by D.K. Holm
Theres a new, and incredibly successful trend in art movies profiles of oddballs who, in the depth of their confessed humanity, we find reflect our own inner selves. Crumb started the trend. But the latest documentary about a lovable weirdo, Sick! The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan , Supermasochist , Kirby Dicks profile of professional masochist and performance artist, Bob Flanagan, is no Crumb.
Flanagan, who died in his 40's a couple of years ago from the cystic fibrosis from which he had suffered since birth, was an extreme masochist. He liked suspension, blood and water sports, basically any kind of sports. He liked to sew up his dick, sew his lips together, pierce his flesh, hang weights from his penis, torment his nuts, and in general abuse by choice the body that nature had destined to suffer Jobean afflictions. While most masochists languish in private, hiding their books and magazines until special sessions and then guiltily flog their meat while fantasizing service to a dominant mistress, Flanagan took his private life and made it public, turning both his medical problems and his sexual inclinations into the subject of art installations. He was also lucky enough to fall into a relationship with Sheree Rose, a woman and fellow artist who, though seeming to have no sadistic inclinations herself, indulged her long-term boyfriends fantasies.
Sick, released this month, summarizes his life and profiles his art. Flanagan wrote six books (Slave Sonnets among them), appeared in videos for Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails, and mounted more then 15 installation cum performance events. He also had a brief career as a stand-up comedian. And like Crumbs friend Terry Zwigoff, Dick knew Flanagan. However, there the resemblance ends. Sick is a lazy, meandering, poorly assembled film, often atrociously photographed, and more or less terribly self-indulgent. Poorly directed, it relies on its shocking content to maintain audience attention. And thats the worst aspect of Sick by offering up this extreme version of Flanagan, prone to nailing his penis to lumber, as the representative of the S&M community, the film gives both Flanagans life and the scene a freak show quality.
Im sure that the real Flanagan was a great guy and awfully fun at parties. But the Flanagan most or us will now ever know is filtered through Dicks aggressive need to make him seem as bizarre as possible, cruel compensation by a moviemaker who lacks the ability to generate cinematic interest with the fascinating materials at hand.
Readers interested in an alternative, perhaps even real, Flanagan can consult the RE/search volume Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist (ISBN 0.940642.25.5), in which Flanagan exhaustively chronicles and explores his sexuality. There we learn about the inner workings of Flanagans mind. Sure, there are shocking pictures of his nailed penis, but there is often erect, stunning testimony that this was Flanagans rooted sexuality, and thus exempt from the exhortations to change that many of our personality traits suffer in the Appalachias of self-help books that abound.
The books Flanagan is the one who is a moving character in whom we can see a version of our own lives. Sadly, Sick's filmmaker doesnt know dick, and Larry Dick doesnt really know Flanagan.