SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, dir. Kirby Dick (1997)
Bob Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis. His prognosis was that he would only have 6 or 7 years to live. He lived until he was 43. Bob claimed that’s how every article written about him began. Except for the last sentence. Sick chronicles the artist and self proclaimed supermasochist’s last few years, right up to his tragic death, through open interviews with himself and family members, personal footage of his work, and following him intimately as he exhibits excruciating masochistic performances for the art of sex and to question the very notion of sex and sexuality. The entire documentary is an uncensored lens into the world of S&M, but through the irreverent and candid humour, music, poetry, and all around art of Bob Flanagan. Throughout his life, his lungs were filled with mucus that debilitated his quality of life and put him constantly in pain. As a teenager he began experimenting with a new form of pain—one that he could control. He became increasingly masochistic and in many of his later documented performances, he submits his body to graphic tortures that give him sexual gratification. For once in his life, he could control his body and disprove in the face of his disability that he could endure and was stronger than his weakness. The stigma that disordered people are weaker truly does not apply to this man.
Like 2012’s endearing film, The Sessions, Sick reminds us of the prevalence of human nature in sex, sexuality and sexual discoveries in life, at any age. However, Sick focuses on a man whose work reassesses the normalcy of sexual practice, and just when we’re comfortable with sex in itself, how can we come to terms with the pains and seemingly malice of sadomasochism and masochism? What parts of our childhood inspire our sexual exploration? His mother asks herself where she was when he was going through all of these experimentations. Sometimes people, particularly teens, are afraid of sex, masturbation, and nudity—sex on film, sex in music, sex in writing, any reference to sex in general. We’re indoctrinated to believe it’s morally wrong. Bob Flanagan’s work is less about the shock value of his gruesome display or to subvert any religion, but more about taking control of our bodies and exploring what we find pleasure in, sexually or mentally/spiritually, and being unafraid of our bodies, whether abled or disabled and regardless of our sexuality. These are understandably personal matters, but like any artist, Bob’s work is an open heart surgery, always. He’s affable and comedic when he’s counselling other young CF sufferers, and even when he’s speaking openly about his sex life at an S&M gathering, sometimes stripped down to nothing. He’s comfortable with people watching as he’s hung upside down nude, while in another room 7 monitors are replaying his sexual gratifications on 7 different parts of his body. One women is absolutely disgusted, while other art enthusiasts continue to probe and interview him about his work. It certainly is baffling to make up one’s mind on what this all might mean.
However, in some of the more private footage filmed by Bob’s partner Sheree Rose, Bob is much more troubled. His sickness has weakened him, making him choleric to Rose’s constant propositions. While usually making light of his morbid situation, Bob grows increasingly more depressed about his survival. Even after piercing himself, nailing himself, stretching and cutting all over himself, he reminds us he is still wholly human.
By the end of the documentary, you still might find yourself asking why he went through all of this, why anyone would enjoy S&M, or maybe why/how we should come to accept something that seems so foreign and absurd to ourselves. Bob Flanagan recites a poem entitled, “Why” and while it’s quite lengthy, it is self-explanatory.
Because it feels good;
because it gives me an erection;
because it makes me cum;
because I’m sick;
because there was so much sickness;
because I say FUCK THE SICKNESS;
because I like the attention;
because I was alone a lot;
because I was different;
because kids beat me up on the way to school;
because of what’s inside me;
because of my genes;
because of my parents;
because of doctors and nurses;
because they tied me to the crib so I wouldn’t hurt myself;
because I had time to think;
because I had time to hold my penis;
because I had awful stomachaches and holding my penis made it feel better;
because I felt like I was going to die;
because it makes me feel invincible;
The whole poem is worth reading and even better to hear him recite. The film maybe doesn’t warrant a viewing, especially if you’re easily disturbed by explicit images, but the concept and notion of Bob Flanagan’s work is revelatory, especially in an age where we’re bombarded with mindless sex and violence, and yet have no tools to critically understand and nurture our own sexuality and understanding of ourselves.
As Vincent Cassel tells Natalie Portman in Black Swan, go home and touch yourself. Or don’t. No matter what, take control of the one body you’ve been given, and learn to love it, no matter what that entails.
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