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movie and film reviews

Volume 15/Issue 26

Reel to Real
by Chuc LaVenture

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

T his is one film that is aptly named. While I am no sexual prude I have to say that even I was a little taken aback by some of the scenes shot for this documentary. I think the two most disturbing scenes for me where the carving of his lovers first initial, S for Sheree, into his chest with a scalpel, and the equally disturbing nailing of his penis to a board. This film is the life story of Bob Flanagan, a poet, performance artist, and supermasochist. Bob was born in New York City in 1952 to parents who both carried the defective gene for Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Bob was one of five children, three of whom were born with this genetic anomaly. His two sisters died within the normal life-expectancy for a child in the 1950's born with CF. Bob believed that part of what kept him alive to the age of 43 years was his experience with masochistic practices.

Bob tells us that his masochistic interests began as early as his elementary school years. He believed that the experience of pain helped him to deal with the pain he experienced as a CF victim. Much of the film is chronology, with a near complete history of Bob's illness as well as his involvement with masochism. The film includes interviews with his parents, who knew nothing of his sexual proclivities until his later years, as well as with his brother, who always considered himself the family's sexual outlaw because he's gay, at least until he found out about his brother's sex life. You'll meet Sheree Rose, Bob's lover of many years and his sexual dominant. Sheree is a photographer, video artist, and performance artist, as well as a sexual sadist.

Bob Flanagan started his career as a poet, publishing four volumes of poetry; "The Kid Is The Man" (1977), "The Wedding Of Everything" (1983), "Slave Sonnets" (1986), and "F**k Journal" (1987). It was only after meeting Sheree that Bob found his way into performance art. He and Sheree collaborated on a piece entitled "Gross Revisions". Bob went on to stage "Body" (1989), "Nailed" (1989), "Bob Flanagan's Sick" (1991), and "In My Room" (1996). Readings from all of his poetry, as well as video of his performance art pieces are included in the film. The last part of the documentary deals almost exclusively with Bob's death process. It's a terribly intimate look at the process of dying, and all that that emotionally entails.

This film is shot in documentary fashion. The film is sometimes grainy, and the audio is not always as clear as it could be. The overall effect of the film is voyeuristic. We are getting an intimate look into the emotional, physical, and sexual life of a couple who did not live what most consider to be a conventional life. While I'm loathe to have anyone think that I am speaking ill of the dead, I have to say that I found both Bob and Sheree throughout most of the film to be very self-absorbed and self-pitying. I don't think I came away from the film with anymore understanding of masochism or with a better understanding of what it is like to have CF.

I believe that this film opened at Canal Place December 12, and if it didn't I'm told it will definitely be opening on the 19th. After all I've said, this may make no sense, but I do recommend seeing the film. It is a very in-depth look at two people who viewed the world from a place that most of us will never go. This is a film which has the potential to challenge our perspectives.

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