director Kirby Dick
A simple Google search on the term “sick film” will find you links to both the imdb and wikipedia pages for the film Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. It also pulls a link to Total Film’s list of The 25 Most Disturbing Movies Ever, which, interestingly enough doesn’t include Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick. Though, I have to tell you, it might make my list.
I became aware of Bob Flanagan when Re/Search published Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist in 1993. I have often been interested in the Re/Search books and subjects, but frankly this wasn’t exactly up my alley. First off, BDSM et cetera doesn’t float my boat. I’ve got nothing against it at all, it’s just not a personal interest. Secondly, performance art. Not a big fan of that either. Oh, and piercing genitals? Go for it. Just not mine, please.
So, I wasn’t all that interested in the book or the man or the film but was just enough to keep it queued up all these years. This is what has opened up though via my Roku box and streaming content. I’ll queue up anything of vague interest, but now, with only a click, no forethought or planning, I can watch whatever is there. So, that’s how I got here, on a subject of only mild personal interest.
Bob Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis. I don’t know how much you know about this disease, I didn’t know much specifically. It causes excessive mucus throughout the body, buildups of fluids in the lungs and other organs, causing great pain throughout life, life which is often very short as well. According to Flanagan in the film, he lived a rather long life for someone with cystic fibrosis. He died at 43.
Flanagan found his was to BDSM through a partner and they took their particular brand of it into the realms of art, writing, photography, eventually installations and performances. It seems to have been particularly cathartic to a man whose life had been defined by his physical pain since birth. He had two sisters also born with this genetic condition. One died at 21, the other at 6 months. It sounds tremendously horrible.
The film is disturbing to me. For two reasons in particular. One: real gore. I cannot stomach watching needles enter flesh in real life. All the fake gore of movies rarely causing me a single turn. But knowing things are real, such as things done in this film, I really had to block the image throughout many parts. I felt nauseous throughout, peaking at the end when he nails his penis to a board and then pulls the nail out spurting blood all over everything. I cannot un-see that, as the saying goes.
The other disturbing part is his real death. While not caught on camera, per se, he is seen in his last hours, doped to the gills, struggling for breath, really, a living breathing corpse. And then we see his corpse, photographed by his longtime lover and collaborator. All of their work was about pain and death, the ever-presence of mortality, so it all fits together in true cohesion. It’s still sad and somewhat disturbing to watch.
One of the only odd positive things is when Flanagan is sought out by the Make-a-Wish foundation because a teenage girl who also has cystic fibrosis has read his work and wanted to meet him. One doesn’t have to have the disease to appreciate the soul of what he did, the sex and death and pain and life, the extremity to which one can push oneself through. Endurance, experience. It’s indeed interesting.
It is also indeed gruesome. After his death film-maker Dick and Flanagan’s partner find a jar containing his Flanagan’s lung. It is a smallish lump in a huge container of yellowish fluid, which she says is what was in his lung at his death. That he was literally drowning.
I don’t make lists for the most part, especially lists like “most disturbing movies ever made” (though I like to use them for reference and recommendations), but if I had a list of most disturbing films, Sick would be on it, for the reasons I’ve cited above. I felt sick. I still do recalling it.
I think I’ll try to stop thinking about it now.