Review: Sick – The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist


Kirby Dick’s unflinching documentary about performance artist and BDSM practitioner Bob Flanagan finally makes it to UK DVD uncut, fifteen years after its initial release. The allowing of scenes that the BBFC previously claimed “would be highly dangerous if copied” is very welcome, though it shows the hypocrisy of the censors (and the accompanying booklet reveals the extent of their anti-BDSM attitudes that still remain) – of which more later.

Dick’s film follows Flanagan through the last couple of years of his life, as the cystic fibrosis that was supposed to have killed him in his childhood finally wears him down in his early Forties. The film mixes interviews with Flanagan (who rapidly deteriorates before our eyes), his dominatrix partner Sheree Rose and friends and family members alongside footage of his performances, new and old, and results in a portrayal of someone who sought to deal with his constant pain by taking control of it – fighting back against his malfunctioning body by submitting it to damage and pain that he was in control of.

Flanagan is, by turn, witty, charming, angry, painful and tragic as the film leads up to his death – his final moments and the aftermath captured by Dick and Rose. It’s a bleak, heartbreaking (if inevitable) ending – certainly one of the most devastating moments you’ll ever see on film. Yet there is a lot of humour along the way, with Flanagan’s performances often making light of his condition while presenting challenging visuals.

And yes, there is no soft-peddling here. One of the scenes finally appearing in this cut shows Flanagan nailing his penis to a board and then pulling the nail loose, unleashing a gushing of blood. It comes towards the end, and if you’ve made it this far, it probably won’t be too horrific to view – more delicate viewers will have no doubt given up during the SM performances and body modification rituals seen earlier.

Dick’s film takes an admirably open-minded approach to BDSM, an activity that Flanagan openly states has helped keep him alive (the film itself makes no claim one way or another). There’s no sense that this is the domain of sexual deviants, freaks and risk-taking weirdoes, but rather a valid lifestyle choice engaged in by very normal, very likeable people. It’s in direct contrast to British government attitudes (note that without the BBFC certificate, or owned in isolation from the film as a whole, certain scenes in Sick would almost certainly be subject to prosecution under the ‘extreme porn’ laws) and, sadly, in contrast to the booklet notes from BBFC examiner Murray Perkins, who examines the British censorship history of the film. To quote him:

“It was also understood that vulnerable viewers and those who were predisposed to engage in sadomasochistic behaviour may be more likely to try out some of the activities which Flanagan engages in”.


That’s right, kink fans, you are all too feeble minded to watch this sort of thing without immediately rushing out to grab a rusty nail and hammer your cock into the coffee table. Thus were nearly four minutes cut, until 2009 when it was decided that, although you sickos out there might still be inspired to copy such depraved acts, the film as a whole was “not a celebration of sadomasochism” and the context made it safe for ‘the average viewer’. Such condescension and an unwillingness to admit to ever having been wrong is fairly standard BBFC procedure.

This essential documentary comes with extensive extras – a 15-minute follow-up piece with Sara, a fellow CF sufferer who we meet in Sick, extensive deleted scenes, live performance footage, an audio commentary and the film soundtrack amongst them. It’s a great package for a fascinating study of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing body artist.