The life and death of Bob Flanagan, super-masochist
Most of us were spanked as children. Bob Flanagan has been getting spanked most every night of the week for the past 25 odd years, often with leather whips and chains. Why? Because Bob is what you might call a super-sadomasochist. Bob was born with cystic fibrosis, a condition that leaves the victim's lungs filling with mucus and causes multiple breathing problems. Most with CF live only into childhood or the early twenties. Flanagan beat the odds and made it past the age of forty with the help of his life partner/dominatrix Sheree Rose, whom he made a life long commitment to as her slave, and his obsession with S&M. Producer/director Kirby Dick's Sick follows Bob through his struggles with his disease and obsession with mutilating his own body. Along the way we're privy to his private home videos (including interviews with his mother, father, and brother), Flanagan meeting a fellow CF sufferer through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and his eventual, documented death in 1996. As Bob's parents, friends, and relatives are interviewed we find out what makes a man who likes to get pooped on tick—Sick is living proof that one man's breaking point is another man's pleasure palace.
Let me start by saying that Sick is not a movie for children. Or teenagers. Or the elderly. Or, quite possibly, 99.6% of the general population. Sick lingers on the most horrifying, grueling body mutilations ever caught on film. In one scene, Bob Flanagan actually pounds a nail through his genitals. In case you think you read that sentence wrong, let me write it again: BOB FLANAGAN ACTUALLY HAMMERS A NAIL INTO AND THROUGH HIS PENIS. I have spent the better part of my life keeping sharp objects away from that particular body part while Flanagan has spent a lifetime decimating it. You'd think that a movie dealing with such unpleasant subject matter would highlight an unpleasant human being. Not so in the case of Bob Flanagan. As Sick delves deeper and deeper into Bob's life, it's evident that Flanagan was more than just an S&M artist—he's was a witty, genuinely likable character who was given the royal shaft with cystic fibrosis. While Sick often shocks and sickens, it's also a moving account of one man's struggle to make meaning of a life always on the brink of death. There are moments of pure heartbreak in the film, no less so than when Bob is laying on his deathbed awaiting his final breaths. It's in these moments that we forget we're watching a movie about a self mutilator and instead a living, breathing human being. As sympathetic and likable as any character in the movies, Bob is a man we come to really like—his ironic sense of the absurd keeps Sick lighter than its subject matter. True, it's not always pleasant watching Bob stick needles through his testicles (and, really, when is it ever?) or sewing his lips shut. But life is not always happy-go-lucky, and for Bob he takes pleasure wherever he can grasp it. The interesting thing about the movie is that it raises deeper questions by probing its subject matter—is experiencing as much sheer pleasure the real way to live life even with a short expiration date? Or could Bob have done more than just be a slave to Sheree? The film touches upon this question in scenes where Bob plays guitar at a local cystic fibrosis camp for children (where he was a counselor for over 20 years) and in personal moments of contemplative mortality. Bob Flanagan was a complex man who lived a full, odd life and both his existence and eventual demise will stay with you long after you shut the TV off. Sick is one of the most disturbing, harrowing films you're likely to see this year. Recommend to very mature audiences with solid stomachs.
Sick is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. Shot on video, Sick looks…well, sick. Okay, so it may not be that bad, but it doesn't look great. Much of the footage is sprung from old home movies filled with dirt and poorly lit rooms. Kirby's hand is often shaky which gives the film a very amateurish feel. And yet, it all seems to work in the film's favor. There are some bright spots, however, as when Bob gets the head of his penis nailed through a board—the image was so sharp that I had tears running down my eyes, though I don't think it was because of the clarity. The soundtrack is presented in what appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in English (no mention is made on the package). This is a fairly nice sound mix that doesn't feature a lot in the way of directional effects, but doesn't need too—overall the mix is clear with some distortion and hiss present because of the source materials (old video, et cetera). Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
Lions Gate has tacked on some extra features to this first-ever DVD release of Sick. First up is a commentary by producer/director Kirby Dick and editor Dody Doran. Both participants have fond memories of Bob and this commentary shows a true affection for their subject. Much is discussed on the way the film was structured and Blake Leyh's atmospheric soundtrack (inspired by cartoons, especially Warner's "Looney Tunes"). "Dick on Sick" is a fine little interview segment of Kirby being asked questions about the Sundance Film Festival, what it was like working with Bob, et cetera, and subsequently answering them. His answers are both funny and a little surprising. "Sarah's Sick Too" catches up with Sarah (the Make-A-Wish girl in the film) who was supposed to die at 25. She's now 26, married and continues to be healthy (or, as healthy as you can be with cystic fibrosis). A batch of deleted scenes is included, as if you needed to see more of Bob doing horrifying things to his body. "Live Performances" features four segments of Bob performing, including one where he talks about his infamous "tomb camera" idea. Finally there are songs from the soundtrack available in a separate menu, a DVD-ROM game, and theatrical trailers for other Lions Gate films.
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