This film explores death, sexual taboo and visual art. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stomach the entire thing. I had multiple, “Is this real life?” moments. My mouth was agape for the majority of the duration — absolutely the most unforgettable documentary I’ve ever seen. I started watching the film as a fluke..it just popped up as a related title on Netflix. Performance art, S/M, and a lifelong lethal illness? Sounds right up my alley. Little did I know that watching this film would provoke more emotions than just admiration or disgust.
Bob Flanagan, the subject of the motion picture, was a performance artist, comedian, S/M enthusiast, and most significantly, the longest living survivor of Cystic Fibrosis. Breathing with Cystic Fibrosis is painful and difficult to do; the disease is often accompanied by the prognosis of very early death. Documentarian Kirby Dick, Bob, and his dominatrix/life-partner Sheree Rose collaborated on the 1997 documentary. It would later win the Special Jury Prize at Sundance that year, as well as the Grand Prize at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Bob died at the age of 43, many decades after he was expected to. He began his interest in bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) play when he was in high school, and his enthusiasm never wavered, even up to death.
I’m just going to say it…you have the privilege of watching Bob die. You get to watch a real death onscreen, outside of the snuff category. When’s the last time you saw something like that? He gets transferred to the morgue, and you watch his partner manipulate his body for photographs, after you spent over an hour getting to know the guy… and his penis. He nails it to a board, takes out the nail and bleeds all over the camera lens, uses it to lift weights, and has it pierced multiple times. All in front of your very eyes, huzzah!
You also see the contents of his lungs a month after his death—approximately a litre of deadly mucus that slowly killed him his entire life. You see him get tortured, willingly, by his partner Sheree. But, you have the other privilege to see him happy, joyful even, whilst he’s reciting his poetry or singing songs with his acoustic guitar.
Bob met his match when he found Sheree Rose, a mother of two, video artist, and a lover of S/M with a master’s degree in psychology. Bob submitted to her completely in 1982, and in the film you watch their “wedding video” of sorts, in which she carves an “S” with a razor blade on his chest. Don’t you just love love?
Bob and Sheree went on to collaborate on many visual artworks and exhibitions together all over the globe for over a decade. The Visible Man was Bob’s autobiographical take on the plastic teaching aids for middle school science classes. In Bob’s “Man” he wanted to be sure there was a continuous flow of green mucus coming out of the mouth, sperm from the penis, as well as feces. He proudly describes how he got the perfect “cum” consistency using White Rain hair conditioner, as well as great detail on what his ejaculation experience is like–more of a slow dribble rather than a spurt. You’re welcome.
The Wall of Pain is a 1982 piece in which Sheree Rose took a photo of Bob every time she punched, whacked, and whipped him with over 50 implements, 36 shots each. His facial expressions are mostly a semblance of a smile, which means you really know he was enjoying it ;).
In 1994′s Autopsy, Sheree Rose is “examining” Bob as if he’s dead. She gives him a piercing on his penis and caresses it with a knife. Then the most cringeworthy event in the whole film takes place…she turns Bob over and forces a fist-sized metal ball to disappear into his anus…and then snaps a photo for her own personal pleasure.
Video Coffin, also made in 1994, was, for me, the most intimate piece seen in the film. There’s Bob, his face in a television set, showing all of us his daily, frustrating battle with death. The embroidery reads, “I was promised an early death, but here I am, some forty years later still waiting…” In his book, The Pain Journal, he describes this feeling as such, “I keep thinking I’m dying, I’m dying, but I’m not, I’m not–not yet.”
After Bob’s death, the film ends with the video, Why? which explains all the reasons Bob was into masochism. It was a poem meant to set his non-S/M family and friends’ minds at ease, and to show them that it’s really not that wrong or scary.
This film was so meaningful to me because it was so intimate, and depicted human nature in truth and peculiarity. The documentary may be agonizing to watch, but the understanding that you gain afterwards is very rewarding. You genuinely feel as if who you were watching on screen was someone you knew, a human you connected with. You see him waste away, whilst experiencing every emotion. There is no more human of a documentary than this. Bob Flanagan found a way to fight sickness with “sickness,” referring to his affinity of sadomasochism as an ailment. Practicing S/M exercised Bob’s pain tolerance, and thus created an outlet for him to live longer with CF. I hope I didn’t spoil it too much for you, but watching Bob live a doomed life with a sense of humor and strength was enough to make this one of my favorite films. Sheree Rose is still doing S/M art, with a new whipping boy, British performance artist Martin O’Brien.
By guest blogger, Gabrielle Helmin-Clazmer
Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Dir. Kirby Dick. Prod. Sheree Rose. Perf. Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose. 1997. Netflix. Netflix, Inc. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
Flanagan, Bob. The Pain Journal. Los Angeles, Ca: Semiotext(e)/Smart Art, 2000. Print.
photo credit: Michael Del Sol, Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, New York, 1994