Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan 23, 1997–Undoubtedly the most wildly original and audacious documentary in this year's Sundance Festival, Dick Kirby's Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, an uncompromising chronicle of the flamboyant poet and performance artist who died in 1996, takes the viewers to places they have never been before. Always brilliant, if sometimes tough to watch, this landmark docu, made with the full collaboration of Flanagan's widow, deserves to be seen on the big screen before hitting the global festival circuit and airing on cable and other venues for dauntless nonfiction fare.

Ambitiously embracing such profoundly existential issues as the sacredness of life and fear of dying; the relationship between creativity, anguish and pain; unconditional love and contractual marriage; and above all, the emotional and philosophical meanings of masochism and eroticism, Sick is the kind of documentary that could have been made only by a person who knew, loved and respected Flanagan. And considering the toughness of the material–which includes graphic portrayal of intense physical and emotional pain, Kirby's film is impressively non-sensationalistic. At the same time, it's not recommended for squeamish or priggish audiences.

Reportedly, Flanagan's longtime wife and dominant partner, Sheree Rose, had never allowed anyone other than herself to photograph her husband. By allowing Kirby to film Flanagan, Rose felt she would be giving up an important aspect of her role. Docu also touches on another unsettling theme: By letting herself be filmed, Rose was suddenly placed in a submissive role. These obstacles were obviously removed in the four years–and the 150 hours of footage–that it took Kirby to make his docu, for Rose provides illuminating commentary on Flanagan the man, their complex, mutually rewarding marriage, and S/M as a complex psycho-social-physical phenomenon.

Born in New York in l952, with the hereditary disease Cystic Fibrosis (CF), Flanagan was determined not to succumb to his illness, not to be passive. As he reveals in his narration: “In a never-ending battle not just to survive but to subdue my stubborn disease, I've learned to fight sickness with sickness.”

Flanagan later moved to L.A., where he established himself as an eccentric poet and original visual and performance artist. Though his first volume of poems was published in 1977, it was not until Slave Sonnets (l986) and Fuck Journal (1987) that his idiosyncratic work gained respect–and notoriety. In the l980s and l990s, he collaborated with partner Rose on a number of video performance pieces, most notably, Body (l989), Nailed (l989), Bob Flanagan's Sick (l991) and In My Room (l996).

Although Flanagan had experimented extensively with masochism and pain since childhood, it turns out that his parents, who are interviewed in the film in their Arizona home, knew nothing about their son's sexuality until the last few years of his life. Flanagan's mother recounts painfully the family's continual struggle with CF: Of their five children, three were born with CF–Bob was the last to die, following his two sisters.

Flanagan makes a most comfortable, totally uninhibited subject: Because his work had always included a candid explanation of his private life, the presence of the camera seems a natural extension of his performances. Flanagan's self-effacing, disarming humor–and refusal to explain or apologize for his eccentricities–contribute immeasurably to an insightful, often riveting documentary.

The artist developed several new pieces specifically for Sick. Early in the film, Flanagan presents in mock cooking show style the construction and operation of his sculpture, “The Visible Man,” a bizarrely humorous alteration of the classic children's toy, which now urinates, shits, and ejaculates. Most significant of the new works is “Autopsy,” in which Flanagan lies naked on a gurney, as wife Rose examines the scars, tatoos, and piercing that cover his body. Rose then “reads” on his skin the history of their intense physical relationship, and then demonstrates a whole range of their S/M practices.

In one of the most touching sequences, Flanagan is contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and told of a 17-year old Canadian girl, who's close to dying from CF. A big fan of his work, her wish is to visit Flanagan, and indeed, a few months later, she arrives in L.A. with her mom. Kirby's camera follows her a year later, now 18, as she returns to L.A. alone to have her nipples pierced, with her mentors in attendance.

In the toughest scene to watch, one that will make many viewers cover their eyes, Flanagan nails his penis to a board, and then releases the nail to show streams of blood spurting out of his organ. As if to warn the audience of what's coming ahead, Flanagan talks about his outrageous act, which gives the audience time to “prepare” for this never-before-seen performance on camera, shot in mega close-up.

Sick gets increasingly more somber and devastating as it goes along. There are some painfully intimate discussions which reveal Rose's unwillingness to accept that Flanagan was dying and was no longer capable of submitting to her. Offended, she demands to regain the unconditional control he had given her when they first met. Rose also shoots several important scenes leading to Flanagan's death, though unlike the equally devastating AIDS docu, Silverlake Life, Flanagan's death is not recorded on camera. Nonetheless, there is a stunning sequence of still photos of Flanagan, just minutes after his death, as he lies naked on a bed.

What's missing from the docu to make it a genuinely great work is a broader context of the Flanagans' long-lasting marriage. For instance, there is no way to know the frequency of the S/M practices and how they were related to–or integrated into–other aspects of their lives. Rose intimates that they also had normal sexual intercourse, but no info is disclosed as to how satisfying this practice was to both of them. But these are minor complaints, dwarfed against the magnitude of scope and challenging candidness of a documentary that is truly one of a kind.