Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
Screened as part of the BFI’s Uncut season and celebrating its release this month, uncut on DVD for the first time in the UK, is Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.
Documentarian Kirby Dick’s 1997 film has previously been cut by over three minutes for fear that certain scenes of sadomasochistic action and self-harm could likely encourage imitation. This uncut release is encouraging and suggests an understanding has been formed concerning the film’s documentation of consensual involvement in said dangerous acts.
Sick is a portrait, unsurprisingly enough, of Bob Flanagan. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as an infant, Flanagan grew up becoming increasingly interested in bondage, domination and sadomasochism and gained fame as a performance artist, poet, writer and musician.
Kirby Dick’s film follows Flanagan during the final years of his life, appropriating footage of performances and underground films from the 1980s and 90s, photographs and home video footage shot by him and girlfriend/master Sheree Rose. We are also introduced to Bob’s parents and a brother, who interestingly draws a line between his sibling’s kinks and his own private life as a young gay man.
We follow Bob as he struggles with his illness, all the while continuing to perform – his acts involve solo-singing with a guitar, poetry readings, and some fascinating acts of self-harm. His sense of humour when on-stage, and sometimes off, is infectious. In the film’s opening scenes, we see a man of great humility, living years beyond all expectations with the disease which will kill him, and choosing to regain a sense of control over his body through explorations of physical pain and manipulation.
This in turn leads to staging art installations, memorably featuring Bob’s humorously graphic but touchingly forthright “visible man”, a doll-sized plastic model which defecates, ejaculates and spews mucus like Bob himself.
This all being said, and without wishing to criticise the film on the grounds of it being negatively influential, it is flawed and frustrating as it does not probe far enough into understanding the reasoning behind, and impacts of, the acts on show. It often feels as if it simplifies their importance.
Our initial view of Bob is of a man of great (gallows) humour, happy to be able to live with what level of physical control he feels he can gain from masochism. His relationship with Sheree Rose appears deeply and gently loving. What is curious are the later sequences of Rose’s footage which paint a largely unhappy picture of Bob’s struggle with CF.
Ultimately, Sick is a film which offers a saddening but uplifting view of a man stemming the tide of his pained existence as best he feels he can. It is endearing and made with great affection, but come the close one feels not wholly satisfied, as the moments of visual extremity were not matched by the depth of investigation into their purpose and power.
For further information on the BFI’s Uncut season visit their website here.