Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
1997, NR, 90 min. Directed by Kirby Dick.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 16, 1998
The funniest, most genuinely life-affirming movie in town right now isn't the one with Robin Williams in it. It's the one with the dying, masochistic performance artist who lives with a dominatrix and amuses himself by hammering nails through his dick. The subject is Bob Flanagan who, before dying two years ago at the age of 42, was the longest-surviving victim of cystic fibrosis on record. This congenitally transmitted disease kills by filling the lungs with heavy fluid, basically drowning people in their own mucus. The pain of CF is excruciating, and each sufferer tends to develop personal strategies for dealing with it. For Flanagan, the solution was to defiantly raise nature's ante by subjecting himself to agonies greater than anything his illness could dish out. (Steel yourself beforehand for all manner of ghastly, though oddly matter-of-fact shots of Bob getting flogged, drinking urine, hanging weights from his scrotum and having tangerine-sized ball bearings shoved up his rectum.) As Flanagan's dad observes in an interview, “He must've been trying to tell God, `I'll show you!'” Flanagan also, at the urging of his longtime dominatrix-lover Sheree Rose, turned his unfathomable desires into art highlighted by live multimedia enactions of his favorite S&M capers. Flanagan's impish, endearing wit is surely the greatest surprise this utterly unique documentary has to offer. With a giddily irreverent style that echoes not only Lenny Bruce but other Sixties humorists such as Tom Lehrer and Paul Krassner, he serves up a manic blend of song parodies (including “Forever Lung,” sung in a pretty serviceable imitation of Bob Dylan's adenoidal croak), hilarious memoirs of his furtive boyhood experiments in kink and droll, japes at his conservative antagonists (“They want me to cease and desist, and rest assured, I will -- but not yet.”) Kirby Dick, who was personally approved for this project by Rose, also focuses closely on the touching sweetness and intimacy of the pair's 15-year relationship. If you aren't utterly repelled by the perversity of what you're seeing, you may find yourself charmed by the almost motherly tenderness with which Rose takes a razor blade to her lover's chest or chokes him with the sash of her bathrobe. A more troubling issue for some may actually be the graphic manner in which Flanagan's eventual decline and death are portrayed. Even when a life is voluntarily laid so bare in the name of art, it's hard not to feel an affront to some principle higher or deeper than mere individual privacy. But let me emphasize that this isn't a case of some talentless would-be provocateur finding artistic validation in his audiences' heaving stomachs. The driving forces behind Dick's courageous, defiantly candid film are curiosity about all things human and a desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable. And, perhaps even more, a touching belief in the power of art to defy even death and to find transcendent meaning in any pain or loss.