The goal of this blog, very simply, is to bring to light movies that either weren’t widely seen during their release or films that have somewhat fallen into obscurity. The hope is that someone who hasn’t seen these films will take a look at them. I certainly can’t promise that you’ll like them and I’m sure that if the movie being profiled doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then you’ll probably skip that one. I certainly hope you’ll watch every film that I write about but hey, we’ve all got things to do.
When compiling a list of potential films to write about I inevitably started to list some titles that I’m well aware aren’t for everybody. I imagine that some of my past entries will have their detractors. I know that there are people who gave Return to Oz a shot and just didn’t like it. Some will dismiss Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a cheesy sex comedy and not appreciate the its off-the-wall humor and craftsmanship. XXY, a film about a transgender teenager might sound unusual to some but I do feel that if you give the film a chance you’ll not only like it but understand transgender people better, which is important in our current political climate.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is definitely not for the squeamish. It features some extremely graphic imagery and has a subject matter, namely hard-core S&M, that will simply be too off-putting for some. But if you are willing to look beyond the films more shocking moments you’ll be rewarded with a documentary about the triumph of the human spirit, the healing power of art and humor and, above all else, a bona fide love story.
Bob Flanagan, the subject of the film, was the worlds oldest known survivor of cystic fibrosis. A horrible disease for which there is currently no known cure, cystic fibrosis, or CF as it’s sometimes known in short-hand, causes frequent inflammation in the lungs. This results in an abundance of mucus and can lead to all kinds of breathing problems. It can also cause problems in the liver, pancreas, kidneys and intestines, often resulting in uncontrollable bowl and urine production. Most people with CF die in childhood. Few have ever lived past seventeen. At the time of the documentary Flanagan was already in his forties.
Flanagan had to endure a childhood filled with pain and discomfort. At some point though he grew to realize that by inflicting pain onto himself he actually was able to not only elevate the pain caused by the disease but that it also brought with it an erotic rush.
In one scene we see him telling a story about his childhood. When he was in high school he used to tie himself up by the wrists when everyone else in the house was asleep. He also talks about whipping himself with a belt that he had stuck pins into and getting blood all over the bathroom wall. “I always had this terrible Catholic guilt,” he says during the monologue. “My Mom would knock on the door and I’d think to myself ‘you see, you do this kind of stuff and bad things happen.'” Bob’s gleefully dark sense of humor is a big part of his M.O.
Eventually Bob fused his love of S&M and his dark sense of humor together and became a performance artist – Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. He would appear on stage wearing nothing a but a cape and a pair of underwear over his frail and bruised body. Along with the IV tubes sticking out of his arms and torso are various piercings, tattoos and other bruises brought about by his self-inflicted masochism. At one point he sings a parody of “Supercalofridgulasticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins, which he renames “Super Masochistic Bob with Cystic Fibrosis/ Just how long he’s gonna live is anyones prognosis.” He then sings a chorus that goes “umdidalittle dittle, I’m gonna die, umdidalittle dittle I’m gonna die…”
Along with this self deprecating humor Flanagan also puts his body through some very painful rituals right on stage. These range from shackling his arms and hoisting himself up, to taking off a bathrobe and revealing a free weight tied to his penis to actually driving a nail through his johnson. This scene is showed in graphic detail during the film. I hope I haven’t lost you by now but if you were to look away during that scene I would not judge you.
Bob also has a number of fine art instilations that he puts together for a private show. These include “the wall of pain” which comprises of several video monitors showing parts of Bobs body going through various bondage rituals and a coffin with a note saying “sorry to be late” hanging from the door of the casket. One particularly clever little piece of fine art is an “invisible man”, one of those plastic anatomy sculptures depicting a man with a plastic epidermis that allows us to see the anatomy within. Bob rigs the little plastic sculpture up with tubes to depict it secreting mucus, fecal matter and semen, all made mostly from hair care products and all secreting at abnormally high rates.
Bob also makes performance art films with Sheree Rose, his partner of fifteen years. Sheree, who is also a photographer, is a true dominatrix. She’s not an actress or prostitute who dresses up in a tight leather outfit and gives guys spankings. She’s a true blue sadist. She admits how as a child she was very bossy and combative and would lead other children down to the basement and touch them in places she shouldn’t. Somehow she and Bob got together and it proved to be an unusually compatible match. She was willing to work on his art projects and to help take care of him while Bob was willing to submit to whatever type of hardcore bondage Sheree yearned to try. He even drew up a “contract” that gave her complete dominion over his body.
Whereas Bob usually comes across as humorous and even kind of carefree (at least when his CF isn’t acting up), Sheree seems more aloof. She doesn’t seem like a mean person but she does seem to harbor a great deal of hostility. We get an idea why when we see a home video from a recent Thanksgiving visit with her parents. They fight and squabble worse than Frank and Estelle Costanza and you just sit there wishing you can leave the room. Who knows? Maybe if she didn’t find Bob she would be as outwardly miserable as her parents.
Bob’s home life seems to have been the polar opposite. We meet his parents, both of whom look like the nicest, most straight-laced people on earth. His mother reflects that “I read some of his book and I just wondered ‘where was I?'” The Dad claims that they were the most tight-knit family imaginable. We later see Bob with his brother Tim who says that Bob was a sort of moral cop when they were younger. Tim, who is gay, thought he was the one with unusual sexual appetites. Things are never as they appear. This might also be true of the Flanagan’s home life. Happy as they may seem it couldn’t have been easy raising a child with cystic fibrosis. We learn that Bob had a sister who died at twenty-one and another sister who died in infancy.
While Bob’s unusually dark sense of humor and his artistic streak may have helped him get through life it’s clear throughout the film that he has a very big heart and genuinely wants to help others with this horrid disease. We learn that when he was young he went to a camp for young children with CF. Once he was old enough he became a councilor, a job he held well up until the time of this documentary.
Also in the course of the film we meet a young girl from Ontario named Sarah who is also afflicted with CF. She had read Bob’s memoirs and felt a kinship with him and through the Make-a-Wish foundation was able to meet Bob. She bonded with both Bob and Sheree, who wonders if she might want to try S&M herself. Bob talks Sheree out of it. Sarah admits that she can understand Bob’s attraction to S&M because for once it allows him to be in control of his body. Sarah later returns to L.A. to see Bob and Sheree again. No, she doesn’t get into bondage but they do take her to get one of her nipples pierced. A special feature on the DVD shows Sarah in 2003. She’s married and raises horses. I did a google search to find out about her today. I’m sorry to say that she passed away early in 2016. Still, she seems like she lived an eventful life.
As the film progresses, Flanagan’s health deteriorates. Eventually his breathing problems become unbearable. Sheree tries to convince Bob to take part in some bondage exercises but it’s soon clear that he’s too sick for any sex games.
I don’t think a spoiler alert is necessary since the subtitle of the film is The Life AND DEATH of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Sure enough, at age forty-three, the cystic fibrosis gets the better of him. Director Kirby Dick happened to be present during his demise. We see Sheree as her cold hard exterior erodes and as she tearfully begs Bob to stay alive. The final moments of his life are captured in still photographs as his body perishes and is removed from the hospital room. This might seem unusually macabre but so was Bob. At one point he says that he would like to be buried with a video camera in his coffin so that one of his collectors can watch his deterioration. I’m quite sure that due to the embalming process it now takes many years before a body decomposes but then I’m not an undertaker. Still, I can see the humor in such a notion. I can also see how Bob Flanagan can and should be looked upon as a hero, a man who found a way to express himself and (for the most part) enjoy his life despite a crippling, painful and messy illness. It also can be looked upon as a true blue love story. Sure, Bob and Sheree are an unusual couple but it’s clear at the end of the film that their love was genuine. Hell, watching Bob die from CF was a hundred times more poignant then watching Ali McGraw die of nothing in that other Love Story.
The film’s director, Kirby Dick, has pretty much made a career out of exploring human sexuality in it’s many facets, both positive and negative and everything in between. One of his first films was Private Practice: The Story of a Sex Surrogate. His later films include Twist of Fate, which explores the child abuse cases within the Catholic Church; Outrage, which explores repressed homosexuality within the Republican party; The Invisible War which centers on the epidemic of rape within the U.S. Arms services and his flawed but often informative This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which explores the clandestine way that the MPAA rates movies. One thing we learn (surprise, surprise) is that their far harder on films for depicting sex and nudity than violence.
We live in a very curious time when it comes to human sexuality. I’m quite amazed and delighted that people have accepted the idea of gay marriage and that the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. I think it’s very good that we’re beginning to understand that some people are transgender, that someone can identify themselves as being of a different gender then the one they were born with. I do think that Katlyn Jenner’s public transition, while partially done to boost ratings of that dumb TV show has helped the public at large to understand transgender people better. And yes, I am completely against any law that bars people from using the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
I also must point out the fact that during the nineties we had a president who was nearly brought down due to an extramarital affair with a consenting adult. Among those who lead the Clinton impeachment were Newt Gingrich, who twice divorced a sick wife to be with a younger woman and Dennis Hassert, now serving time for pedophilia. Right now we have a president who was caught bragging about how he likes to “grab (women) by the pussy” and can walk in on beauty pageant contestants while they’re changing. Bob Flanagan might seem “sick” to some in a figurative sense, but he only ever wanted to inflict pain onto his own body and receive pain from a consensual, adult life partner. I can only speak for myself but if one were to compare Bob Flanagan to Donald Trump I can tell you right away which one of them is truly sick.