Sick

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Kirby Dick

REVIEWED: 11-17-97

Even though Sick had received the green light, director Kirby Dick had to wait several months before he could start filming. Did his funds dry up? Did his equipment break? No, it wasn't any of the typical independent-filmmaking snafus. This problem had a name: Sheree Rose.

Bob Flanagan's dominatrix had put her spike-heeled, patent-leathered boot down. No way was anyone filming Flanagan but her.

"First of all, I was sort of supplanting her," says Dick, who met Flanagan at a Los Angeles literary center in the 1980s. "Already she was videotaping and photographing Bob as part of their S&M partnership. Secondly, I was asking her to be a subject."

Eventually, Rose lowered her whip. She even relaxed for the camera. Was Dick forced to play servant to win her approval?

"No!" he laughs. "But let's just say that if I had wanted to be submissive, she would have loved it!"

Flanagan expressed immediate zest for the documentary. Says Dick, "For Bob it was different. He had been exploring these issues for so long. Right away, he was able to make the filmmaking process an intimate one. There weren't any issues of propriety for him. He wanted me to shoot not only all aspects of his life but also all aspects of his death. That was clear from the very beginning. That was his style."

The result? One of the grittiest, most explicit films of the '90s. Surely, most of us never imagined we'd see a nail impale the head of a penis, never mind see it close up and larger than life on the big screen. Was Dick surprised at Sick's national debut?

"I knew that it would get a theatrical release," he says of the film, the winner of the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "Once we started having screenings early on, there was this completely unexpected reaction. People said that they were dreaming about Bob, that they couldn't stop thinking about him, that they went to a dinner party and he was all they talked about. And these people weren't a part of the art, alternative, or S&M scenes."

He adds, "Of course, there were others who said, 'Oh no, I can't watch that!' A lot of people have come to me and said that they're very apprehensive about the film. Then they go see it and report back and say that when the big penis moments came, they understood why Bob did it."

Dick can't recall a time when Flanagan asked him to shut off the camera. However, he does remember a day when the supermasochist asked to change the subject. "Bob lived as long as he did because he fiercely denied death. He wouldn't even use the word. I once did an interview with him when he was in the hospital. I was alone; Sheree wasn't there. I set up the camera and decided that this was the time when I was going to have this long discussion about death with him. But then he said, 'I really feel very uncomfortable talking about this. I feel if I do, it's the first step toward accepting it. Then if I accept it, I'm going to give up.' "

From 1994 to 1996, Dick shot more than 100 hours of footage. Flanagan died in January 1996. Two weeks later, Dick began editing the film; another year would pass before he arrived at a final cut. "It was really an intense period. But it gave me this opportunity to meditate on Bob, almost like having a dialogue with him. Even though he was dead, it was this very intimate experience. It put our relationship on a completely different plane."

And what is it like for Dick now, nearly two years after Flanagan's death? "I still catch myself talking about him in the present tense."

--Alicia Potter

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