The L.A. filmmaker was originally scheduled to make an appearance this Halloween night at a Hirshhorn Museum screening of his new film. That event was canceled, however, ostensibly because the Washington Post had revealed the film’s Nov. 21 opening date. The Smithsonian has a policy of not showing movies that have announced commercial openings, Dick has been told, but he wonders if that’s the whole story. After all, among the other things the Post reported was that his film depicts a man hammering a nail through his penis.
Dick did not film the nailing, the most squirm-worthy scene in Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, he explains in his last interview before flying back to L.A. Many of the most controversial moments in his documentary had already been shot when he started the project. Dick captured the final two years of Flanagan’s life, when the performance artist’s death from lifelong cystic fibrosis was imminent, and then intercut it with footage of the torments inflicted on the willing Flanagan by lover, artistic partner, and dominatrix Sheree Rose.
“I first met Bob at Beyond Baroque, a writer’s center in Los Angeles,” recalls the director. “About 10 years later, in late ’93, I approached Bob and Sheree about making a film about them. Bob was very receptive to the idea. Sheree was concerned, for two reasons:f Bob and Sheree had always been very open about their work publicly. Anyone could come in and photograph or videotape. But privately, Sheree had been the only person who had documented Bob’s life and their whole S&M relationship. That was part of her role as top, actually. And so there was an element of my sort of taking that role. But also I wanted her to be a subject, and she was uncomfortable with that at first.”
The whipping, cutting, and, yes, nailing of Flanagan’s flesh got the attention of L.A.’s art scene, just as the documenting of these activities has assured Sick’s notoriety. But Dick, who talks like the California Institute of the Arts graduate he is, insists that his movie is foremost “a film about an important artist. It’s one of the few films that shows a contemporary artist working in a contemporary milieu. It’s not a film made about an artist 25 years after the fact, which tends to be the case. It doesn’t romanticize the process of art-making. It investigates a very interesting collaboration between Bob and Sheree.
“I was interested in his S&M practices,” Dick continues. “I was interested in his writings, performance art, installation art, all the kinds of themes that they raised. The fact that he was chronicling his illness, his death, the sensational aspect of his work and yet how it was very carefully formalized. And I then I was interested also in the fact that I knew him. I knew that the intimacy that we had already would become deeper, and I thought that intimacy would make for a very interesting project.”
The filmmaker thinks that Flanagan was nothing less than “the most significant artist in history to consider issues of pain, masochism, and illness. I’m not claiming that he’s an artist of the level of de Sade. But I think if he’d been alive for another 20 years, he could have become a very, very significant artist.”
Dick admits that the first time he saw the scaffold used to secure Flanagan for various tortures, “I was certainly uneasy. But I kind of appreciated it having that effect on me. The only S&M that I shot was Autopsy,” a piece in which Rose smacks, probes, and cuts Flanagan’s passive (but live) body. “I didn’t expect it to go that far. I thought there was going to be more description and less demonstration. So I was a little taken aback.”
By filming Autopsy, Dick became a collaborator as well as an observer. “That was a really intriguing portrayal of [Rose], and she was really happy with it. I cut a 17-minute version, substantially different from what you see in the film, and they used it in an installation. It was actually their last major installation piece. It just showed at the Armand Hammer in L.A.; it’s basically traveled all over the world. They were very happy with that. I tried to shoot things that I could use in the film and that he could use in his work.”
This approach allowed Dick to construct Sick gradually, without a master plan. “Whenever I found that I had shot something that would make a scene that would stand on its ownalmost like a short movie, that had a beginning, middle, and endI would edit that, and then I just started compiling these. And when I got enough, then I started assembling the film. It allowed me to consider the editing on a narrower scale, rather than the whole.”
The filmmaker says he never worried that the end product would be too controversial to be shown. “It was so interesting to me, personally, that I knew there was an audience for it. Also, because I come out of art, this is not that big of a deal. It didn’t seem that sensational to me.
“I kind of make films for film-festival audiences,” he adds, “because I think they’re more sophisticated audiences. And I knew this would play well at festivals. And I thought, based on that, that it would get some limited release. I never thought that it would get this kind of mainstream critical response,” he says, citing favorable reviews in Time, Newsweek, and Entertainment Weekly.
Sick was funded partially with grants from art foundations, the director explains, and “the rest was sort of a classic credit-card film. The budget was kept very small for a long time. It was only when I started realizing that this was playing really well that I stepped up the post-production. You can do that with documentary. You can set up your project so that you can get an edit of your film for not a lot of money. And then, if it’s working, put your money into post[-production]. Unlike a dramatic film, where the money goes into production.”
In the film, Flanagan’s parents suggest that their son associated love and pain because of the attention they paid him when he was suffering. Later, Flanagan says much the same thing. This seems glib, but Dick thinks “that’s really true. That I really buy. I have two kids, and when your child is sick, the intensity of the relationship is just overwhelming.”
Still, he notes, “What I didn’t want to do is reduce it to this single psychology: He is this way because of this. I think there are other issues, too. All people who have this experience don’t become masochists.
“When I first saw his show,” Dick says, “I was a little suspicious. I thought that there was an overemphasis on the fact that his experience with pain caused him to be a masochist. But as I got to know him more, I actually realized what he was doing. This was the first thing he was saying to people, so that they would get their first understanding. And then he was making the issues more complex. I find that my film followed that same arc. You have to put people at ease by saying, ‘Here’s an answer.’ And then they can look at it for a while and think about it.”
Dick concedes that Flanagan’s art would have been more controversial if he hadn’t been dying of CF. “I think people give a break to any sick person,” he says. “Which is one of the reasons there’s been very little feeling of outrage about the film. Part that, and part because he’s funny, and part because you see him die. And maybe a slight part because he’s an artist. But I think that probably cuts both ways,” he laughs.
“Most people seem to be quite shaken by it, emotionally moved by it, but they really like it. I think there’s a smaller group that tends to be shaken by it, and not quite sure if they like it. I personally like being in that state after I see a film.”
One of the strongest negative reactions, the director remembers, happened at the Sundance Film Festival, “with this woman who was French-speaking, and her English wasn’t that great. She had misinterpreted the film, thinking that the reason that Bob became progressively more ill and eventually died was because of all the S&M that we had done to him. She was outraged that we would make…essentially a snuff film. The audience jumped in, trying to correct her. That just made matters worse. Finally she just left. I don’t think she ever understood it.”
“It’s a funny idea,” Dick chuckles.
Ironically, it was a French director, Barbet Schroeder, who was apparently the first to film a penis nailing. The scene in his 1976 film Maîtresse, however, is mild compared with the one in Sick, which was shot before Dick began working on the film. The camera is positioned so that blood drips onto the lens when Flanagan pulls the nail out. “Bob did a lot of directing, but that’s the kind of excessiveness that was more Sheree’s style,” surmises Dick.
The director is a little concerned that this one sequence has gotten so much attention. “I find that there is this phenomenon where everyone always talks about the penis-nailing scene,” he says. “And so people get afraid. I hear over and over people saying, ‘I was afraid to go. But I went. I’m really glad I did. It’s certainly not a film that’s only about S&M, and by the time that scene came, I understood why Bob did it, and I understood why it should be in the film.’”
Dick ponders for a moment. “It’s fine to write about that scene,” he decides. “Play with it. Bob did.”