During one of the opening scenes of Sick, longtime cystic fibrosis sufferer, performance artist, and self-proclaimed “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan is seen performing a short tune he wrote to the melody of Mary Poppins’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. The words are as follows:
”Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis / he should have died when he was young / but he was too precocious / how much longer he will live / is anyone’s prognosis / super masochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis / um diddle-iddle-iddle I’m gonna die…”
Thus, we are introduced to the utterly dark absurdity that surrounds the lifestyle of this individual and, hence, the documentary of his life. Bob Flanagan is unusual in the fact that by his death at age 43, he sets a medical record for the longest anyone has ever lived with cystic fibrosis. Looking at this from the outsider’s lens, this means that after he had expected to succumb to the disease by his early twenties, he had lived the entire remainder of his life waiting to die. He had essentially been born into a lifetime of endless pain, tidbits of such being heedlessly shown to viewers. Unless one has lived through the disease, this amount of pain couldn’t possibly be imagined to the average, well-bodied individual. These very intimate moments of Bob’s illness are shown to us in unflinching detail, creating quite a dark atmosphere through the film’s entirety.
However, it’s clear from these first moments that Bob is a very special individual. Instead of adhering to the conventional image of a terminally ill individual – weak, sickly, confined to a hospital bed – he lives life in ways he feels most suitable for his situation. He has taken up an interest in bondage and extreme forms of S&M, going as far as to marry his mistress and engage in such dangerous feats on a daily basis. The way it seems is that Bob, having had to endure a lifetime of pain, intends to subvert this pain into something pleasurable. His motivations to submit himself to these masochist tendencies – spanks, slaps, piercings, burns, et al. – remain completely ambiguous, and for good reason I think. It’s clear to see that he was quite the eccentric individual, one whose manners and decisions go beyond simple summation.
Much more fascinating is the amount of humor that Bob takes from his unfortunate circumstances. While the film is obviously saturated in this uncomfortable aura of impending death, it is also quite unusually quirky in its dealing with the disease. Much of this is due to Bob’s own peculiar personality, taking aims at dealing with the ailment with extremely morbid humor. He knows, more than anything, just how terrifying his mere existence is; therefore, he stretches to find humor in the situation, something I greatly appreciate. In the meantime, the film covers his masochistic tendencies with immense graphic, intimate detail, the bulk of which is incredibly hard to watch. His preoccupation with genital mutilation is particularly bizarre, and unsimulated shots of such scenes are not for the weak of heart. While I tend to think I handle hyperactive gore pretty well, I found myself completely at unease with these parts, particularly at a two-minute long shot of a self-impalement of his penis.
The film, of course, also documents the illness with a sort of unprecented emotional rawness, the likes I’ve seen in very few films. In between these shots of well-intentioned humor and shock, we get interviews of Bob’s parents and wife, talking about how difficult it is to witness someone they love enduring such pain. And of course, we get many shots of Bob at the peak of his pain. Roger Ebert called this film “ one of the most agonizing…I have ever seen”; I would have to agree. While I spent much of the first two-thirds cringing and chuckling in nervousness, I spent the final third absolutely heartbroken. Sure, the self-mutilation scenes are extremely hard to watch. However, I would not expect that witnessing the decay of Bob’s soul as he slowly enters death would be equally as agonizing, if not more. I have fallen completely in love with this incredible creature. I have such enormous respect for his decision to take control of whatever bit of life he had left, making his multiple breakdowns around the final moments of his life all the more devastating.
Bob Flanagan is one of the strongest individuals I have had the privilege to discover within a filmic format. Having to live with such an illness is completely unthinkable and incomprehensible. The fact that he was able to live so long with such a strong head on his shoulders is astounding. This film is not meant to be a judgment upon his choice to pursue a life of pain for pleasure; such aspects are beyond explanation. As Bob himself had stated, this tendency toward supermasochism does not progressively weaken and sensitize his body; rather, it strengthens his sense of being and makes himself more susceptible to endure this disease. Sick: the Life & Death of Bob Flanagan is an incredibly hard pill to swallow, but overall, an incredibly rewarding experience. One could rarely find such unsurmountable explicit rawness in documenting a serious illness. I’m really glad that an individual like Bob has existed, and that this film is available for those who wish to see what fighting back truly looks like.