A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
This bare outline makes Rose seem like a monster, but the reality was much, much more complicated. Years earlier, in 1982, Flanagan had signed a contract giving Rose "total control over my mind and body." They had a sadomasochistic relationship lasting 15 years. At the end she was not being cruel, so much as expressing her fear of losing him. It sounds cruel because she speaks in the terms they used to express their love.
"Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist'' is one of the most agonizing films I have ever seen. It tells the story of a man who was born with cystic fibrosis, a disease that fills the lungs with thick, sticky mucus, so that breathing is hard and painful, and an early death is the prognosis. He was in pain all of his life, and in a gesture of defiance he fought the pain with more pain. With Sheree Rose as his partner, he became a performance artist, using his own body as a canvas for museum shows, gallery exhibits, lectures and performances. He was the literal embodiment of the joke about the man who liked to hit himself with a hammer because it felt so good when he stopped.
Flanagan's masochism began early in life. He recalls forcing himself to sleep under an open window in the winter, and torturing himself by hanging suspended from his bedroom ceiling or the bathroom door ("My parents could never figure out why all the doors were off the jambs''). By the time he made it formal with Rose, he had already been a masochist for years. "Where was I?'' his mother asks herself. "Did we only give him love when he was in pain? I don't know. He was in pain so much of the time.'' How do you develop a taste for sticking nails into yourself? His parents recall that as a small child he had pus drained from his lungs by needles; since he felt better afterward, perhaps he identified the pain with relief. Later it became a sort of defiant gesture. His father says, "He's saying to God: `I'll show you!' '' In Rose he found a woman who was a true dominatrix, not just a kinky actress with bizarre costumes. He also found a life partner, and the closeness of their relationship seems frightening at times; they seemed to live inside each other's minds.
What makes "Sick'' bearable is the saving grace of humor. Apart from the pain he was born with and the pain he heaped on top of it, Bob Flanagan was a wry, witty, funny man who saw the irony of his own situation. We see video footage of his lectures, his songs, his poems. He takes one of those plastic "Visible Man'' dolls they use in science class and modifies it to illustrate his own special case. As he jokes, kids himself and makes puns about pain, we are aware of the plastic tubes leading into his nose: oxygen, from a canister he carries everywhere.
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