'Sick' is too much to endure

December 12, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Say this much for "Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist": It lives up to its title.

But "Sick" isn't sick because it shows the title character hammering a nail through his penis, hanging barbels from his testicles, repeatedly piercing and prodding delicate parts of his anatomy or, posthumously, showing the audience the liquid that had gathered in his lungs when he died in 1996.

"Sick" is sick because none of these scenes is in the least bit absorbing, edifying or artfully presented. "Sick" is sick because filmmaker Kirby Dick buys into the title character's self-importance so uncritically and asks his audience to do the same.

Finally, "Sick" is sick because, since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize, it has become a darling among critics who applaud"Sick" for being "extraordinary," "moving" and "subversive," and have compared Flanagan to Jesus Christ and Andy Warhol.

It isn't, and he wasn't.

"Sick" is the story of Bob Flanagan, who as an infant was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis -- a genetic disease that causes the body to create a surfeit of mucus, bringing on chronic and eventually fatal lung ailments. As a child, Bob was literally a poster boy for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, but as he grew into adulthood, he began to rebel against the body that betrayed him by visiting all manner of indignities upon it.

He started, he explains in the film, by lying naked in a freezing room, then moved on to hanging by his wrists from every door in the house. In time, he would tattoo, pierce, cut and pummel his body into a gnarled, emaciated knot of pure pain and triumph. No matter how much pain the C.F. brought on, he reasons, it couldn't match what he could inflict on himself.

Flanagan found a soul mate in Sheree Rose, a sadist for whom his willingness to have his body abused and desecrated was pure manna. Much of "Sick" documents their relationship, wherein Rose gives Flanagan an S&M "autopsy" and declaims on the "emotionally dysfunctional" family that led to her becoming a dominatrix.

"Sick" also documents Flanagan's career in that dubious branch of human endeavor known as performance art, which should be the filmgoer's first clue that as much as Flanagan embodied the ideals of the self-empowered survivor, he was also something of a sharpie. We see Flanagan giving self-aggrandizing demonstrations at S&M clubs, reciting from badly-written journals at art galleries and hanging upside down, naked and catheterized, at the New Museum of Art in New York, where he is lionized for his courage.

It's difficult to say what makes "Sick" so tiresome: Flanagan's infantile exhibitionism or the pretentious downtown milieu that legitimized it.

Unattractively filmed on video, "Sick" bears no production values or formal ingenuity to speak of, and Dick never delves deeply enough into Rose and Flanagan's day-to-day life to create the intimate portrait his film is supposed to be (this is how "Sick" differs from "Crumb," the beautifully made and authentically disturbing film to which it is compared).

Flanagan's death -- at the remarkable age of 43 -- is filmed with the same obsessive gaze that he and Rose shared during their time together, to the same desensitizing effect. Having come under the thrall of Flanagan and Rose (who co-produced "Sick"), Dick hasn't elucidated their lives as much as celebrated two people for whom self-awareness held about as much interest as a warm hug.

'Sick'

Starring Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose

Directed by Kirby Dick

Released by Cinepix Film Properties Unrated

Sun score:

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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