Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist Review

Anthony Nield has taken a look back at the BFI’s Region 2 release of Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, a superb documentary that delights and (intentionally) shocks in equal measure.

The past ten years have seen a noticeable shift towards a cinema that readily engages with the extreme and controversial. Of course there have always been filmmakers willing to push back the boundaries (John Waters, Herschell Gordon Lewis, etc.), yet since the mid-nineties audiences have been able to find extremities from all corners of the filmmaking globe, whether it be the American mainstream with 8MM’s dabbling in snuff or the gross-out one-upmanship of their teen comedies (presumably having reached it apotheosis with Freddy Got Fingered and Jackass), or the nihilism of their indie sector’s Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute, or the plethora of erections that adorn many an arthouse movie (The Idiots, Seul contre tous, etc. etc.), or the increasingly popular “Asia Extreme” from the likes of Takeshi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and others. Moreover, the UK’s British Board of Film Classification is finally accepting that many hitherto controversial works may be seen by a wide audience, with even the contentious likes of the Faces of Death garnering an admittedly trimmed DVD release.

Given such a climate it is hardly surprising that the BFI have been offering their own contributions to the “extreme” bandwagon: releasing Salò and Maîtresse in uncut, and in 2002 offering in the same week a DVD compilation of Phil Mulloy’s work entitled Extreme Animation and Kirby Dick’s 1997 documentary Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Unfortunately, this particular release has not been rewarded with the uncut status afforded to the Pasolini and Schroeder works, rather the scene of Flanagan nailing his penis to a plank of wood has been excised allegedly because it may inspire audience members to do likewise.

For anyone taken aback as to what exactly a scene such as this would be doing in a film, a little explaining is in order: Bob Flanagan, the subject of Sick, was diagnosed at a young age with having cystic fibrosis and given only a few years to live. Outliving such deadlines, Flanagan never gave into the illness but rather got himself into the S&M scene as well as becoming a performance artist and sometime stand-up comic until his death in 1996. Dick’s documentary follows him through the final stages of his life, and captures amongst other things that scene.

The reason why the cut is unfortunate is perhaps best described by Dick himself, in a 1998 interview with Sheila Johnston for Time Out: “The scene’s… in for a minute: it’s the whole thing. It was Bob’s signature gesture, and I had always intended to make a film which, by the time the audience go to that point, they would accept and understand it.” Having only seen Sick in cut form at time of writing I can only assume that Dick is correct insofar as he manages to create a remarkably moving film and fitting tribute to Flanagan.

That said, there is an initial pause when the opening credits appear. The title itself has a certain overbearing quality that seems to comical for its subject, and when the words are written in a cartoon-ish style and accompanied by Blake Leigh’s jaunty score something seems amiss. Can a film with the word “death” in the title really begin in such a ‘wacky’ fashion? Yet as we progress it becomes absolutely clear that this is the correct approach. Flanagan, as said, also worked as a stand-up and his self-lacerating (no pun intended) wit regularly treated his illness in a less than serious manner. Indeed, his entire approach to cystic fibrosis was one of empowerment; the sadomasochistic element being his way of controlling it rather than the other way around, as he puts it himself in his 1985 poem entitled Why?: “Because I say fuck the illness.”

There is a question as to whether his art is actually any good, however. Whilst the comedic aspects present a wonderfully dry humour and keen grasp of word play, the installation pieces and performance art seem less essential. This may, in part, be down to Dick as he offers no context for the pieces, instead merely eavesdropping on a New York exhibition or providing a brief montage of works, though one suspects that the quality isn’t actually there in the first place. (Admittedly, it could also be a flaw on my part as I know next to nothing about the subculture in which they inhabit.)

Yet Sick isn’t really a film about Bob Flanagan the artist, it a far more a picture of Bob Flanagan the man – although his life and art were, of course, inseperable, Flanagan being the art more often than not – and it is from his perspective that Dick produces the film’s greatest strengths. Drawing on interviews from Flanagan himself as well as his wife/dominatrix Sheree Rose and family members, the resulting video-shot footage is remarkably candid. Indeed, the fact that video was used over film helps immeasurably as it blends seamlessly with the wealth of archive footage that Rose has allowed to be incorporated into the film, whether they by Bob’s own short pieces (1983’s Leather from Home) or video diaries (a particularly disquieting snippet from a home movie of Rose’s family bitterly arguing over their Thanksgiving dinner). Moreover, it also gives the impression that Dick’s documentary is as much a part of the archive as anything else – if it wasn’t for the occasional contextualising subtitle, it would be nigh on impossible to detect the old footage from the new.

The other benefit of video is the rawness it allows for. (Dick would return to video again for 2000 documentary Chain Camera and it would also provide the centrepiece for his script Guy, which was made into the Vincent D’Onofrio movie.) As a demonstration it is worth noting just how difficult the film is to watch, particularly during Flanagan’s final stages – and this is all without that scene mentioned earlier. Moreover, any doubts cast by the fact that Rose also served as co-producer, and therefore presumptions that she had an influence over the final cut, are thrown aside by the number of tense moments the two share, particularly during Sick’s closing half. Certainly, if a film can contain this much unguarded emotion despite the strong involvement of one of it’s lead characters, so to speak, and indeed despite its setting within a subculture that much of its audience will know little about, then it must be doing a number of things right. Indeed, the most memorable images have nothing to do with pain Flanagan inflicted on himself, but rather the pain that exists in knowing that he was to die a premature death.

The Disc

Shot on video, Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist looks about as good as could be expected on disc. The aspect ratio is understandably 1.33:1 and the sound recording would hardly justify a 5.1 or DTS remix. Fairly inauspicious then, but this is a deeply personal work and as such would never work if rendered in big gestures. Moreover, the transfer is fine and presents no discernible problems throughout. If there are flaws with audibility or picture quality then these are the sole responsibility of the source material. Indeed, the only disappointment is the sparse nature of the extras, though Jack Sargeant’s sleeve notes are a worthy inclusion.

Anthony Nield

Updated: May 05, 2005

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