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Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
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by Rob Gonsalves

"A likely endurance test for some, but a revelation for others."
5 stars

Talk about turning a liability into an asset. Kirby Dick's "Sick," which chronicles the last days of cystic fibrosis sufferer and "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan, is one of the most unlikely inspirational films ever made.

Flanagan, who died in 1996 at the age of 42, remains the biggest "success story" in the annals of CF, whose carriers usually don't make it past their teens. Flanagan fought his disease through art and self-scourging often both at once and, luckily, found a soulmate, Sheree Rose, who was more than willing to help him do so. Acting as his Mistress, Sheree pushed Bob into ever more humiliating and painful punishments, which, for many years, he adored.

It would be a mistake to peg Flanagan as the freak show he ironically presented himself as. For twelve years he was an entertainer at a cystic fibrosis camp for kids, and we see him strumming a guitar and favoring the giggling kids with a ditty called "Forever Lung" (the disease coats the lungs with thick mucus). The most touching and weirdly heartwarming section of the piece is when a seventeen-year-old CF patient, Sarah Doucette of Toronto, gets to meet Bob through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. We see Bob and Sheree giving Sarah and her mom a tour of Bob's place, and a year later Sarah comes back and Bob accompanies her to her first nipple piercing. This is very unconventional love and mentoring, but the love is no less deep for that; to this day Sarah chokes up when remembering Bob and yes, as we see on a featurette on the Lions Gate Sick DVD released in September 2003, Sarah is now 26 and has outlived her own expected life span. We can't help thinking that Bob's example had something to do with that.

I consider Bob a great man, the textbook example of, for want of a less banal phrase, taking lemons and making lemonade. He turned his sickness into art; he turned his masochism into therapy. There was, understandably, a gap between his sardonic public persona who constantly joked about his impending death in performance pieces and his private persona, revealed here as a frightened and despairing man, not so much because he's going to die as because he's still alive and feels so physically awful he can no longer do what made his life meaningful. The heartbreaker in the film is the scene where Sheree badgers him about no longer submitting to her. She can't understand, she says, why he can't keep up the promise he made to her fifteen years ago. But of course she understands very well. He's dying, he's not well enough any more to be the submissive he once was, and the dynamic between them is changing. If he no longer needs her as a Dominatrix, what else is there for her to do except watch him die? If you read callousness in her words, you can very easily read fear and heartbreak in her voice.

Dick unearths some fascinating old childhood footage of Bob, including an appearance on The Steve Allen Show in which we already see both his artistic flair and his determination. We see interviews with Bob's parents, who lost two of Bob's sisters to CF and seem to be happy for him that he's found some way of dealing with it, even if they don't understand his way. We meet Bob's gay brother Tim, who still seems to harbor some hostility towards Bob (his siblings who didn't have CF must have resented the attention Bob got). We see coverage of Bob's elaborate art show in New York, at which he appeared in a hospital bed as part of the exhibit, then was hoisted upside down by his ankles by Sheree. If you wonder what all those New York art-gallery curiosity-seekers got out of Bob's displays, it doesn't matter. Art fulfilled him, and if others didn't get it, that was their problem.

Many will point to the infamous "Hammer of Love" sequence as the movie's most excruciating moment (though what always makes me wince is not so much the nail being hammered into Bob's dick, but the hammer pulling the nail out). But for me the greatest pain comes when, finally, Bob's hours are numbered and Sheree becomes a whole different person than what we've seen. Their whole relationship has been both a defiance and, in some respects, a denial of Bob's condition; but now it can't be defied or denied, and it's a wrenching moment when Bob, in a rare moment of lucidity, sits up in his bed and wheezes "Am I dying?" and Sheree just barely manages to say "Yes." Her tears come helplessly; she's losing her soulmate, but at the same time, he's going to be out of pain soon, and we hear her tell him that it's okay to go. Their next-to-last collaboration is a series of post-mortem photos taken by Sheree. Their final collaboration was this movie.

"Sick" encapsulates all the positive values supposedly embraced by the very same people who would never give this film the time of day. Once seen, never forgotten.

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originally posted: 05/21/06 04:27:40
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User Comments

6/06/06 Bob Sheldon Moving, rivetting, extraordinary. This movie requires opennes, but viewer is well-rewarded 5 stars
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  02-Jan-1997 (NR)
  DVD: 23-Sep-2003

  02-Mar-1997 (18)

  02-Mar-1997 (R)

Directed by
  Kirby Dick

Written by

  Bob Flanagan
  Sheree Rose
  Sarah Doucette
  Kathe Burkhart
  Kirby Dick
  Rita Valencia

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