This documentary chronicles the life and art of Bob Flanagan, who was diagnosed with the disease cystic fibrosis. Director Kirby Dick examines how Flanagan began routinely maiming his own body to deal with and overcome the acute physical pain he felt every day. Flanagan’s self-torturing habits are the basis for his avant-garde live performances, which are featured prominently in the film. Dick also explores Flanagan’s unusual romance with a dominatrix.
There aren’t a whole lot of documentary films that fall under the category of “extreme cinema.” Maybe some of the Mondo films, along with Faces of Death (if you can count that as a documentary) and other “real death scenes” movies, sure. And I suppose movies like Orozco the Embalmer, which focuses on autopsies, and Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera, which focuses on the idea/possible reality of snuff films, would fit as well. But one documentary that I know for a fact would fit in the “extreme” category is Kirby Dick’s 1997 film called Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (hereafter to be referred to as simply Sick).
You may already be familiar with the work of Emmy-award winning and Oscar-nominated documentarian Kirby Dick – among his many works, the most notable for film lovers is probably This Film is Not Yet Rated, which takes on the hypocrisy of the MPAA (other recent notables include The Hunting Ground, which investigates the cover up of rape on college campuses, and The End, which follows five hospice patients from life to death). And if you’re a fan of industrial music, specifically that of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, you may also be somewhat familiar with Bob Flanagan, who appeared in the video for “Happiness in Slavery” on the not-officially-released home video, Broken, in which he enters a machine that tears him up and grinds him down. Combine the two, and you’ve got a heart-breaking, sometimes funny and sometimes extremely disturbing, documentary about the life and final days of an artist.
Bob Flanagan was a masochist – a supermasochist, according to the film’s title. From his early years, he enjoyed hurting himself in various ways – pushing needles into his flesh, hanging himself from doorways, etc. He also suffered from cystic fibrosis since childhood, a disease that essentially fills the lungs with fluid and makes it very hard to breath. Not one to let his sickness bring him down, Flanagan decided to make the best of it, using the disease as an impetus to push himself a little harder. He met and fell in love with Sheree Rose, who loved to dominate him, and they started a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship. With Rose, he made a number of short films involving S&M, as well as putting together a book and a collection of art that eventually made its way to museums.
Sick documents the last couple years of Flanagan’s life, giving the audience just as many tearful moments as cover-your-eyes moments. Interviewed here are Sheree Rose, his longtime lover, his mom and dad, his brother Tim, and Sarah Doucette, a young girl with the same disease who asks Make A Wish to let her meet her idol, Bob Flanagan. But the main focus of the film is, of course, Bob Flanagan himself. He is seen at his highs and at his lows, from good times and smiles behind the microphone singing songs to the CF Summer Camp where he was a counselor or reading from his F*ck Journal that Sheree made him keep, to his worst times, barely able to breathe without coughing, wishing he was dead. And near the end, when we watch him driving himself to the hospital, saying to the camera that he is worried and having trouble even moving, then being attached to tubes and breathing machines, it’s very hard to keep from tearing up as we watch this man so full of life literally shrivel away before our very eyes.
Now, the topic that we’ve been avoiding here, the extreme part, the masochist part of the film. Bob Flanagan, at an early age, realized that he enjoyed inflicting pain on himself and having others inflict pain upon him. This is why he was a perfect match with Sheree: he wanted to submit to her, and she wanted someone to submit to her. But the things that are done to him and that he does to himself are tough to watch. In a short film called Autopsy, Flanagan lays on a table while Sheree does things to his motionless body – she slaps him, she puts clothespins on his skin, she pushes needles through his penis, and she forces a large steel ball into his anus. And this isn’t even the tough part to watch! Later on, Flanagan talks about putting a nail into his penis, and how at one point he did it wrong and discovered what happens when it goes wrong. Shortly after, the audience is presented with a close-up shot of exactly what he just described. It is very difficult to watch, and I don’t blame you if you look away – horror movies are one thing, because we know they are fake, but this is 100% real.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is both heart-breaking and nauseating, tear jerking and cringe-worthy. But most of all, it is an authentic portrait of a man who knew he was going to die and never gave up, kept on doing what he loved. We might not all agree with his lifestyle, and there are probably many that think he’s disgusting; after all, there’s a reason for the appropriate title. Kirby Dick is able to show so much within a ninety minute film, he really gives us a taste of what this man was all about and how hard his life really was. As far as transgressive documentaries go, I’d rank this right up there with Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. Sick doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, but rather bares all and puts it all out there for the audience, like it or not. A definite must see.