Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Review of Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Bob Flanagan was sick, in every sense of the word. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, but what's memorable and visceral in Kirby Dick's documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is Flanagan's other, transcendent, sickness. His disease is far, far secondary to his performance art, a sideshow of cringe-inducing flagellation born out of a "contract" Flanagan "signed" with his lover, collaborator, and dominatrix, Sheree Rose. Flanagan surrendered ("gave of [his] own free will") his existence to her in a performance piece of ritualized sadomasochism, every perverse thing under the sun, that would be utterly demeaning to anybody not condemned to spend his life drowning in mucous.

Even with that in mind, you watch Sick for the shock value of a man nailing his dick to a two-by-four — and un-nailing it. (Spoiler alert: it's bloody.) I'm not grossed out, just — even the man's visceral struggle against his illness becomes trite in comparison. Flanagan is almost a character study of himself, a mess of pop psychology and accidental heroism to some kids in the Make-a-Wish Foundation, throwing off his default definition — "guy dying with CF" — for one equally reductive — weirdo. His art, what he presentation, isn't pressing the limits of nociception for the sake of art and truth — he's getting off, especially since he's doing it in public. Imagine David Blaine standing on top of that tower for thirty-four hours with a boner.

And the Inevitable has such a discordant resonance, especially after Flanagan's condition deteriorates. He can only face his mortality; Sheree, who isn't oblivious but also not rotted out the same way he is, is pissed — fearful — that he refuses to be spanked. The dominatrix thing is an act of love between them, but the sex — he basically agreed to be her robot — is about the uncontrollable physical sensations, utterly removed from the collaborator relationship they (theoretically) have outside the bedroom. Even if he coped with the concept of dying by being an ass to himself and, by extension, his cystic fibrosis, reality catches up with him in the end. Flanagan's plan for a final sendoff was a video camera in his coffin, so a collector could watch him disintegrate.

But Kirby Dick's camera is in Flanagan's hospital room, recording him wasting away, both he and Sheree sobering to the idea, and that project never materialized.