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

Kirby Dick’s awardwinning documentary, uncut on DVD from the BFI.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects one in two to three thousand births. It affects the lungs, pancreas and intestine, resulting in thick secretions in the lungs which often become infected. In the past, most people with CF could be expected to die by their mid-twenties, though with treatment the prognosis is now longer. I was at school with someone with CF – his sister had it too – and it’s a sobering thought that, as I’m now forty-eight, they are both very likely no longer with us.

Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) was at the time one of the longest-lived survivors of CF. He was a performance artist and writer, whose onstage performances were often blackly funny. He was also a practising sexual masochist, in a longterm relationship with Sheree Rose, and his act often included such acts. He was the subject of a book from Re/Search (Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist and featured in the notorious, often banned, promo video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery”, of which we see an extract. Kirby Dick’s film is a portrait of Flanagan, covering the last years of his life.

In his youth, Flanagan was a poster child for CF and his life was a constant struggle: a struggle to breathe, to control the pain he was in. Over the course of Sick, as Dick shows Flanagan on stage, or performing to camera, and interviews him, Rose and their families, it becomes clear that Flanagan and Rose’s relationship was a strong and loving one, even if you do not wish to emulate the sadomasochistic practices with which they expressed it. As Flanagan says, it takes strength to be a submissive, and the submissive is the one who is really in control, and SM was his way of defying the hand that God (or genetics) had dealt him. It’s as if the pain he inflicted on himself is far worse than that caused by his condition, and in his own way helped to control it for as long as he did.

Needless to say, Sick contains material that is, to say the least, not for the squeamish or easily offended, and certain scenes may cause viewers – male ones especially – to close their eyes and/or cross their legs. But what helps us through is the fact that Flanagan is such a charismatic individual, and an often very blackly funny one too as he constructs a “Visible Man” for the audience and sings gallows-humourous songs, such as “In My Tomb” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room”.

However, Flanagan knew that his time was short, and Dick and his camera was there to capture the end, a sequence which is in many ways as uncomfortable as the penis-nailing and rectal steel-ball-insertion that we have witnessed before now. Flanagan’s disease-ravaged body has been on display throughout this film – the swollen veins in his chest, the attached portacath, the breathing apparatus – and in the end we see it in death. A final performance by a man who has earned our respect.

Sick was the documentary that made Kirby Dick’s name, though it is now rivalled by This Film is Not Yet Rated as his best known. Sick was not submitted to the MPAA – it would have been a surefire NC-17 if it had – and I discuss its UK censorship history below.


The BFI’s release of Sick is encoded for Region 2 only.

Sick was first shown in its uncut version at the 1997 London Film Festival, and some uncut cinema showings followed. (I saw one at the National Film Theatre.) It also had a television showing on Channel 4, but was heavily edited on legal advice, with some thirteen minutes removed. It was not submitted to the BBFC until 2001. While the Board thought Sick “very valuable”, 3 minutes and 41 seconds were cut before they could award it an 18 certificate, due to portrayals of extreme sadomasochism which could be highly dangerous if copied. This affected two scenes: one in which Rose demonstrates various SM techniques on Flanagan, including asphyxiation, insertion of pins into his scrotal sac and of a steel ball into his anus, and a second scene showing Flanagan nailing his own penis to a board, in close-up. On resubmission in 2009, the BBFC passed Sick uncut, taking into consideration the documentary’s context and that the audience is invited to empathise with the pain Flanagan was in from his illness rather than taking any vicarious erotic pleasure in his actions. I can’t disagree with that. For most people, these scenes are more likely to be aversive rather than inspiring imitation. If you are so minded as to nail your own penis to a board, removing such a scene from this DVD is hardly likely to stop you.

The DVD is in the original ratio of 1.33:1, so anamorphic enhancement is not necessary. The film is made up of footage shot on 16mm, Super 8 and video, so high definition is off the menu, and some of the video footage is considerably artefacted. But this is very much how Sick has always looked.

The soundtrack is mono, again as per the original, and there’s not much to say except that it’s clear and well balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.

The commentary features Kirby Dick and associate editor and co-editor Dody Dorn. This is an informative chat, obviously informed by the affection and regard that Dick has for his subjects. Dorn has an interesting female perspective on the penis-nailing scene, saying that bleeding from the genital region is par for the course for women – certainly less so, and more painful, for this particular man!

Dick on Sick (7:55) is an interview with Kirby Dick, in which he discusses how he came to make the film, and fills in further information about Bob and Sheree: that they were fans of Seinfeld and The X Files and that Bob would phone his mother almost every day. It follows the format of text questions (such as “Have Your Parents Seen Sick? – answer, his mother did, but his father had died before then) followed by Dick’s replying to camera. He discusses the audience and critical reactions to his film.

“Sara’s Sick Too” (14:45) reintroduces us to Sara, a young woman of eighteen with cystic fibrosis who in the main feature we see meeting Bob via the Make-a-Wish Foundation in 1995. There, she says she does not expect to be alive at age twenty-five. Dick interviews her in 2003, a few days before her twenty-sixth birthday, now married to Tom and living on a farm. She discusses how she lives with her disease and how she thinks of Bob regularly – she’s reduced to tears when she remembers the day she heard of his death. We also meet her mother and Tom (who disapproves of Sick). “It’s very hard going through life knowing how you are going to die,” she says, when discussing the end of the film. “It’s even harder to see it.” As with Bob in the main feature, by the end of this short film, she has more than earned your respect.

Next up are some extracts from Bob’s live performances, with introductions by Kirby Dick: “Body” (3:50), “In My Tomb” (1:59), “Rear Window” (4:19) and “Poster Child” (3:47). There is a Play All option. This is followed by the trailer for Sick (1:54).

Several deleted scenes again have a Play All option and begin with a 40-second introduction by Dick, who also gives introductions to induvidual scenes. These are “Toy Box” (5:49), “Answering Questions Unasked” (which is “Answering Unanswered Questions” on the menu, 2:22), “Needles” (1:48), “Pain in the Ass” (1:59), “Autoeroticism” (misspelled “Autoerotocism” on the menu, 5:48)., “Dr. Bob” (2:10), “Original Opening” (1:53) and “Repairing the Visible Man” (4:22). This review is from a checkdisc, so it’s possible that the above errors may have been fixed on the retail discs.

Finally, there are nineteen audio extracts from the film’s soundtrack, again with a Play All option.

The BFI’s booklet, sixteen pages plus the cover, contains “Censoring Sick” by Murray Perkins, a senior examiner at the BBFC. This discusses the film’s cesnorship history in the UK and reproduces the Board’s letter in 2001 to the BFI detailing the cuts that would need to be made. Also in the booklet are biographies of Bob Flanagan by Jack Sergeant and of Kirby Dick by Michael Brooke. Also included are film and DVD credits and transfer notes.


Updated: Nov 27, 2012

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