Sick

Newcity Chicago

DIRECTED BY: Kirby Dick

REVIEWED: 12-08-97

The phrase "pain of creation" achieves new heights of meaning after you've seen Kirby Dick's extraordinary documentary, "Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist." It's an exacting portrait of the late performance artist, poet, sufferer of cystic fibrosis and "hetero masochist, in extremis" Bob Flanagan. "I've learned to fight sickness with sickness" was Flanagan's typically jokey description of how his masochism helped him endure the chronic pain of CF. In collaboration with his longtime lover and collaborator Sheree Rose, what had been private ritual became a very public art. At his death at 43, Flanagan had lived double the years anyone in his condition is expected to, and the pain he suffered -- fundamentally a slow, breath-by-breath drowning -- led him to explore the world of pain with great wit and knowledge. Dick, a friend of Flanagan's, has made a funny, beautifully nuanced, even tender film, touching on issues of intimacy in relationships in art and life in a way that probably could not be depicted in any other genre.

After nearly a year on the festival and publicity circuit, Dick is restless, but says he feels "an obligation to the film, the distributor, and to Bob Flanagan, in a way. People may say it's careerist, but I haven't had a rush of offers, which is fine." With a prior feature, "Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate," Dick says, "I got an agent, went through that whole thing. You wind up getting opinions from people who don't have an investment in the project. That's basically death. The attention that followed the theatrical release was just distracting. The next step is to start the next project. In my mind, it's more difficult to write a good script than it is to find a way to make it."

Dick had always wanted to make a documentary that explored the boundaries of intimacy between filmmaker and subject, and Flanagan's profession as performer -- and a bluntly candid and devilishly funny one -- made an ideal match. He met Flanagan at Los Angeles' Beyond Baroque, a nonprofit arts space where writers and artists such as painter Mike Kelley and novelist Dennis Cooper would cross paths. Flanagan taught poetry workshops there. Simultaneously, Rose was shooting footage of her collaborations with Flanagan. A few years later, Dick also begin to videotape him. The rich mix of materials, edited with a sense of dramatic shape and canny proportion of comedy to tragedy, combine to make "Sick" an impressive piece of work.

The collaboration had its shifts. "Because Bob was sick and it was so difficult for him to work," Dick says, "These stand-up routines [to the camera] became like his work. He and Sheree were often upset when I'd go over there and I wouldn't bring my camera for some reason or other. Not angry, but 'Where's the camera?'" But in knowing there would be a film of his work left behind, a complex legacy, did that focus somehow sustain Flanagan? "Yeah. Absolutely. By working in a collaborative way with a dying artist, I'm sure it does. With Bob, he continued to want to work, all the way. Even when he was high on painkillers, he was talking into the tape recorder, trying to keep his diary going."

Dick's sense of the lives of Flanagan and Rose evolved as shooting continued. "I got a more developed picture of Bob and Sheree's collaboration, particularly after I stayed with them in their hotel during the New Museum show [a 1994 event shown in great detail in 'Sick']. That's when I really got a sense of how important Sheree's contribution was. It was fascinating, because you normally think of art in a romantic way, as someone finding the truth deep down inside them. It puts a different perspective on it when someone is making art because their lover-dominatrix has ordered them to fill up an entire page [in a diary] before they can come to bed and get whipped and fucked! You assume that the will of the artist causes the act of creation, but it's really the irritant of the muse that actually does sometimes, and it brings up a lot of interesting issues. The stereotypical idea of the muse is a soft, romantic human female, which is probably way off base. I actually think that people often make work because somebody gets them off their ass to do it, like Sheree did. It was her idea that Bob should have to write 'Fuck Journal,' which was a record of all the times they had intercourse over a year. It was a simple, elegant idea, that Bob's writing was able to [deliver on]." Dick sees an important pattern of form-and-function in Flanagan's life. "The structure and the stricture of s-m both applied to the form of Bob's work. In a lot of s-m, there are certain rules and constructs that are established, from physical bondage to endurance, that is not so different from trying to find a form for a piece of work."

--Ray Pride

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