Cigarette Burns: Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

After a long hiatus, Jesse and I are trying to bring back Cigarette Burns. No word on how frequently these reviews will appear, so enjoy them when they do.

This review has spoilers of a sort, but this is not the kind of film easily ruined by such things.

Most people have never heard of Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Those who have usually know it as the documentary where a man drives a nail through the head of his penis in an unflinching close-up. For a lot of folks, that’s a deal-breaker. The market for real pain is admittedly small.

Incredible as it sounds, this self-mutilation is not the most disturbing thing on display in Sick. We see domestic disputes, the brutality of chronic illness, and Bob’s actual death. Flanagan was surrounded by pain, with only a small portion of it self-inflicted.

Bondage has reached a wider audience recently, riding the bad prose of E.L. James to something approaching mainstream acceptance. This is not a movie about two people playing at darkness, and it’s not something to recommend to the other ladies in the garden club. It is, however, deeply rewarding for those who can hold their squeamishness in check. There’s a genuine sadomasochistic love story here, and a lot of laugh-out-loud humor.

What you need to know about Bob–what’s more important than a penis pinned to a board–is that he suffers from cystic fibrosis. His lungs are constantly filling with fluid. He carries an oxygen tank everywhere, plastic tubes in his nostrils. His mistress (in the S&M sense) Sheree Rose, has to pound his back to knock the phlegm loose so he can breathe. The supermasochism stems from Bob’s desire to control his body, to make the pain of being alive with CF feel like a relief. Over the course of his life, he’s turned it into art. The film alternates clips from his final years with poems, stories, songs, and performances that mix the grotesque and the comic. We want to turn away, but we’re afraid we might miss something hilarious.

Sick forces us to confront our own hang-ups. Can it be that we really find consensual BDSM more startling than a man’s death? We can use this film to search for psychological explanations for behavior we consider aberrant, but why do we have such a sense of moral superiority? Where is the line between freak-show curiosity and empathy?

My life is a collection of banal pleasantness and minor irritations. Yes, I have bills, and the kids can piss me off, and it sucks that I’m going blind. Mostly, though, I float through, contented and largely untouched by tragedy.

Not Bob.

In the early1950s, when he was born, the average life expectancy for a person with cystic fibrosis was 17. He lived to be 44. Every day of his life he suffered. As a baby, his parents took him to the hospital for regular fluid draining, which involved doctors inserting needles into his chest. His stool was runny. He coughed constantly. Eventually, he drowned in his own fluids. Amazingly, when you look at Bob’s art–for all the pain involved in its creation–he most often presents a sly fuck-my-luck smirk, not woe-is-me agony.

Flanagan knew he was dying. How could he not? For over 25 years, he was an exception, and he made the most of it. He created multi-media exhibitions of his work, appeared in a Nine Inch Nails music video, and counseled children at a CF summer camp. Finally, two years before he died, Bob began working with director Kirby Dick on this film, with the explicit understanding that it would include his death in the final cut. This is literally his final performance.

In making his illness an integral part of his work, Bob became something more than a fetishist–he became an inspiration. (In one of the film’s most surprising moments, Bob and Sheree meet Sara, a teenager with cystic fibrosis whose Make-a-Wish dream is to meet him.) It is impossible to watch Sick and not admire his humor, his moxie, his courage. Few of us could take the pain Bob lived through. Even fewer would smile doing it.

About semiblind

Bringing you stark existentialism since 1981.
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