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The Pain Truth

Bob Flanagan
Man and Masochist: A scene from 'Sick,' the story of performance artist and self-mutilator Bob Flanagan.

Bob Flanagan lies and dies in 'Sick'

By Richard von Busack

AS A YOUTH, Bob Flanagan was a good Catholic and a poster boy for the Orange County Cystic Fibrosis Association; the adult Flanagan became an underground hero when Re/Search Books printed his stories and photos of submitting himself to torture for fun. Rather than listing his various degradations/exaltations, it may be better to explain why the documentary Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist isn't just a freak show for the artsy. Flanagan, who dies on camera after a long bout with cystic fibrosis--a genetic disease that floods the lungs--was obviously a brave man for enduring what the disease did to him. Making a show of himself in the most basic way imaginable guaranteed that he wouldn't be forgotten during his long stretches at the hospital.

Sick dwells on the stuff Flanagan liked, especially the "autopsy" rituals in which his partner, Sheree Rose, slaps him, pierces him and eventually shoves something that looks like a track-and-field shot up him. The scene certainly brings out the maternal side of S&M. Rose is in her white rubber apron, working on Flanagan's pale, goose-pimpled flesh, laid flat and nude on a table. Except for the fluorescent lights, the tableau looks as homely as Julia Child stuffing a turkey.

Sick's money scene--the famous "crank nailed to plank" shot that caused the walkouts at the Sundance Film Festival--is done in lingering close-up. This sickening scene shows the canniness of director Kirby Dick, who sells his film the way TV news is sold, with the old maxim "If it bleeds, it leads." An hour and a half in the company of an egomaniac is taxing, no matter what that egomaniac does to himself to shock you. Despite Flanagan's insistence that a masochist is an active figure, the other people in this documentary are more intriguing: especially Flanagan's parents (the mom, who has lost three of her children to cystic fibrosis, says dryly, "Well, Bob always was disciplined") and Rose, whose desire to record the last moments of Flanagan's life wasn't arrested by taste or by grief.

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Unrated; 89 min.), a documentary by Kirby Dick.

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro.

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