I appreciate any movie that offers a view of the world I’ve never considered before. While I found “Sick” a difficult film to watch—not only because of the squirm-in-your-seat things Bob Flanagan does to himself but also because it’s simply awful to watch someone die painfully from a terrible disease—I found it an enlightening experience that explains what cystic fibrosis as well as why someone wracked with pain from it might want to hurt themselves. And if you’re a fan of this documentary from its days on the festival circuit, you will enjoy the copious extras on this DVD release; more on that in a moment.
As the title says, “Sick” tells the story of Bob Flanagan, who was not only a super masochist but also a very funny guy who brought his slightly off-balance view of the world to a wide variety of intriguing performance art pieces. Sheree Rose, his long-time companion (I assume they never married, although the film never addresses that question directly), assisted him with many of his performances and provided the dominant personality that he, as a submissive, needed. She’s also a complex character in the film, someone who cared about Flanagan deeply but also exhibited selfish moments that make you wonder how she could act like that.
Director Kirby Dick eschewed narration when he made this documentary, instead providing us with an unfiltered look at Flanagan through his own words and actions, which was a smart choice. Dick offers the usual interviews with family members as well as the obligatory home video footage from childhood, but everything serves to show us who Flanagan was and what made him that way, which is crucial here. I’ve never understood the appeal of S&M, but watching “Sick” made me understand how Flanagan used it to manage his devastating illness. And observations such as “Jesus was the original masochist” and “Circumcision is an early penis pain that many men endure” made me realize how pervasive the infliction of pain is in our culture and how S&M really isn’t that far removed from things that many of us take for granted.
“Sick” received a lot of attention because of the things Flanagan does to himself in the film—including, yes, nailing his penis to a board—but the reality is that this is a very warm film that’s often funny and touching. Dick treats his subject with much compassion and shows us Flanagan the human being, not just Flanagan the masochist or Flanagan the performance artist or Flanagan the guy who has lived longer with cystic fibrosis than doctors ever thought he would.
Lions Gate’s release of this film on DVD also includes production commentary by Kirby Dick and co-editor Dody Dorn, eight deleted scenes, a brief interview with Dick, four of Flanagan’s performance art pieces presented unedited, a DVD-ROM game, and “Sarah’s Sick Too.” The last one is essentially a mini-documentary that catches up with Sarah, another cystic fibrosis sufferer who met Flanagan through the Make a Wish Foundation at the age of 17 (as shown in the film) and who is now 26 and still living with the disease. She’s not into S&M, but Flanagan’s example was clearly a major inspiration for her, and this short video also clears up her reason behind giving him a riding crop, something left dangling in the documentary.
The rest of the extras add a lot of depth to what is already a deep documentary, despite its slight 89-minute running time. Dick’s views in both the commentary and the interview, as well as his introductions to the deleted scenes and performance art pieces, add insight that any fan of the film will find fascinating. I thought some of the deleted scenes should have been included in the film (and even Dick seems to be on the fence about whether or not he really should have cut the “Toy Box” one), but all of them stand on their own as worthy supplements to the story; the one where Flanagan answers non-existent questions is very funny. Those who enjoyed the soundtrack will be happy to hear that you can listen to selections from it in a special feature that’s not listed on the DVD case.
And if anyone out there has had any success with the DVD-ROM game, please let me know what your secret is. I guess I’m hapless when it comes to S&M, because I never managed to “get Bob off,” as the instructions say. If you can make it to round three in the game, you’ll learn about a secret hidden on the disc, but I have no idea what it is since I couldn’t get past round one.
In closing, “Sick” is a must-have for fans of the film. Those who are curious about it will find it a worthwhile rental packed with so much stuff that they may not finish it all before returning it. That’s where Netflix comes in handy.
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