Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (DVD)

Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (DVD)

For many, especially those born with XY chromosomes, Kirby Dick's extraordinary documentary Sick contains the single longest shot in movie history. In extreme close-up, performance artist and cystic-fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan nails the head of his penis to a board, then slowly dislodges the nail–a delicate piece of carpentry that lasts 86 seconds, but resonates in the mind for a lifetime. Sick is loaded with excruciating images like these, from a baby bottle filled with piss to a steel sphere several times larger than its intended destination, enough to make the most devoted S&M aficionado wince. Yet for "Sarah," a fellow CF sufferer who meets Flanagan through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, all this footage pales in comparison to the film's third act, when Flanagan's withered body finally succumbs to the disease. On "Sarah's Sick Too," a new 15-minute short included on Sick's superb new DVD package, the filmmakers find her surviving into her mid-20s, happily married and determined to become the oldest living combatant of the so-called "children's disease." For her, Flanagan's life was an inspiration. Sick tells the heroic story of a man who used pain to seize control over his rebellious body, playing the submissive to all but his affliction. The film's greatest achievement is transforming his supposed acts of deviancy into disease-of-the-week uplift, not to mention a moving love story, an irreverent black comedy, and an intellectually compelling study of an artist at work. Dick, whose subsequent documentaries (2001's Chain Camera and this year's Derrida) have confirmed a gift for marrying form to content, made Sick in close collaboration with Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Flanagan's Dom and partner since the early '80s. Flanagan and Rose had been documenting their activities for years in short films, art installations, and video diaries, but Dick's involvement helped put their harrowing material in context, and frame the full scope of Flanagan's life. The couple's warts-and-all candor extends as much to their personal life as their sexual experimentation: In spite of his courageous sense of humor, living in near-constant pain often turns Flanagan into a bleak, irascible grouch, and Rose's incorrigible desire for his submission sometimes seems like gross insensitivity. Yet by the end of the film, the couple's abiding mutual tenderness becomes immensely moving, leading to scenes more intimate than any of the acts performed in Rose's basement dungeon. While Dick's close-up look at a disturbing artistic subculture earned comparisons to Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, the subjects of Sick are revealed as not so dysfunctional after all.

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