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
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
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
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