Bob and Sheree’s “Spiritual Experience”

Bob’s attempts to transcend his sickness through S/M are an example of the final motivation Truscott describes: “the spiritual experience.”  His apotheosis from Bob Flanagan to the “Supermasochist Man” illustrates this spiritual experience.  During his stand-up routine, Bob is on stage and the camera looks up at him, his elevated position conveying his elevated status as a “superhero,” complete with a “superman cape” and an “S” on his chest.  But this superhero status is contradicted by his pale, sickly appearance, frail body, breathing apparatuses, and unhealthy vein elevation—signifying the pain from his sickness—and piercings, scars, and tattoos—demonstrating the pain of his S/M lifestyle. Rather than accepting his frail, mortal existence though, he creates a paradoxical superhero persona: his pain is the source of his power, and his power is his ability to absorb pain. In this scene, the use of a hand-held camera panning up and down Bob’s oxygen tubes creates the effect of an observer noting the outward manifestations of Bob’s sickness and S/M lifestyle through static close-up shots of veins, scars, piercings, and breathing tubes. As Bob gloriously sings the “Supermasochistic” song, demonstrating his power to figuratively transcend his mortality and sickness, he punctuates the song with coughs, reminding us that ultimately he cannot control his sickness and death.

 

The final and greatest dimension of Bob and Sheree’s relationship is immortality.  Throughout the film, Bob uses photographs and video as another means of control.  In many scenes, the “Wall of Pain,” a collection of black and white pictures of Bob’s face that capture his reactions to his S/M experiences, serves as a backdrop to shots of Bob and Sheree. The pictures of Bob lie in the background and he is usually behind word blocks spelling out CF (for cystic fibrosis) and SM, suggesting that Bob’s sickness, and the S/M he uses to attempt to control it, are overtaking him, even as some part of him lives on in each picture of agony/ecstasy. By capturing Bob’s pain in photographs, Sheree and Bob reduce his pain to a sign, disembodying his pain from his body by photographing his body in pain and thus symbolically transferring his pain from his uncontrollable body to a controllable photograph. 

 

Bob uses video to the same effect.  In the “Video Coffin” scene, Bob does not lie in a coffin.  Instead, a monitor in the coffin displays his image, again projecting the uncontrollable reality of his impending death onto a controllable video image symbolizing that death.  His upbeat attitude and excitement during this scene, in which he play acts his death, contrast ironically with his misery in the scene that follows: his birthday.  The use of bright light in the Video Coffin scene is immediately contrasted to the darkness in the birthday scene.  During Bob’s birthday, the shaky camera movement and blurry image of Bob’s face reinforce his loss of control of his sickness and body as he pleads “Kill me!”  The first time we see Bob losing his battle to his sickness, the unsteady camera movement evokes a sense of nausea, and David Letterman can be heard in the background on T.V. saying, “Stop it…you’re making us all sick.”  But there is an inverse relationship between Bob’s fantasy world and Bob’s “real” world: Bob gains the greatest measure of control over his S/M relationship and his body as an image even as he loses control to sickness and death.  When Sheree wants to spank Bob for his birthday, Bob responds, “I don’t want to be spanked.”  The camera now looks up at Bob from below, reinforcing a sense of his control over Sheree.  Although Sheree speaks in the background as they discuss his refusal to submit, the camera only focuses on Bob—Sheree cannot be seen.  Instead of presenting Sheree as the dominant force as it did in the beginning, the film’s perspective shifts more and more to showing Bob in control of the relationship as he nears death.

         

This arc in the power balance between Sheree and Bob shapes the entire film, and as it progresses, it reveals the many ways that Bob as the masochist has the ultimate power and control.  The turning point in this power exchange occurs during the making of a video.  The camera focuses on Bob’s face wrapped in saran wrap, trapped in a mask, and his mouth restrained.  Although Bob appears physically out of control, he gives orders to Sheree, directing his own abuse: “No, no, no, no, not yet Sheree.  I want a lot of time here.”  The camera cuts to a retake of the same scene, suggesting that Bob is truly the “director” of this scene (i.e., the film scene and the S/M “scene”).  Bob is no longer merely a subject in his films; he is the subject, creator, and director.  He has achieved all the control he is capable of: control over body, emotions, and—perhaps counter to his desires—control over his mistress to the extent that the S/M contract breaks down.  The images of Bob demonstrating his ultimate control over his fantasy world are again contrasted to the loss of control over his “real” world and his inevitable death.  “The Viewing” reveals this subverted relationship while showing how Bob uses S/M as art to transcend even death.  During this scene, which depicts Bob’s idea of putting a camera in his coffin to record his body’s decomposition, an image of a face decays in a series of dissolves.  Bob is either “progressing or decomposing.”  Even as Bob loses ultimate power over his out of control body in the “real” world, he asserts his greatest control over his life and body by reducing his uncontrollable body and pain into controllable images and finally into an art object, in this way achieving some measure of immortality. Even after death, Bob Flanagan’s images and art live on.

 

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