Sunday, November 16, 2008

“Well, I’m not gonna get another [body], so I’m gonna use this one until it’s all used up.”

Bob Flanagan was born in 1952, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Ordinarily, Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the lungs to fill up with thick mucus, kills those who have it by the time they are 6 or 7 years old. Sometimes, suffers of CF live into their early 20s before dying, usually of a lung infection. Flanagan lived to be 43, gaining notoriety for his writing and performance art that focused on his pain and struggle with his disease, often through public demonstrations of extreme self-mutilation.

Documentarian Kirby Dick chronicles Flanagan's final years in his film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. True to the title, the film follows Flanagan, as well as his long time partner/Mistress Sheree Rose, starting in his early 40s right up through his death in late January, 1996. Sick sheds light on the many aspects of Flanagan's life: his art, his relationship with Rose, the anger and humor he directs at his disease. Flanagan makes for a fascinating figure, be it because of his controversial art or his particularly unique perspective on life. One can't help but have a unique perspective on things when you've lived your entire life being told you're going to die and, by all accounts, you should already be dead. But you're not. (In Flanagan's own words, "All the articles about me start the same way, 'Bob Flanagan should be dead by now. But he isn't.' That's what they always say. 'Instead he nails his dick to a board.'")

In case that last comment about nailing his dick to a board or the term "Supermasochist" didn't clue you in, Flanagan made his name in the art world for his acts of extreme self-mutilation. These acts of supermasochism included, but were not limited to, hammering a nail through his penis into a wooden board, suspending himself upside down from the ceiling of art galleries, being physically abused in just about every conceivable manner, often accompanied by Flanagan's darkly comic monologues about living with CF. The film presents plenty of examples of Flanagan's performances, so be warned, this film is extremely graphic. So if you don't think you can handle watching a close-up of a nail being driven through the head of penis, near constant spanking, frequent cutting, and at least one instance of on-camera sodomy, you should probably stay away.

The film generally focuses on two aspects of Flanagan's of life: how his proclivities for BDSM, both in his art and in his bedroom, gives him a sense of control over his body, a body that refuses to function properly; and the intimate and trusting relationship he has with his longtime partner Sheree Rose. These two elements are, realistically, inseparable. Rose was not only Flanagan's SM Mistress, but also his partner in life and art. The trust and intimacy that is inherent in such a long term BDSM relationship is on full display. The film does not shy away from showing the couple's extreme intimacy, whether it is through homemade videos of their SM adventures or through quiet conversations in bed. It is apparent that there is a closeness, an intimacy, and a trust between the two of them that is rarely found in the most functional of relationships.

In terms of Flanagan's art, the film explores how Flanagan views his masochism and his self-mutilation as a way for him to reclaim control over a body that refuses to function as it should. His explorations of the limits of what he can endure forces him to engage with his body in a way that gives him a fuller understanding of his physical self, as well as teaches his body what it is capable of, despite its disease. It is as much about his own self discovery as it is about confronting audiences with shocking experiences. It is about bringing the audience into Flanagan's own experiences with his disease (including one art gallery exhibition of his work, a part of which included Flanagan sitting in a hospital bed, in the gallery, throughout the duration of the exhibition, allowing viewers to see him and talk to him).

Ultimately, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist paints a very intimate portrait of a man who had to learn very young what he wanted and how to take it for himself. Up through the end, in which Dick films Flanagan dying in his hospital bed, Flanagan seems scared and, above all, confused by his own death. Even though he has spent his entire life confronting his own death, he seems just as terrified and confused as anyone else. Sick and its subject are extremely funny, intimate, heartbreaking, and, more than anything else, inspiring.


Brad said...

This sounds like it might be too much heavy lifting for me. Maybe. Something about getting too close to actual death on camera makes me feel somehow invasive, and, frankly, icky.

Penis nailed to a board, though, sign me up.

Scott said...

Yeah, of all the crazy stuff that is in that movie, Flanagan dying in the hospital is hands down the most uncomfortable to watch.

Just turn the movie off like 15 minutes from the end. That way you get all the ball torture, but none of the death.