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The Boston Phoenix Pain Man

Sick hits hard -- and likes it.

By Alicia Potter

NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

SICK: THE LIFE & DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST, Directed by Kirby Dick. A Cinepix Film release. At the Kendall Square.

In Sick, the penis endures enough torture to stop a Timex. But that's not why the film dominates as the year's most provocative release. Under the sensitive direction of Kirby Dick, this documentary about terminally ill artist Bob Flanagan brilliantly transcends its hardcore S&M roots. Alternately graphic and graceful, Sick penetrates the agony and ecstasy of one man's pact with pain.

For the self-proclaimed supermasochist, there's no separating sex from death, love from torture. One of the longest-living survivors of cystic fibrosis (he died last year, at age 43), Flanagan fights sickness with, well, sickness. Half-choking on the phlegm that clogs his lungs, he singes, pierces, slits, shackles, tapes, slaps, and binds his body. Essentially, he subverts a destiny of pain into a declaration of pleasure.

Flanagan's lust for self-punishment and his struggle with disease infuse his poetry, writing, and performance art with a whacked genius. He unleashes several new video performances for the film, the most unforgettable of which is 1994's "Autopsy." In this disturbing yet oddly touching pre-mortem, a sputtering Flanagan lies naked on a gurney; standing over him is his long-time partner/dominatrix, Sheree Rose, a Janet Reno look-alike in apron and surgical gloves. She muses about their passionate relationship, pausing to smack his cheek or stroke the topography of scars, piercings, and tattoos that covers his body. Then, like Julia Child sharing a soufflé recipe, Rose performs a sampler of S&M acts. Who knew the human rectum was so versatile?

But Dick does not shock for shock's sake. The film's shift-in-your-seat explicitness beats home Flanagan's philosophy for survival. And like John Waters, Dick injects just enough irony to temper the film's considerable grossout factor. For instance, the tune "The Hammer of Love" accompanies Flanagan's demonstration of what a trip to Home Depot can mean for his beleaguered shlong.

Sick humor indeed. With a body like Christ's and a face like Soupy Sales's, Flanagan mangles the lyrics of Mary Poppins's "Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious" to "Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis." The refrain? "Hum-diddle-diddle. I'm going to die." He also blithely riffs about what might have happened when a 17-year-old girl comes to visit, courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation (Flanagan and Rose chaperone her nipple-piercing). Less effective are the scenes from various S&M clubs in which Flanagan reads from his Fuck Journal, a graphic diary of his sex life with Rose.

Above all, Sick is a love story. Not surprisingly, given her gifts with a riding crop, Rose looms as, uh, a dominant presence in the film. "As a young child, I was considered bossy," she says, perfectly deadpan. She even wrestles a turn or two behind the camera; in fact, her footage captures Flanagan in some of his most candid, acerbic -- and annoyed -- moments. And for those who get spanked only on their birthdays, the film triumphs in revealing the intense trust and communication at the heart of a consensual S&M relationship. "There," says Rose as she removes a clamp from Flanagan's waist and soothes the resulting sore. "He'll remember this now for two or three days."

As Flanagan's health deteriorates, Rose, who is also an artist, becomes even more intriguing. Like a woman who discovers her spouse has taken a lover, she jealously lashes out when Flanagan proclaims he is too frail to submit to her. Ultimately, the cystic fibrosis usurps her; she can no longer rival its pain. When she's at her most selfish and domineering, it's tempting to accuse the maîtresse of pulling a Yoko Ono. But as Flanagan lies spread-eagled on a hospital bed, a tangle of tubes keeping him alive, Rose's bewilderment is near tear-jerking.

The documentary trails Flanagan until his last choked breath. We should be prepared: he's already read aloud his own obituary; he's appeared in a coffin via video; he's joked about his numbered days. Nonetheless, the film's last half-hour hits with staggering emotion. Never mind the scrotum weights and cock rings. The most arduous part of the documentary is watching Flanagan's gaunt body shudder as he gradually drowns in his own phlegm (ironically, Rose must pound his back to loosen the mucus). His cough is haunting.

Early in the film, Rose sighs, "One thing about Bob, you'll never forget having someone like this in your life." Likewise, one thing about Sick, it's impossible to forget such an unflaggingly honest film. Yes, Sick is hard to watch. But in this case, that's not a good enough reason to close our eyes.

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