SICK: THE LIFE & DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST
(director/editor/cinematographer: Kirby Dick; cinematographers: Jonathan Dayton/Allen Barker/Matt Levin/Geza Sinkovics/Barbara Thole-Testa/David Werk; editor: Dody Jane; cast: Kathe Burkhart (Interviewer), Kirby Dick (Interviewer), Rita Valencia (Interviewer), Sheree Rose (Herself), Bob Flanagan (Himself); Runtime: 90; A Kirby Dick production; 1997)
“The story is uplifting, strangely enough, because Bob was able to live with the constant pain and discomforts of the disease by finding his own identity.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Sick begins with Bob reading the obituary he wrote for himself: “I was promised an early death and here I am, 40 years later, waiting to die …”. Thus begins the uplifting and bewildering story of Bob Flanagan a truly amazing person, unfortunate to be born with cystic fibrosis “a children’s disease marked by fibrosis of the pancreas and frequent respiratory infections.” It’s considered a children’s disease because most of the babies born with it don’t live to adulthood. Bob Flanagan was the oldest living person known to have had that disease. He died while the movie was being filmed. A video camera followed him around for the last days of his life, which came when he was 40-years-old. The camera crew mistakenly took the day off when he died, but we do get to see his decayed body and have seen how sick he looked just before his death.
The story is uplifting, strangely enough, because Bob was able to live with the constant pain and discomforts of the disease by finding his own identity and exhibiting a gallows sense of humor that allowed him to joke about himself. He shared with the audience the most personal details of his life, such as his lack of ability to produce much of a discharge when he masturbates. He became a person who went beyond the perversity that marked his adult life. He credits the S & M he got into, with giving him a will to live. He is someone who can’t be judged by those who have not felt his pain. He performed onstage acts of self-mutilation that are mind-boggling, such as putting a nail through his penis. That was one part of the movie that was too much for my squeamish eyes, as I chose to look away.
Since I did not know what to expect upon seeing this documentary, not really giving much thought beforehand to what goes through the mind of a masochist, only thinking that a masochist must be someone with a screw loose somewhere. But the astonishing thing about this brutally honest film, that was no easy chore to watch no matter how insightful or hilarious the film was or how sympathetic I might have felt toward Bob, was that I felt myself self-consciously measuring my responses to what he was going through. I was left wondering how I would bear up to such travails, but all the time taking comfort that Bob did what he had to do in order not to let the bad body he was born with make his life a total mockery. And by the end of the film, I was able to look clearly at him and see him as just another pilgrim on a journey. Fear of death is a fact of life, and the mystery of death is something that leaves us searching for answers about why things happen to us in a certain way.
In many ways what Bob was going through was a religious experience, as he questioned his beliefs and what his feelings were all about. It seemed to make sense when he said, that Christ was the most famous masochist of all time. I was beginning to think that Bob’s high tolerance for pain results from his CF and the satisfaction he received from being a so called “Performance Artist”, and having pain voluntarily inflicted upon him was something that gave him an inner strength; it was a sense of being that he felt he couldn’t get any other way but from being a masochist. It all seemed right. I would not have felt this way, if I hadn’t seen the film. Watching him in agony, might be a lot like watching Christ on the cross; that is, without the religious implications of that particular event. His suffering was solely his trip; he wasn’t about ‘saving the world.’ Though, he was shown to be a role model for others with the disease. And, he acted as a counselor for many years for children in a CF camp. As a child he was the poster boy for that foundation.
Bob had a comedy and poetry routine onstage as well as his self-mutilation thing going for him that he seemed to love to perform. Though curiously enough he told his girlfriend, the dominatrix, Sheree Rose, that he would give up everything, including his artistic work, just to have a girlfriend. Fortunately, for him, he found someone who would keep him submissive, whipping him and keeping him under her strict rules. So he wound up with the best of the two worlds, a girlfriend and an ally in his exhibitionism.
Some of his later poems are in the style of an Allen Ginsberg or a Bob Dylan rant, as his later work took on a greater meaning from his earlier work. Here is one of his better poems:
Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosisHe should have died when he was ten but he was too precociousHow much longer he will last is anyone’s prognosisSupermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosisHumdiddleiddleiddleI’mgonnadie, humdiddleiddleiddleI’mgonnadie…
The film ends with his performance of a song entitled “Fun to Be Dead”. That comes after we see him for an extended period of time, as he is suffering in his daily life and when he is dying in the hospital.
Everything about his life was extra-ordinary. His relationship with his parents and his homosexual brother are reviewed, showing that he was loved as a child. Though his parents expressed surprise about his masochism; it seems he never revealed to them that he felt this way. Though what astonished them more than the fact that he is a masochist was that they thought they knew him better than anyone else, having raised him, and now find he had a secret life.
There is also an interesting clip from the old Steve Allen TV show where he appeared as a child guest in the audience, saying he wants to be a doctor when he grows up — not an artist.
Much of the video, comes from Sheree’s home movies of him, showing them in many different moods. To her credit, she showed stuff that is not always flattering to her, like when he was terribly sick during those last days and she still wanted him to be submissive to her. Submission seemed to be more important than love for her. Or maybe, it was the only way she could love someone. She was too perplexing a character to make head or tail of in this movie. It was tough enough to try to come to grips with Bob’s story.
To say that this film is unusual, is to mean that it really is not quite like any other “feel good” movie. I was glad that I saw it, though I can’t honestly say that it was a totally joyous experience. I think those who would avoid this film, thinking it is too depressing to see, might be depriving themselves from seeing a film that belies any rationalization of what a sadist is. This film is definitely not for a mass audience, but it is for those who are curious about things that are not that familiar to them. They will be rewarded by observing how the sheer power of a human being coping with a painful and unbearable disease for his entire life, still has the will to live a creative life. That is enough of a reason for me to recommend this film.
REVIEW ON 3/11/99 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/