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Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Directed by Kirby Dick

Cinepix Film Properties, November 7, 1997 (US)

Starring: Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose

Raw emotion so ravaged me, so sharply pierced my gut, that I cannot fathom sitting through a second viewing. Only a deranged man willingly submits to that degree of affliction. Unlike Bob Flanagan, the primary subject of the documentary causing me such distress, I lack a tolerance for pain. I am no masochist.

Proceed with caution. The film incorporates graphic images, as Flanagan, a Los Angeles poet, comic and performance artist born with cystic fibrosis, battles his chronic disease the best way he knows how: He lacerates his flesh and mangles his psyche in public museum shows and private acts, which would define torture for most people but empower him to defy his ingenerate agony. Flanagan’s fierce refusal to passively participate in his body’s betrayal manifests itself within the skillful implementation of nipple clamps, testicle weights, and anal penetration, as well as a fixation on the extraction of bodily fluids, including the putrid mucus asphyxiating his lungs. All get filmed in excruciating detail. Particularly visceral, though, is the performance when Flanagan combines a piece of wood, a nail, a hammer and his penis in a swift, bloody action from which my eyes quickly looked away.

During deeds of self-mutilation, Flanagan cracks jokes, recites poetry and sings witty distortions of Disney lyrics, accentuating a macabre humor. The guy gets off on perverse behavior. He is sick.

Flanagan is also entirely empathetic and amenable. Funny and expressive, he emerges as nothing short of heroic by the end.

A marvel of the narrative is how the shocking portions never sensationalize the erotic component of Flanagan’s extreme lifestyle. The greatest surprise is that the film stands as a deeply authentic love story.

For over fifteen years, Flanagan and his partner/wife, Sheree Rose, engage in consensual BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism) role-play. She assumes the position of his dominant. He is her submissive, starkly contrasting the relationship Flanagan establishes with his illness. They share intimate sessions together and welcome voyeurs. Their proclivities are matter-of-fact, creating a comfort and ease that invites acceptance. Accordingly, the oddity of the dynamic slowly fades away, and two healthy souls, intensely reliant on and understanding of one another, lay bare.

Kink ultimately melds into the realm of the ordinary because an endearing union flourishes between Flanagan and Rose; the motivations of the couple are pure and relatable. Flanagan, an obedient slave, may linger a curiosity to some, but the man should never loom as an abstract freak who suffered for his art. His art was suffering, and, by committing a nonconformist life so shamelessly to film, Flanagan, along with his collaborators, unchained a final masterwork.

Early impressions often mislead. The exact reason why I am unable to watch the film again has little to do with vivid impalements and gross manipulations of Flanagan’s body. As poignantly demonstrated, physical pain crosses over into pleasure for those inclined. The repellent bits, rather, involve an unbearable onslaught of emotional hurt harnessed to human devotion and loss. No torment dominates that grotesquerie.