A recent editorial in the Economist suggests that the role of the rebel in American society is finished. There's simply nothing left to rebel against and our society allows for so much flexibility that the shock value of professional weirdos like Marilyn Manson or Dennis Rodman quickly equals that of a Confederate dollar.
How then does one make a documentary about Bob Flanagan (the John the Baptist of S&M, dead at age 44 in 1996) without putting the jaded audience to sleep? After 15 minutes of watching Bob flaunt his scarred and pierced torso as it is being whipped and slapped by his wife, an insufferable performance artist, one might be ready for a pillow, suspecting that Bob meets his demise in a bondage escapade that goes wrong.
Director Kirby Dick has a surprise in store for us. His film delivers two closely related Bob Flanagans: supermasochist and superpatient. Flanagan expired not from rough play but from crappy lungs, bequeathed to him by the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. His entire life until adolescence was spent in hospitals being poked and prodded with steel tools. And lo and behold, come puberty, Flanagan discovered that medical science had programmed him to get off on pain. The king of the scrotum skewer was born.
Despite the subject matter, there's nothing the least bit gratuitously sensationalistic about Dick's portrait. Flanagan emerges as an intelligent suburbanite who simply fights the disease the best way he knows how, through sexual exploration of his body's limits. The pus from his lungs may be uncontrollable. The cum from his cock, however, is his reward for pain endured. His body a traitor, Flanagan uses it to achieve psychic health and adventure. His Mount Everest is to nail his penis to a board. In doing so, he displays a bravery all too rare in a culture that looks upon the diseased body as a call for puritan measures of abstinence and extreme care.
Yet again, one is struck by the banality of the whole enterprise of S&M as it exists in American popular culture. This demimonde is marketed to the kiddies, already pierced, tattooed and massacre-mascaraed by the millions, as the apogee of hip nonconformity. Yawn. Flanagan shows us that beyond the hype lie harder questions about mortality, the body and self-realization. Sick is only that way if you make it so.
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