Bob Flanagan, a critically acclaimed writer and artist who died in 1996 at the age of 43 from cystic fibrosis, is the subject of Kirby Dick's documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, which premieres in Competition at Sundance. Flanagan took his physical pain and transformed it into a life of sadomasochistic pleasures, creating an unflinchingly honest body of literary and performance art work with his longtime partner, collaborator and dominatrix, Sheree Rose. I spoke with Dick about Bob and making a documentary dealing with illness and sexuality.
Handelman: So what gave you the impetus to make the film?
Dick: A number of reasons. I'd been wanting to make a film about death for several years. And I'd been wanting to make a documentary about someone I was close to. I'd also been writing a screenplay about a filmmaker who relentlessly follows her subject around with a video camera. Then I read the ReSearch book Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist. I went over one day and said, "Let's do it." Bob was pretty much up for it. But it was difficult for Sheree. Up until that point, she was the only one who privately videotaped or photographed Bob. So when I came in and said, "Of course you'll be a subject too, and I'll be doing the shooting," in one sense I was usurping her role as his top.
Handelman: Bob and Sheree were so intertwined - he was really feeding off her top energy.
Dick: Exactly. It was interesting because he was the one who had a very rigorous formal sense and Sheree does not. But as the submissive, he had to do what she wanted. What Dennis Cooper said in Artforum is completely correct, that Bob underwent a significant development after he met Sheree. For example, his diaries are brilliant, in part because Sheree made him write every night. At first, he tried to get away with writing short paragraphs, but she would say, "You have to fill up the page before you are allowed to come into my bed." After a few months, his writing improved! I find that funny - especially since it cuts against the romantic idea of the artist digging deep within himself to find some truth. He had to write or he couldn't have sex.
Handelman: It was interesting when his brother brought up at the beginning of the film that Bob was the moralist when they were growing up. He was always telling on him for doing drugs. Having hung around the S/M community for the last three years - they are total moralists. They have this way of behaving that's very specific and in a lot of ways I found it limiting and oppressive. But Bob is the antithesis of that. He's all about self-expression. When you look at S/M on a sociological level, it's a lot about conformity.
Dick: I guess any community is.
Handelman: Yeah. It's just a different type of conformity than yuppie conformity. But as soon as you start to sway outside the norm you get a lot of shit thrust upon you.
Dick: What would the norm be, for example?
Handelman: Just the top/bottom behavior, how you should behave in public, what you should be wearing, do you mix colored leather with black leather. There are some real superficial concerns. I believe in the expansion of the individual, and I think Bob's beautiful in that way. And he's open to changing and shifting too. But not everyone is. During that scene where Bob's penis is being nailed to a board while "If I Had a Hammer" is playing on the soundtrack, I thought, "O.K., I see ten people walking out of the Sundance audience right now. All right, another five as he pulls out the nail..." So I've got to ask you about the cringe factor.
Dick: It's great if people cringe. I cringed the first time I saw it. I don't any more because I've seen it so many times.
Handelman: It's going to be a shame if people leave and don't come back into the room.
Dick: I don't care if they leave. But I don't think they will - most people tell me that by the time they get to that scene they're so involved with the film that they're ready to watch it. Besides, the image was so incredible that I had to show it.
Handelman: It would totally compromise the piece if you didn't.
Dick: Yeah. Also, it's a natural climax - the end of the second act.
Handelman: For me the most disturbing scene is the scene where Sheree's prodding Bob to submit to her. She says "I need you to submit to me." He can't. He's dying.
Dick: It's sad for both of them. It's sad for Sheree, of course. But it's sad for Bob because he wants to submit to her but doesn't have the energy. I think they both felt that. Because the scene is so intimate, I think it seems more disturbing to watch then it really was. I think it's quite wonderful that Sheree continued to be the person Bob fell in love with. She never pulled back. She was always focused on him, always wanted to engage him at every possible level. That intensity is what he fell for. I think anybody would. So I really don't see it as negative.
Handelman: Sometimes I think the camera is this third eye that robs an intensity of actual experience from the people involved. I came across this in making BloodSisters [Handelman's documentary on the lesbian S/M community]. There were a couple of intense moments between people who let me film everything up to the point that was emotionally real to them and then they were like, "No! We don't want the camera on." They were telling me that the lens does have power...and part of that power takes from our experiential power.
Dick: I don't think there's anything wrong with voyeurism. That's part of looking. And I think that the camera handled well can be effective. It adds a level of excitement. There's no question that if a subject feels [that the camera detracts] that you have to respect that. In the case of Bob and Sheree, it was discussed and completely O.K. I think the issue of invasion of privacy in documentaries is often overblown to sensationalize the filmmaker/subject relationship.
Handelman: Can you sum up Bob's message?
Dick: On one level, it's anti-patriarchal. A male masochist certainly raises that theme. That's why the penis nailing is so funny to me - you know a group of film executives from Hollywood, one of the centers of patri-archy, are going to be watching this at Sundance. I'm sure they're smart enough to appreciate the irony!
Michelle Handelman is a visiting professor of New Media at the San Francisco Art Institute and is currently writing her first feature.