DVD Review – Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, 1997

Directed by Kirby Dick
Starring Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose


Documentary on the performance artist, writer, musician and cystic fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan. Oh, and he’s a ‘supermasochist’, too.

Bob Flanagan cuts a frail figure. His eyes bulge slightly from his face and blue veins push through his thin torso. A plastic-tube around his mouth and nose is ever-present. It’s his breathing apparatus, and without it, he’d be very uncomfortable. Bob is 43-years-old and a sufferer of cystic fibrosis. He should have died when he was 25.

The situation’s pathos is confronted with a darkly humourous slant, by both Bob and the documentary’s director, Kirby Dick. The film opens with Bob reading his own obituary. Just as many comedians have based entire sets around cancer and their reactions towards it, Bob deals with his condition through irony and the bizarre. Because Bob is a performance artist who specialises in masochism. In fact, he, and the documentary, refers to himself as a ‘supermasochist’. Does that then make Wonder Woman a ‘supersadist’?

He “drinks [his wife’s] piss from a baby bottle”; he lets her shove a metallic ball larger than a fist completely into his anus; he nails the head of his penis onto a wooden board. It’s all shown in graphic documentary footage, or in excerpts from his video art. The latter example is the most difficult to watch. The shot holds on Bob’s pelvis for what seems like an eternity, while he slowly hammers the spike through his cock. Upon removing the nail, blood gushes profusely from the newly-formed hole in place of semen. Bob certainly earns his self-bestowed title.

It’s near impossible to sit through. My own hands were over my face for the duration, with only the slightest gap in the fingers to make out a pinkish blob and a metallic spike. There’s a reason Sick was refused classification for so long in the UK. It’s arguably the most visceral film you’re ever likely to see.

The documentary is pieced together from Bob and his wife Sheree Rose’s home movies; interviews with their family and friends; and footage from their performance art pieces. The sapped colours betrays the film’s video origins. It’s a bit fuzzy and out-of-focus in parts, and also a part of its charm. The way it’s filmed is almost akin to snuff. In more ways than one.

Bob died in 1996, a year before Sick was first released on the film festival circuit. The documentary details his passing as his deteriorated lungs become too much. His sense of humour, his wonderfully dark take on life, the intense emotional bond he shares with Sheree, are all suddenly plunged into jeopardy. Much like death in real life, those last few scenes come astonishingly quickly. Strange, for a film that passes excruciatingly slowly in its more graphic moments.

Laying in his hospital bed, cutting an even frailer figure than before – with various supermasochist wounds scarring his body, a barbed wire tattoo around his penis, and his wife’s initial crudely etched into his chest – Bob appears displaced. We’re used to him in his performance spaces, which are often hospital-like environments, though not like this. Seeing him so weak is far more haunting than a penis nailed to a wooden board. In a real hospital, Bob’s a fish out of water. And with his lungs slowly drowning in mucus, he gapes like one too.

The video below is the film’s last scene. In it, Bob reads one of his poems, Why?, over a montage of his childhood. In it, he explores all the possible reasons for his sexual desires. Some are familiar; others specific. It’s remarkably affecting.

Sick is the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen, but it might also be the most profound.

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist has now been released on DVD by the BFI to celebrate the BBFC’s centenary (by showcasing all the films they banned).  

Sick is also being screened at the BFI on Tuesday 6th and Sunday 11th November as part of a season curated by Mark Kermode. Warning: definitely not a date film.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★

Oliver Davis

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