look beyond the aesthetics it admires. It would be easy to call it a Tarantino without a budget, but Modus Operandi is much closer to something like Mike Ruiz’s Starbooty, with none of its smart camp.