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Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist   C+

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kirby Dick
Cast: Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose, Rita Valencia, Sarah Doucette.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Beats me. I know I was incredulous, horrified, spellbound, and finally moved, but I don't have a clue whether Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is a good movie or not.

Robert Flanagan was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as an infant, and doctors expected him to drown in his own mucus before his seventh birthday. They were wrong. Yet his status as the oldest CF survivor on record isn't even close to what makes him a fascinating subject. At the start of Kirby Dick's ghoulish documentary, Flanagan is 41, skeletal, perpetually coughing, and clearly dying -- but also good-humored and relishing the chance to use this film as a final act of defiance against the incurable disease that will consume him before the end credits roll. Lasting art may indeed be a form of immortality, but how do we respond to Flanagan, a masochistic performance artist who specialized in the possibilities of suffering, the malleability of the body, and the ways human beings can come to terms with mortality? In other words, what do we make of a guy who liked to hammer nails through his own glans?

That notorious stunt is captured by Dick in gory, unflinching close-up, with crimson blood drenching the lens. I certainly have my doubts about his exhibitionistic impulses -- Dick lingers over Flanagan's many gruesome showpieces, which include flogging, slicing, and hanging weights from his scrotum -- yet Sick is no mere homage to graphic spectacle. By forcing us to identify with Flanagan as an intelligent, creative, and terrified person, Dick first cancels out the back-alley, drooling sex fiend stereotypes associated with the S&M lifestyle. We also meet Sheree Rose, who accepted Flanagan's offer to take control of his body and spent 15 years as his dominatrix, his associate, and, most importantly, his companion. In between surprisingly tender chokings, needle pricks, and razor slashes, there's something true and human about this affectionate couple -- don't we all long to find someone to trust, to love, and to share our obsessions with?

Dick also seems determined to candidly explore the big question regarding sadomasochism: Why? Perhaps S&M is superficially about relinquishing authority, but for Flanagan, submitting to Sheree's demands was a version of control, a means to exert power over the agony he endured. It's as if he stuck out his chin, stared down cystic fibrosis, and said, Is that all ya got? In fact, the central premise of Sick is that Flanagan's interest in probing the limits of physical torment, and his resulting ability to bear acute pain, is what helped him brook CF for so long.

Still, reading Flanagan's masochism as strictly therapeutic strikes me as an oversimplification of what was going on inside of his mind and body. The promise of imminent death surely transforms a man, but what happens when that promise is unfulfilled for more than 30 years? We learn that Flanagan began persecuting his own flesh at an early age, and later, as a stage performer, he took self-satisfied glee in thrashing his audiences, partially measuring his success by the number of naughty sniggers and dry heaves he inspired. Shock art is inherently trivial -- willful affronts to decorum say more about the maturity of the offender than the offended -- but for Flanagan, transgression may have been his true lifeblood, even more fundamental to his psyche than mastering his pain. Perhaps martyring his body was Flanagan's way to rage against the malformed chassis handed to him by the universe, a physical means of confronting his psychological lesions of resentment, anger, and constant dread.

Since subversion -- especially in terms of asking us to experience S&M as the norm -- was Flanagan's prime impetus as a patient as well as a provocateur, it's tempting to view Sick as an ode to the power of art to rejuvenate, to serve as an agent of health. Yet I'm unconvinced. Besides a lack of shame, isn't the difference between Flanagan and a teenage girl who cuts herself simply a matter of scale? In other words, if Flanagan's deliverance came via perversion, doesn't Dick have an obligation to ask whether his self-injury, self-deprecation, and cheerful gallows humor were symptoms of profound mental illness rather than artistic vigor?

I can't answer that, which might help explain why I can't decide whether Sick is a perceptive work, a reckless apologia for deviance, or somewhere in between. Compounding my uncertainty is Dick's explicit imagery, which inspired me to look away more than once; I concede that probably says more about my personal convictions and moral compass than it does about Dick or Flanagan. More importantly, his blunt, forthright approach compelled me to examine the depths of my own curiosity: How much are we willing to endure to gain insight into unfamiliar, unpleasant human territory? You can decide for yourself whether Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is worth seeing -- and if you've already concluded that watching a man shove grapefruit-sized balls into his rectum can't possibly impart worthwhile knowledge about what it means to be alive, to be sick, or to be bitter, then you know where you stand better than I do.

Review published 10.22.2003.

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