Film and TV

Dying for a Career

The bizarre documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist asks us to believe that the late Mr. Flanagan, who regularly nailed his penis to a block of wood, hung himself upside down for untold hours and gladly submitted while his sex partner force-fed him scoops of Alpo, was a kind of postmodern saint. He is portrayed here as a nouveau stoic seeking salvation in a cruel world, abusing his body to dramatize the pain of man and, perhaps, the injustice of God.

The extent to which viewers accept director Kirby Dick's proposition--and Flanagan's--is likely the measure of their own tolerances for perversion and "performance art." Those who believe that drinking urine from a baby bottle or inviting razor-blade embroideries across the chest are forms of religious experience will be particularly edified. One thing is certain: This is at once one of the most disturbing and strangely tender films you will ever see.

Flanagan's powerful and single-minded urges came from the fact of his cystic fibrosis, a pitiless and incurable disease that clogs the lungs with thick mucus and kills most of its victims by their mid-twenties. Against the odds, Flanagan lived to be 42, and for the last fifteen of those years he fought back the ravages of pain and doom by inflicting on himself diversionary pains that most of us could scarcely conjure up: piercings and floggings and whippings and rippings, many of them undertaken in public and boldly labeled an "art career."

His tragicomic passion play didn't go unnoticed. Don't let Jesse Helms and the culture police get wind of this, but the Santa Monica Museum of Art and New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art are just two of the institutions that in the Nineties provided platforms for the work of Flanagan and his longtime partner in art and love, a dedicated dominatrix named Sheree Rose. "Masochists are the coolest people I know," she explains, just before driving a needle through Bob's scrotum.

Even those not susceptible to middle-class squeamishness may find such stuff hard to watch--much less Flanagan's agonized death throes. But even when you most feel like yelling "Fraud!" or "Enough already!" the film can blindside you with another emotion. There's something so pure and courageous--noble, even--in this witty man's twisted battle against the inevitable that you can't help admiring him. The avant-garde provides cover for many charlatans and pretenders; most of them don't die in the effort to transform their life into art.

Filmmaker Dick is no newcomer to the cultural margins. In 1986, for instance, he explored "radical sex therapy" in Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate. Sick is, for want of a better word, more intimate, not least for its sidelong glimpses of Flanagan's baffled parents ("I always thought he was so normal," Mom laments. "Where was I?") and the hellish household--raving shrew of a mother, defeated shell of a father--that spawned the creature Sheree, who even as her "partner" is struggling to breathe demands to dominate him.

This astonishing and astonishingly graphic biography can turn your stomach, but in the end, it haunts us with its visions of pain and pleasure, love and death driven along by Flanagan's own mordant comedy. What can you say about a dying man whose legacy may be an art installation called "Video Coffin," in which his talking head continues to jabber on from a TV monitor set down among the undertaker's white satins? That he was self-absorbed? Sure. That he was "sick"? Absolutely. By Flanagan's own description, he was several varieties of that.

What can you say about a masochist whose brother calls him "a moral cop" and who bitterly sang a folk ditty called "It's Fun to Be Dead"? Maybe this sufferer had discovered something the rest of us don't know about the value of life and the defiance of death and was compelled to share it. In any event, here he is, a ghost up from the grave and onto the screen, needling us mercilessly about the human condition.

Need I say that this shocking and weirdly thrilling piece of work is definitely not for everyone?


Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.
Documentary produced and directed by Kirby Dick.