Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday
U Film Society, starts Friday
area theaters, starts Friday
SEEKING TO HEAL the masses while preaching to the converted, some indies are sermons in disguise. Three extreme examples of this doctrine bless us with their indieness on Friday: Sick inspired zealous praise and fainting spells at Sundance for its documentary portrait of a Christ-like painmonger; Harmony Korine's punishing Gummo has earned enough philistine reviews to turn its maker into a martyr; and The Ride, funded by friends of Billy Graham, delivers its holy message through the tale of Smokey, a bronco-busting nonbeliever who suffers a kind of purgatory before coming to see the light. Calling "sickness," goodness, and faith into question, all of these are stories of redemption through pain that prove borderline unwatchable. Two of the three redeem themselves in the process.
Sick's subject is the late Bob Flanagan, a supermasochistic performance artist who fought the unfathomable agony of cystic fibrosis by introducing a host of other self-inflicted pains. That he made this process public, using his own body as a canvas and literally hanging it in galleries, testifies to the maxim that any masochist needs an audience; but it also speaks to Flanagan's unsensational bid to increase awareness about a hereditary disease that clogs the lungs and kills most patients before they reach 20. Flanagan lived to be 43.
Director Kirby Dick focuses on the man's final years, his crowning achievements in poetry and videomaking, and his consensual relationship with supersadist Sheree Rose. In the pair's grueling "Autopsy" tape, Rose works wonders on her naked partner with a knife and a silver ball, insisting all the while that she's "not a mean person." For his part, Flanagan never fails to philosophize his life's aesthetic or put himself in context: Citing Jesus as "the first--or the most famous--masochist," this Catholic artist wears his illness as a crown of thorns and nails his penis to a board in a metaphoric crucifixion.
Dick's own tack is to convince us that this supermasochist is doing the right thing--and, to the extent that Flanagan comes across as sympathetic, he succeeds. Sick stops short of casting aspersions on self-mutilation as a "lifestyle," perhaps presuming that the viewer will do that for himself. Rather, Dick cuts deeply into the dynamics of sexual partnership: As Rose's method of spanking Flanagan to life seems an act of undying love, Dick identifies with the gesture and compels us to do likewise. The astonishing deathbed scene may be a tearjerker, but, as an unusually angry terminal-illness movie, Sick comes across as the complete opposite of Dark Victory or Philadelphia. By refusing to go gently, Bob Flanagan becomes, among other things, the poster boy for a bold kind of anti-melodrama.
Gummo aims to be provocatively anti-everything: anti-Christian, anti-feline, non-narrative, unpolished, visually dyslexic, and imaginatively off-putting--the stylistic equivalent of belligerent punkdom or the apocalypse (take yer pick). In the first scene, a half-naked boy wearing pink rabbit ears pisses through the fence of a freeway overpass--before grabbing a dirty cat by the scruff of its neck and drowning it in a garbage can. Two other kids sell cat meat to a butcher, and then give the money to a pimp in trade for private time with a retarded young whore. Gummo finally concludes with a chorus of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" played over the end credits--followed by a death-metal headbanger. This sounds tough but, per punk, the irony is that this No Future movie suggests a thrilling new realm of possibilities for the mini-major indie (if not at a Landmark theater). Insofar as "Fuck You" can be a valid statement and even an artful one, I wouldn't begrudge any anarchic/satanic auteur the right to choose Korine as his personal savior.
No less a cult film than Gummo, The Ride comes courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures (whose worldwide headquarters, by the way, can be found on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis). The specialized audience for this low-budget exercise in coercion is Christian rodeo-lovers and those on the fence: Call it the story of a man who finds God at the tail end of a bull. The man is Smokey Banks (Michael Biehn), a booze- and broad-loving bull-rider whom Fate consigns to work at a ranch for "boys from troubled situations." One of these is Danny (Brock Pierce), an ailing 14-year-old true believer who idolizes Smokey in a way that might seem homoerotic were this not un film de Jesus.
The orphaned Danny needs a dad, but his bald-shaven head suggests that he may find his real Father at that big rodeo ranch in the sky. (This boy's philosophy of life and death is the opposite of Bob Flanagan's: "It's not how long I live, it's how well I ride.") Needless to say, The Ride is a Christian melodrama in which succumbing to formula is the most comforting of rituals. After winning rodeo lessons from Smokey in a poker game (God stacks the deck), the kid gives his teacher religion in return. All of this is deeply sincere, from the "special appearance" by Billy Graham's son Franklin ("Sex outside of marriage is a sin!") to the worshipful product placements for Pepsi and WalMart. Everything works out perfectly at the end of The Ride--and, in a way, I mean that as high praise. As with Breaking the Waves, God only knows how to distinguish between narrative contrivance and divine intervention.
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