Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bob Flanagan Needs to Be Spanked.

Bob with his wife Sheree, the dominant.

Kirby Dick is an incredible documentarian. The first film of his I saw was "This Film is Not Yet Rated" when it screened at the IFC Center. Netflix, in all of its wisdom has decided to post his most infamous and arguably best documentary; "Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist (1996). I didn't walk out of it, but I have to admit I had a hard time finishing it. It was absolutely mesmerizing, and yet probably the grossest thing I've ever seen. Up until that point good old "Antichrist" (2009) held that gold medal record. But this one trumps it without effort. And yet this film is absolutely amazing. 
It catalogues, exactly as it says in the title; the life and death of Bob Flanagan. Our friend Bobby was a performance artist/poet in the 80's up until the mid-90's until his death from cystic fibrosis in 1996. He was known perhaps being the first to openly and rather graphically talk about his sex life which was predominantly one of S&M, wherein he was the submissive and his wife was the dominant. This wasn't the usual, lets tie each other up, spank each other and then share a pizza because it's late kinda deal. Flanagan truly gives meaning to the pseudo-term 'supermasochist'. 
He is only aroused through masochism and spends his day-to-day relationship with his wife acting as such. He is more or less her slave, and the more she abuses him (physically or mentally) the more his desire for her grows. 
This is a film that definitely plays with the borders between pornography as document and document as narrative. There is enough pornographic content to take as unused footage and recut as a porn-montage. But that would be sacrilege. This film is a poignant homage to one of the most creative and innovative performance artists of the post-modern era. Therein I believe lies the purpose of the film, where Flanagan pushed the boundaries of performance art, Kirby Dick used documents it in order to push the boundaries of film narrative. It is performance art when it exists between the artist, the audience and the space between, and completely reiterated as part of film art when it includes the camera as the third eye.
And in his most extreme peice of performance art, Flanagan dies, violently and brutally from drowning from the phlegm in his lungs, his wife by his side. Yes the film concerns itself with the 'supermasochist' part of Bob Flanagan, but it mostly focuses on the first part of the title; 'The Life and Death Of...'. As his father put it, Bob was so angry with his body because of how it had betrayed him all his life, that he used masochism as his own personally way of telling nature to go fuck herself. 
He used masochism in many more ways than just for sexual thrills, and in much more extreme ways than any of us have yet to imagine. It was as much part of his identity as his name. He used it as artistic expression and means of resisting his inevitable death in a weakened and feeble state. Flanagan had the balls (excuse the pun) to subject himself to pain that would always test his limits of control in order to prove to himself that his body was not weakened by cystic fibrosis. 
Is it porn? No. Pornography is measured by its affect on the viewer; i.e. if it gets you off, it's porn. Now, I'm not into S&M per se, and for those who are, I still wouldn't recommend it if their intention is to get excited. That's not the purpose of 'Sick'. If you think about it, all pornography is essentially documentary, it is in it's nature to be a document of a sexual act rather than an embellishment. Instead of using the act of sex as a narrative tool, for exposition, or for filler (again, excuse the pun), documentary serves the purpose of serving the viewer. It has one purpose and that is to its audience rather than to the film as a whole.
This is a documentary in the tradition of the Maysles Bros. It is expository and deeply moving, letting the material simply speak for itself. As Flanagan himself put it early on in the film 'two things I do on a regular basis anymore is cough and come'. After you're done watching, you'll probably say one of two things; 1. 'I didn't know you could do that with binder clips' or 2. 'This Flanagan seems very interesting, I'm going to check him on wikipedia for more'. 

--'Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist' is available on Netflix Instant. 
--Also, the infamous music video released in 1992 by Nine Inch Nails for the song 'Happiness in Slavery' which was almost universally banned is now available on, featuring Bob Flanagan'Happiness in Slavery' Video 

I'll leave you with one of Flanagan's poems written towards the end of his life...

Why - poem by bob flanagan

Because it feels good;

because it gives me an erection;

because it makes me come;

because I'm sick;

because there was so much sickness;

because I say FUCK THE SICKNESS;

because I like the attention;

because I was alone a lot;

because I was different;

because kids beat me up on the way to school;

because I was humiliated by nuns;

because of Christ and the Crucifixion;

because of Porky Pig in bondage, force-fed by some sinister creep in a black cape;

because of stories of children hung by their wrists,

burned on the stove, scalded in tubs;

because of Mutiny on the Bounty;

because of cowboys and Indians;

because of Houdini;

because of my cousin Cliff;

because of the forts we built and the things we did inside them;

because of what's inside me;

because of my genes;

because of my parents;

because of doctors and nurses;

because they tied me to the crib so I wouldn't hurt myself;

because I had time to think;

because I had time to hold my penis;

because I had awful stomachaches and holding my penis made it feel better;

because I felt like I was going to die;

because it makes me feel invincible;

because it makes me feel triumphant;

because I'm a Catholic;

because I still love Lent, and I still love my penis, and in spite of it all I have no guilt;

because my parents said BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE, and this is what I want to be;

because I'm nothing but a big baby and I want to stay that way, and I want a mommy forever, even a mean one, especially a mean one;

because of all the fairy tale witches, and the wicked stepmother, and the stepsisters, and how sexy Cinderella was, smudged with soot, doomed to a life of servitude;

because of Hansel, locked in the witch's cage until he was fat enough to eat;

because of "O" and how desperately I wanted to be her;

because of my dreams;

because of the games we played;

because I've got an active imagination;

because my mother bought me Tinker Toys;

because hardware stores give me hard-ons;

because of hammers, nails, clothespins, wood, padlocks, pullies, eyebolts, thumbtacks, staple-guns, sewing needles, wooden spoons, fishing tackle, chains, metal rulers, rubber tubing, spatulas, rope, twine, C-clamps, S-hooks, razor blades, scissors, tweezers, knives, pushpins, two-by-fours, Ping-Pong paddles, alligator clips, duct tape, broomsticks, barbecue skewers, bungie cords, sawhorses, soldering irons;

because of tool sheds;

because of garages;

because of basements;

because of dungeons;

because of The Pit and the Pendulum;

because of the Tower of London;

because of the Inquisition;

because of the rack;

because of the cross;

because of the Addams Family playroom;

because of Morticia Addams and her black dress with its octopus legs;

because of motherhood;

because of Amazons;

because of the Goddess;

because of the moon;

because it's in my nature;

because it's against nature;

because it's nasty;

because it's fun;

because it flies in the face of all that's normal (whatever that is); because I'm not normal;

because I used to think that I was part of some vast experiment and that there was this implant in my penis that made me do these things and that allowed THEM (whoever THEY were) to monitor my activities;

because I had to take my clothes off and lie inside this plastic bag so the doctors could collect my sweat;

because once upon a time I had such a high fever that my parents had to strip me naked and wrap me in wet sheets to stop the convulsions;

because my parents loved me even more when I was suffering;

because surrender is sweet;

because I was born into a world of suffering;

because I'm attracted to it;

because I'm addicted to it;

because endorphins in the brain are like a natural kind of heroin;

because I learned to take my medicine;

because I was a big boy for taking it;

because I can take it like a man;

because, as somebody once said, HE'S GOT MORE BALLS THAN I DO;

because it is an act of courage;

because it does take guts;

because I'm proud of it;

because I can't climb mountains;

because I'm terrible at sports;

because NO PAIN, NO GAIN;



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