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Lions Gate presents
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)

"Masochists are really cool people."
- Sheree Rose

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: September 22, 2003

Stars: Bob Flanagan
Other Stars: Sheree Rose, Sarah Doucette
Director: Kirby Dick

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (strong language, strong graphic images, nudity, mature themes)
Run Time: 01h:29m:40s
Release Date: September 23, 2003
UPC: 031398834526
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB A-

DVD Review

"All the articles about me start that way: 'Bob Flanagan should be dead, but he isn't.'" - Bob Flanagan

Well, he should have been. Really. You see, Bob Flanagan was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as an infant in the 1950s; C.F. is an incurable disease that mercilessly fills the lungs with thick mucus, making breathing not only painful, but near impossible at times, and as a rule, life expectancy for someone with the disease is generally around 25. The fact that Flanagan lived to age 43, in and of itself, is nothing short of unbelievable. But it is the way he lived his life that is even more unbelievable. Bob Flanagan was not just a poet, musician, performance artist, writer—he was a devout masochist. Pain, S&M, and self-abuse were key to his survival, it seems.

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is the oddly heartfelt and often difficult to watch 1997 documentary from Kirby Dick that chronicles the bizarre life that Flanagan led, and how his decidedly unconventional lifestyle may have actually began as his own dramatic attempt to fight back at his own failing body, and which ultimately developed into something that merged S&M, performance art, and good old-fashioned love (well, ok, maybe not "good old-fashioned", but some kind of love, nonetheless). It is Flanagan's submissive/masochistic long-term relationship with the dominant/sadist Sheree Rose that forms the core of Sick, and the pair allow Kirby Dick to string together narration-free home video, performance clips and video diaries, along with new interview footage to paint the graphically unflinching story of two people who clearly and desperately are made for one another, and the painful and personal lengths to which they go for not just their doomed-by-illness love, but their art.

The persistent, body-rattling phlegmatic coughs and the ever-present oxygen tank are offset by Bob Flanagan's obvious wry and sarcastic artist's outlook on life, and the things that would have defeated others is used by him as ammunition to create shocking performance installations, such as the video crucifix and his version of the visible man, which spews mock bile, semen and feces. His desire, whether sexually or artistically, for abusing his own body, either at his hands or the hands of the coldly impersonal Sheree Rose, is displayed completely uncensored here, and about the only moment that we don't see in great detail is when he has a rather large ball inserted into an orifice that normally isn't designed to handle such intrusions. Be warned that Sick is extremely graphic in nature, and there were more than a few instances where I found myself watching through squinted eyes as his body received an assortment of piercings, cuts, bruises and welts.

The segments of masochistic pain are intercut with opportunities to see Bob Flanagan working as a C.F. counselor singing funny songs, performing in a Nine Inch Nails video, and even serving as a form of divine inspiration for Sarah, a 17-year-old Canadian girl also afflicted with C.F. The meeting of Flanagan and Sarah is completely touching and strange in its own right, and is one of Sick's most genuinely human moments that is eventually poisoned by Sheree Rose's myopic, self-centered viewpoint on life.

The brutal and intentional artistic ugliness in Sick, chief among those being the infamous "penis nailed to a board" segment, shown here in agonizing closeup (complete with copious spurting blood), is swept away during the excruciating and heartrending final moments, as the inevitable occurs, and of course the cameras of Kirby Dick and Sheree Rose are there. The things done in the hospital by Sheree Rose may shock many (and seem criminal to others, perhaps), but in the context of Bob Flanagan's life, as presented in the film, it seems somehow perversely acceptable.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, Sick is gathered from a wide range of video sources from the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, and the quality understandably fluctuates. Some of the older archival footage shot by Sheree Rose, or by Bob himself, looks a little rough, but the newer footage shot by Dick has a home movie appearance to it, largely a reflection of the meager $15,000 budget, The transfer itself retains a fairly consistent appearance throughout.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: A simple, clean 2.0 surround track is the solitary audio option, with the entire soundtrack residing firmly in the front three channels. Much of the footage was gathered from various sources, and as a result, like the video transfer, the clarity varies slightly, but it is generally clear and understandable. Being a documentary, I didn't expect much in the way of an especially spatial audio transfer, but this track is certainly serviceable.

Nothing flashy, but more than adequate.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Secretary, Swimming With Sharks
8 Deleted Scenes
Isolated Music Score
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Kirby Dick, Dody Dorn
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Lions Gate has balanced out this highly unusual film with some worthwhile extras, or at least worthwhile if you enjoyed Sick. Leading things off is an easy going, full-length, scene-specific commentary from director Kirby Dick and editor Dody Dorn that fills in a lot of background about Bob and the production itself. Dick is the primary voice here, and while not all the content is necessarily fascinating, there are interesting nuggets (the influence of Warner Bros.' Carl Stalling on the soundtrack), and more than a few funny stories (what really happened after the "Autopsy" sequence). Dick has a very gentle speaking voice, and I found myself easily lulled into a very relaxed state.

There are two short featurettes, starting with Dick on Sick (07m:49s), which gives Kirby Dick some time to answer some questions about Bob (he liked Seinfeld and The X-Files), the production of the film and its travels through Sundance including a great story about the manic support of jury member Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper). Sarah's Sick Too (14m:39s) is probably my personal favorite, and it presents a 2003 followup with Sarah Doucette, the teenage girl with C.F. from the film who hsd longed to meet Bob. I won't reveal any of the somewhat surprising content, because I feel it would detract from the emotional impact, but suffice to say this was one of the most unexpectedly moving DVD extras I think I have ever seen.

Live Performances, as you might have suspected, collects four performance pieces by Bob, all with explanatory intros from Kirby Dick. The four segments are:
Body (03m:49s) uses a close-up of Bob's mouth as he delivers one his well-written monologues.
In My Tomb (01m:57s) showcases an weirdly dark variation on The Beach Boys' In My Room.
Rear Window (04m:20s) is Bob's stab at Hitchcock as we observe him giving himself a wine enema. It's a tough watch, if the truth be known.
Poster Child (03m:50s) is another funny monologue, here covering his stint as C.F. poster boy when he was a teenager.

The Soundtrack section (available with the Play All option) collects 19 musical elements from the film, and if you long to liven up a party with Hammer of Love, here is your chance. I know I do.

There are eight Deleted Scenes, running approximately 26 minutes, all featuring a Kirby Dick intro. Some of the sequences were cut because they simply didn't match the tone of the rest of the film, while some, like the alternate opening, are excruciatingly painful to watch. The best of the bunch is the Toy Box scene, which features Bob and a crucifix that is laugh-out-loud hilarious (unless you are easily offended, but if you were I doubt you would have sat through Sick, let alone these extras).

A DVD-ROM Flash game finds Supermasochistic Bob needing to be suited up with various implements that you drag and drop over the appropriate area of his body, all set to the Hammer of Love song. Kinda dumb, but funny once.

The disc itself, which has some wacky animation that inflicts all sorts of pain on Bob, is cut into 24 chapters, and features subtitles (English and Spanish) and trailers (Sick, Secretary, Swimming With Sharks).

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

It is difficult to heartily issue a blanket recommendation of Sick for everyone, because without a doubt this film will not appeal to the masses, and I doubt you will find this one on the rack at your local Blockbuster anytime soon. It is often harsh, ugly and for many I'm sure, repugnant.

However, if you are not easily offended, or can stomach some alternatingly disturbing and ultimately heartbreaking visuals, then I urge you to take a chance on this sexually frank documentary that manages to be unpleasant, funny, inspiring, and sad all at the same time.

As a plus, Lions Gate has included a batch of very fine extras on this release that are actually worth watching.



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