Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

It's rare these days for the BBFC to cut a movie (aw, come on - cut them some slack!). It's even less common to find that the subject of requested cuts would be a documentary on the life of a celebrated artist-cum-sufferer of cystic fybrosis, distributed by those fine upstanding folk at the BFI.

But only a few months ago - under the BBFC's new 'liberal' guidelines, this film was cut (read: censored) by a mammoth 3 minutes and 42 seconds.

Well luckily the disc under scrutiny here is the fully uncut, gloriously unexpurgated US release by Avalance Home Entertainment. And what you get is by equal turns funny, engaging, outrageous, sickening and ultimately ... sad. Such is life!

Robert Flanagan was an American performance artist whose stage act involved comedic poetry, punctuated by acts of fearless self-mutilation. By his own admission, Bob was attracted to the notion of harming himself (usually his genitals) in a bid to come to terms with the physical pain he suffered as a victim of cystic fybrosis. His partner Rose filmed many of his more demanding sado-masochistic fantasies in an unflinching home-movie manner, and these are included in their entirety within this film.

The film opens with a montage of facial expressions from Flanagan - we see him getting a custard pie in the face; getting pissed on; chewing on a fake severed hand; and finally prematurely reading his own eulogy as he lies on his hospital death-bed with tubes sticking out of his nostrils. It's commendable at this point to note that Flanagan accepts the medical advice his parents were given ("he'll be dead by the age of 6") but is smug in the knowledge he has outlived this prediction and at the time of filming is in his early 40s.

White text upon a black screen describes the hereditary nature of cystic fybrosis to us, reinforcing the fact that most victims die as children or by the time they reach their early 20s. Closely followed by a candid interview with Bob's parents - Bob & Cathy - you could be forgiven for switching off and looking for a light-hearted alternative to drown out the depression (especially after you see archive footage of the 10 year old Flanagan being interviewed on Steve Allen's eponymous TV show - aww!!).

But stick with this. Bob had a knack (whether he knew it or not) for producing comedy. His "Visible man" project is a graphic display through puppetry of how bodily fluids are affected by CF sufferers. His recipe for shit is most interesting!

Next up we meet Bob's brother, Tim. He has a couple of anecdotes to tell - adding to the off-kilter feel of Bob's family in general. Regardless of his illness, were these people ever going to be normal?! It matters not, because ultimately they are likeable. Which is what makes the entire experience all the more heartbreaking.

The S&M home movies made by Bob and his girlfriend are amatuerish and of mild interest - they're not particularily well done, to be honest. The more telling scenes are the interviews taken by director Kirby Dick. Rose comes across as very hard during these moments, and may appear callous to many in the final quater of the film - but how do we possibly even begin to get our heads around this warped relationship of command?!

Dick's movie relies heavily on the home movies produced by Flanagan & Rose, as well as footage of Flanagan onstage amusing small groups of students while offering bitter jokes concerning his ill-health. This admittedly disturbing footage is interspersed by interviews with family and friends (Rose's drunken parents are hilarious, in a way that makes you feel ashamed of them!)

So, what's contentious here?! Jeez ... how about Rose forcing a needle through the base of Flanagan's penis - his jerks and yawning cries being truly unnerving? Or, Rose ramming a large black metal ball into her partner's arse - then taking photos of the romantic occasion? Both these scenes were removed from the BFI release, at you-know-who's request.

"The Scaffold" is a pretty dull montage of nine images split onto one screen - each one focusing on a part of Flanagan's body. It will no doubt interest young film students who have yet discover that great film is that of interest, and not of camera trickery and style. It's the weak link of an otherwise absorbing docu-drama, and the killing joke that criminally detatches us - albeit briefly - from our relation with Flanagan.

"I nailed the head of my cock to a board ..." Yes, you guessed it ... another scene cut by our beloved censors! If you've seen SCHRAMM and thought the penis-hammering was extreme - you ain't seen nothing yet! Woah, Bob carefully hammers the nail through his bell-end with relative ease. But then he proceeds to extract the nail using the claw-side of his hammer ... and we are privvy to a camera shooting from behind a glass panel, held right beneath Bob's genitals! The blood splattering on the glass as he squeezes blood from his speared penis is truly disgusting - one of the grossest images in recent memory.

About halfway through the film, Flanagan tells the camera "People don't think of masochists as being a strong person - the stereotype is a weak person". Flanagan displays both qualities. Obviously, his lust for life kept him on the planet for much longer than was anticipated by his peers - and his almost suicidal yearning to mutilate himself so fiercely trained his body to get wise to the pain his disease would bring. But at the same time, we see a man who is constantly living in fear of the moment his time on Earth will be over - someone all too aware that their illness is taking over.

The final moments of the film show Bob in his weakest state. Dick had access to Bob on his death bed, in hospital as Rose tries haplessly to answer her beau's delirious cries of "What is going on?" and "I'm scared". After familiarising ourselves with Bob for 80 minutes - getting to like his no-holds-barred approach to his limited life, and appreciating his warped sense of humour - suddenly we are confronted by his lifeless expression as he lies, mask on mouth, in a hospital bed frantically trying to make sense of the fact that he is dying. It's horrible. If anyone who likes mondo movies wants a shock - watch this. You finally get to see the death of someone you have grown - however briefly - to like. It's a very depressing trip, made even worse by Rose's sudden conversion into a compassionate human being and the ensuing stills of Flanagan's corpse (photographed by ... Rose!). She even repositions her dead lover's hands around his penis ... sick, indeed!

Footage of the funeral, is followed by a closing montage of home video footage of Flanagan from the age of 5 upwards - accompanied by a poem he wrote circa 1985, entitled "Why?". It is perhaps this poem alone that best makes sense of all the madness, ugliness, comedy and sadness that has preceded it. Impossible to reprint here, as it would lose so much of it's power - it's a brilliant assessment of someone who struggled against an indeatable nemesis and found a calling in life, despite never being able to escape the bitter knowledge of knowing there time would shortly come.

A very worthwile film then, with some truly harrowing images and an incredible assessment of a tragic life enlightened by the delights of S&M(!). Not to all tastes, but if you get the chance to see this, take it. You'll be a better person for seeing it!

The disc is very serviceable. The film is presented in it's original full-frame ratio, and looks great - no grain or artifacting. Obviously it's low-budget and there are various origins to the documentary footage (video, 16mm etc) but they all hold up fine. Mono audio is fine too.

Extras are limited. The biographies on Flanagan, Rose, Dick and editor Dody Dorn are limited (verily!), while the information on custic fybrosis is pretty basic. Production notes by the director are slightly better. There's also a one-page synopsis of the main feature (?!) which is pretty redundant. All extras are text only.

Review by Stuart Willis

Directed by Kirby Dick
Released by Avalanche
Unrated (uncut)
Region - All
Running time - 92 min
Extras :
Text synopsis; Biographies; production notes; Notes on Cystic Fybrosis.