The Pain Artist

Bob Flanagan was a Practical Masochist. He Fought 'Sickness with Sickness.'

Flanagan and Rose met in Los Angeles in 1980. Flanagan had published one chapbook of poems by then, but he kept his s/m obsessions to himself. It was Rose who insisted that he integrate his masochism into his art. Warned that he might only live a couple of years, she also began documenting everything.

Filmmaker Kirby Dick met Flanagan in the early 1980s at Beyond Baroque, a nonprofit space in Los Angeles where the artist sometimes read his poetry. They became friends, and Dick followed the course of Flanagan's artistic progress and physical collapse. Dick approached Flanagan and Rose in 1993 about doing the documentary.

At first, says Dick, they refused because Rose said no. Flanagan had given Rose total control over every aspect of his life; he would have given up his art career if she'd asked. "By allowing me to film Bob, Sheree felt she would be giving up an aspect of her role as Bob's dominant to me," says the filmmaker. She eventually relented enough for Dick to begin filming Flanagan, but it was several more months before she allowed Dick to film her.

Rose says that Dick came in "because we needed a third person." Many of the most amazing moments in Sick come from her archive. Like a conversation near the end of Flanagan's life, recorded on videotape, in which he and Rose argue because he will no longer submit to her. "I can barely breathe," he counters with some outrage. She recorded the film's most dramatic scenes--in the hospital during the last days of his life, as an airbag forces oxygen into his lungs--and took post mortem photos. All of this had been agreed to by Flanagan.

As Dick puts it, "Bob wanted this chronicle of his illness and death to happen because in many ways it was an extension of his work." Sick includes a brief exchange in which Dick tells Flanagan that the film might not get finished till after he's dead. The filmmaker confesses, "Some people say I'm a vampire." Withtypical gallows humor, Flanagan suggests, "Maybe more of a vulture." (Rose and Dick are currently at odds over how the credits for the film have been allocated.)

Flanagan's struggle to stay alive is never sentimentalized in Sick, nor is he ever a pathetic character. But after a lifetime spent in contemplation and expectation of his death, he is utterly panicked and unprepared when it arrives. "Am I dying?" he asks Rose, in distress. "I don't understand it...This is the stupidest...I'd never believe this in my life. I don'tunderstand it."

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Sick is how much of an everyman Flanagan seems by the end.

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