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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Remembering a Truly "Beautiful" Documentary

By Steven Rosen

(From The Denver Post, 1997.)

Grim, difficult "Sick' shows why art needn't be pretty-

When people say art is beautiful, they don't just mean it's pretty in superficial and cliched ways.

They mean the artist takes great risks to tell the truth as he sees it, for the benefit of those of us who either can't or are too afraid.

Bob Flanagan, who died in 1996 at age 43, was such an artist. And the truth as he saw it was very upsetting. He had cystic fibrosis, a painful congenital disease that makes breathing difficult. Victims often die in their 20s. Three of his parents'f ive children had it.

Because he felt the need to confront that pain and because he also eroticized it, Flanagan became a ""supermasochist.'' This was his perverse version of Outward Bound. His devoted lover, photographer-artist Sheree Rose, administered the sexual torture yet also provided empathy and support when the illness' effects seemed too much for him to accept. By 1991, he used an oxygen tank to breathe.

In a way, they're a modern-day Romeo and Juliet - except that the extraordinarily unflinching documentary about them, ""Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,'' isn't about a man choosing to die. It's about how Flanagan, with Rose's support, fought the inevitable with every painful cough and breath. Theirs is a powerful if very unconventional love story.

Flanagan wrote about and video-recorded their sadomasochistic acts, creating art exhibits that mixed glimpses of this intimate behavior with accounts of his illness. He and Rose also collaborated on performance-art pieces, some of which are in this film.

In one, ""Autopsy,'' he pretends to be dead while she examines the scars of their love life. "Bob always accused me of being too nice,'' Rose says, as he groans in the background.

This sounds excruciatingly grim and hard to watch, and at times it is. But Flanagan also had a self-deprecating sense ofhumor about his life and work. Until he is hospitalized, he never seems defeated. He is dedicated to experiencing life to its fullest, which for him is the same as experiencing pain to its fullest. Maybe his is an idiosyncratic rather than universal message; maybe it isn't.

Director Kirby Dick's "Sick,'' begun in 1993 and made with the co-operation of Flanagan and Rose, is certainly the best documentary about a tortured artist since 1994's "Crumb.'' And it is more - a "Howl'' for the 1990s.

Dick (and Flanagan) remind us of an inherent cruelty of life and encourage us to feel its unfairness in our bloodstream -good people suffer unfairly. This movie won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

There are several touching scenes, but also several that force you to grimace. Without the latter, the movie would seem eviscerated. It'd be about a masochist without letting us see what that really means. But one notorious scene goes too far and becomes cruel to the audience - Flanagan nails his penis to a board and lets the blood spurt.

This is how Flanagan "fights back,'' in the words of his confused but understanding father. But he does it in more humane ways, too. He sings funny songs at a meeting of a sadomasochistic club and reads a riveting poem about his choices in life, "Why.''

"Sick's'' most heart-wrenching scene involves old footage of the young Flanagan visiting the Steve Allen show in 1962. He's just a kid, like any other. The talk-show host is impressed. "You're a fine-looking young fellow,'' Allen tells Flanagan.

By then, of course, Flanagan knew what he was facing. You imagine his sadness about life, at such a young age. For 22 years, from 1973 until soon before his death, Flanagan served as a counselor at a cystic-fibrosis camp. There is footage of him singing his bitterly funny compositions while breathing from his oxygen tank.

Among other things, "Sick'' is a compelling portrait of a world where people, many of them quite young, have no illusions about their fate. He was a role model for some of them. In a fascinating scene,a 17-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis and her mother visit Flanagan and Rose during a trip arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To her, Flanagan is a beacon of courage and truth.

"You always think of them being sick and feeble,'' she says of fellow disease victims. You won't think of Flanagan as ""feeble'' after seeing "Sick,'' even though you may not find him such an appetizing role model. But whatever you think after seeing "Sick,'' take a moment just to feel the evening air and not feel frightened about breathing.

And then thank Flanagan's art - and this difficult movie - for not letting you take that for granted.

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