Carol Truscott: Four Reasons for S/M

The film Sick explores themes of control and lack of control over life, death, sickness, health, pleasure, and pain.  It depicts Bob Flanagan, a man whose body is out of control, and the different approaches he uses to attempt to regain control.  Bob and his dominant/top/sadist/mother/girlfriend Sheree do S/M for the four reasons that “people do…S/M” given by Carol Truscott in her article “S/M: Some Questions, a Few Answers”: “pure play,” “the endorphin high,” “the individual psychological benefit,” and “the spiritual experience.”[1] But Truscott doesn’t allow for the urgency of Bob’s particular S/M world. He is not merely seeking to “let go of day to day reality”[2]; he is using S/M as a means to face his incurable illness and imminent death.  As Bob grows sicker, the power balance in his relationship with Sheree shifts: as he loses control of his body, he loses the ability to cede control to Sheree and ultimately the ability to maintain his S/M “contract” with her. This is when Bob transcends Truscott’s analysis by transforming his S/M relationship with Sheree into art, achieving his greatest control by reducing his body and sickness to images—of his body and the masochistic trials that codify his suffering into a controllable form that can live on after he dies.


The film’s opening frames its central issues—life and death—beginning with the title The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan Supermasochist and followed by the first in a series of contradictory images: a close-up shot of Bob being fed from a bottle containing not milk but urine. This image suggests at once Bob’s “infantile dependence” (the bottle) and his masochistic role (the urine). In the montage that follows we see Bob’s disembodied face sprayed with bodily fluids, penetrated with a bottle and tube, stretched with clamps, and gagged, presumably by Sheree. But we only see her hands, never her face, which is off screen or obscured by Bob’s head. These images establish Bob’s submissive role as the bottom in his S/M relationship with Sheree and emphasize his role as subject of the film and ultimately as an art object.  Bob narrates the scene by reading his own obituary in the third person, conveying a sense of his ability to detach from his own identity, life, pain, and death.  By narrating and play-acting his own death, Bob symbolically asserts control over something he ultimately cannot control, the sickness apparent in the shots of him on the hospital bed. His breathing tubes are exaggerated in the projection of his face on the wall, and the bright light shining on the hospital bed and breathing apparatuses in contrast to the dark environment draw attention to the equipment Bob depends on to survive.


Truscott defines S/M as the “behaviors between consenting adults that…involve a short- or long-term exchange of power and responsibility.”[3] Bob’s S/M relationship with Sheree is central to his efforts to control his body, and the introduction to their relationship demonstrates these themes of exchange of power and control.  The first image of Sheree depicts her handling and beating a piece of meat, foreshadowing how she will treat Bob throughout the film.  Most of the shots of Sheree focus on the lower half of her body and then, gradually, as the montage continues, pan up to her face, reinforcing Bob’s point of view of Sheree figuratively and literally from the “bottom.” Sheree’s role as the dominant “top” and Bob’s as the submissive “bottom” are further reinforced by images of Sheree fully clothed and Bob naked, Sheree eating steak off his naked body while his dinner of dog food awaits him on the table, Bob’s arm scrubbing the floor—symbolizing his role as submissive bottom—and Sheree’s foot in a high heeled shoe—symbolizing her role as dominatrix and fetish object of Bob’s worship.  The images of body parts—disassociated from faces—visualize the disparate relationship between “physical” pain and the physical body, while suggesting an achievement of psychological control by the resolution of representation.


Bob Flanagan’s “The Visible Man”

Returning to Truscott’s four reasons for S/M, the “pure play” in Bob’s approach to S/M is apparent throughout the film, specifically in his sense of humor.  Though it is not directly part of his S/M relationship, “The Visible Man” is an example of Bob’s humorous approach to dealing with his sickness by creating a controllable model of his uncontrollable body. The camera shifts between static shots of the creation of the different bodily fluids, breaking down the dynamic physiological processes into easy distinct steps. The close-up shots and highlighted foreground images of the shampoo and paint and the resulting shot and accented sound of the “shit” plopping demonstrate the playful way that he externalizes the reality of his sickness and uncontrolled body onto a tangible object that can be controlled. Bob narrates this instruction with a demeanor that is part boy discussing his favorite action figure and part clinical scientist discussing an experiment, revealing Bob’s sense of self as a collection of simultaneously connected and disconnected “types.”  He refers to the model as “the fish tank of the 90’s,” in a funny yet detached manner presenting his body as a spectacle to be observed and even laughed at.


Truscott’s “second reason” for S/M is the “endorphin high.” In the “Autopsy” scene, Bob play acts his own death when Sheree chokes him with a belt, explaining that Bob gets “the most incredible erections” as a result of the endorphin release. The camera focuses on Bob’s cold, pale neck, emphasizing the connection between his internal and external worlds as the body part that symbolizes his sickness and death—his lungs. The static shots of Bob’s face with blank expressions and the camera’s peripheral view of his limp, pale body on the table spread out like a corpse blur the distinction between control of Bob’s breathing in S/M play and figurative death and Bob’s out-of-control lungs and literal strangulation and death.  The blurring between figurative and literal death both performs and rejects Bob’s control, as a function of limited space within the confines of his body.


Truscott’s third motivation, the “psychological benefit,” is a large part of Bob’s motivations for and methods of S/M.  In the “Ascension” scene, Bob’s naked body hangs from the ceiling in an inverted Christ-like position as the camera pans up and down the ropes, emphasizing the means that Sheree uses to control his bound form.  Although Bob appears physically vulnerable to Sheree, he ultimately regains control by mastering his psychological state.  In ceding control to Sheree, he regains control by asserting his power to make the choice to allow her to control him, or as Truscott puts it, “who decides who makes the rules…can be far more important than who actually makes them.”[4] As evidence of his control, the camera focuses on the chain to which he connects himself, emphasizing his apparent surrender as his decision.  Bob says before his ascension, “I’m in control of the situation here…I’m more of the mad scientist than the guinea pig.”  However, the control Bob attains through his fantasy world is contrasted to his lack of control over his “real” world by the montage of Bob coughing and close-up shots of the respirator tubes as he struggles to breathe.  In the montage, all of the film’s earlier scenes are revisited, this time with the addition of Bob’s coughing fits, omitted previously, to convey his increasing loss of control over his sickness.

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[1] Carol Truscott, “S/M: Some Questions, a Few Answers,” Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice. Ed. Mark Thompson. Boston: Alyson, 1992, 21.

[2] Truscott, 25.

[3] Truscott, 16.

[4] Truscott, 29.