What I'm Watching: 'Sick' | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: 'Sick'


One of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in a while is one that I’d been meaning to get to for years: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997), directed by Kirby Dick. Flanagan was an artist who surpassed all prognoses by living with cystic fibrosis until his mid-forties. His manner of dealing with the agony of this horrific disease was, as the film shows in often-uncomfortable detail, to immerse himself in pain — largely self-inflicted, but quite a lot of it at the hands of his partner, Sheree Rose, who assumed the “S” role in their S&M relationship.

It’s hard for me to imagine ways in which pain is pleasurable. For me, pain, you know, hurts, and I pretty actively dislike and avoid it. Flanagan felt differently.

As I understand it, Flanagan’s life was, even before his sexuality developed, entirely informed by the pain brought on by cystic fibrosis, a disease that typically prevents its sufferers from reaching their thirties. Though neither he nor Dick ever comes out and says it, it seems that Flanagan decided that if he had to live in a world of pain, he was nevertheless going to find a way to experience pleasure, even if that pleasure was necessarily informed by pain. 

The great success of Dick’s fascinating film is that it allows viewers to understand why and how Flanagan found pain to be such a valuable coping mechanism, and, later, the wellspring of his intertwined art and sexuality. That Dick could use film to permit this kind of deep understanding of another person indicates, to me, that he is a very sensitive and skilled filmmaker, even if his work does not appear to evince a clear authorial signature.

That last remark was in no way intended as a slight. A clear authorial signature is not a prerequisite for excellent filmmaking skills. But it did strike me that the two Kirby Dick films that I’ve seen — Sick and the equally thought-provoking This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) — were made in a kind of “plain” style. In both films, the camerawork is more functional than “artistic,” for instance, capturing events without necessarily providing an aesthetic “filter” through which to view them. In Sick, Dick clearly made the conscious decision to let Flanagan’s remarkable life and art speak for itself.

This was a good call, I think. Flanagan was a writer, sculptor and visual artist, but his real medium was, in a way, pain itself. Sick (note the two meanings in the film’s title) uses a good deal of footage shot by Flanagan (and Rose): home videos, footage that was originally part of their video installations, and so forth. In including some extremely disturbing footage (most notoriously, of an uninterrupted, unforgettable close-up of Flanagan nailing the glans of his own penis to a wooden board), the director allows Flanagan’s life, art and pain to speak for themselves.

Sick encourages its viewers to think very seriously about the nature of pleasure, pain and love, and for this reason is a valuable, even unmissable film. But the thing I liked best about the film is how damn funny it was — a fact attributable, once again, to Flanagan himself, who maintained an incredible joie de vivre right up until just before he died. Sick opens with Flanagan singing a bowdlerized version of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the first line of which is “Super-masochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis,” and it gets funnier from there.

The song that plays over the closing credits of the film is equally funny, but also somewhat haunting. It’s an a capella version of Flanagan’s song “Fun to Be Dead” (see above), which, obviously, he wrote and performed while still alive, though it’s sung from the perspective of a dead man, which Flanagan now is. The song has been stuck in my head for weeks now, in part because it’s funny and clever, but in part, I think, because, for him, its title was accurate. Flanagan lived a life of pain: some of it deliberately self-inflicted, but the worst of it imposed on him by cystic fibrosis. Though he can no longer experience the pleasure of pain, Flanagan’s lyrics suggest that, all things being equal, it’s comparatively more fun for him to be dead than alive. It’s a chilling but oddly uplifting thought, given the obvious joy with which he lived his life, and which is conveyed to viewers so thoughtfully and wisely in Sick.

(For many, Bob Flanagan is best known as the "guy tortured by grisly sex machines" in the video for Nine Inch Nails' song "Happiness in Slavery." Revisit the early 1990s by viewing it below, but you've been warned. It's no easier to watch now than it was in 1992.)