Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

One never knows where a classic film will appear into one’s life. I know that I certainly never suspected that a documentary about a man who became famous for pounding nails through his penis would wind up being one of the most touching and painful (okay, I had an idea about the painful part, but not exactly how I imagined) movies I have ever seen in my life, and yet here I am, urging you all to go see it.

Some backstory: Bob Flanagan was born in 1952 with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the lungs and throat to continually fill up with mucus, and for which there is no cure. Given a median life expectancy of six months, by the start of the documentary he’s made it into his early 40s, though he is continually in and out of hospitals and has plastic tubes permanently pumping oxygen in through his nose. His survival seems at least partially due to how he chose to deal with the constant pain of his life, by creating even more pain for himself through masochistic acts as a means of showing that he was in control of his body and pain, not some disease. It’s a decision that led him to his girlfriend of 15 years, Sheree Rose, a former dominatrix who fell in love with him and joined him in his masochistic endeavors for the surprisingly long remainder of his life.

As I mentioned, the film is surprisingly painful, both physically and emotionally. The physical part was enough to make me squirm in quite a few places: on multiple occasions, we unfortunately get to see close-ups of him nailing his penis to blocks of wood, hanging himself upside down by hooks, having Rose give him a new scrotal piercing, or appearing in the Nine Inch Nails video “Happiness in Slavery”, where clamps yank and twist on his nipples and testicles. All that, however, pales in comparison to the emotional toll of the film. While I don’t recall it being expressly stated anywhere during the doc, it’s pretty clear that Flanagan and Rose had director Kirby Dick start making this movie when it became clear he only had a few months left to live, so we get moments like when Rose is upset at him because he won’t let her give him a birthday spanking. While he doesn’t come out and say it, he’s clearly upset at her for wanting to do that when he’s visibly in so much pain that it’s taking everything he has just to sit up in a chair and talk. Meanwhile, while she doesn’t come right out and say it, she’s not upset about him rejecting the spanking, she’s upset because she knows she’s losing him to his disease, and is now unable to connect with him on the single most intimate level they’ve developed for each other.

Also, while they don’t quite capture the very moment of his death, they do show his final conversations with Rose and his mother the evening before, where he’s in a hospital bed, barely able to whisper, and openly crying that he doesn’t understand why this is happening to him and how he doesn’t want to die. Later, his mother holds up a large jar completely filled with the fluid that was in his lungs when he died, explaining that he drowned from this. It’s one of the most tragic endings to any film I have ever seen, all the worse because it‘s true.

I can imagine quite a few of you having already decided based on this description that you never want to see such a movie, and I don‘t blame you. A film filled with this much pain would be rather unendurable, if not for all the humor Flanagan infuses into the film. He constantly jokes about his condition, whether to the camera, to the audiences of his stage shows, to the students he occasionally lectures about his condition, in his songs and poems. Even in his final few days, he manages some levity, as when he decides on his final art project: “I want a wealthy collector to finance an installation in which a video camera will be placed in the coffin with my body, connected to a screen on the wall, and whenever he wants to, the patron can see how I'm coming along.” There’s also a surprising undercurrent of hope running through the film, both in his own case of having managed to live so far beyond what his doctors believed to be his life expectancy (particularly when two of his sisters also died of the disease, one at 17 years and one at six months), and in the case of a 17 year old girl with cystic fibrosis who visits him through the Make a Wish Foundation, and informs him how his book completely changed the way she viewed her condition. It’s a camaraderie built on dealing with a terminal illness, true, but when facing a disease that tends to kill you at a very young age (though Wikipedia informs me that the life expectancy for an infant born with the disease in 2008 is 37.4 years, so apparently modern medicine has gotten better at treating it), every extra day you’re around can count as a victory.

As I write this, I finished the movie two hours ago, and I’m still tearing up about it like a child. One that cries at sad things. As I said, this is not an easy movie to sit through by any means, but it is one of the most powerful and affecting I have ever seen. I strongly urge you to at least attempt to watch it, even though you may be spending a good chunk of time looking anywhere but at the screen.

Rating: ****

P.S. In lieu of a trailer, here’s the film’s opening montage:

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