The Man Who Viewed Too Much
17 November 1997

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Directed by Kirby Dick
Rating: *** ½

One Night Stand

Written and directed by Mike Figgis
Rating: **

Eve's Bayou

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons
Rating: ***

Starship Troopers

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Ed Neumeier
Adapted from the novel Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Rating: ** ½


Directed by Don Bluth & Gary Goldman
Written by Susan Gauthier and Bruce Graham and Bob Tzudiker and Nomi White
Adapted from the play Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton, and from the screenplay for the 1956 film Anastasia by Arthur Laurents
Rating: ***

The Wings of the Dove

Directed by Iain Softley
Written by Hossein Amimi
Adapted from the novel The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
Rating: ***

Ratings are on a four-star scale

As I type these words, at about 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night (don't worry, I have plans for 9:00 -- I still have a bit of a life), friends, relations and lovers all over Manhattan who've decided to see a movie this evening are eagerly discussing which movie they ought to see. I like to imagine their conversations.

A: Should we see the one about the giant killer insects from another planet?
B: We already saw Men in Black.  Twice.
A: No, this is a different one.
B: Who's in it?
A: Nobody.  But there're a lot more bugs.
B: Yeah, maybe.
A: Or what about this road movie about a young murderous couple on the run?
B: Which the hell one?
A: This one's Australian.
B: I guess that's a twist.  Yeah, maybe.
A: Or what about the one where the reporter manipulates a run-of-the-mill
   story into something sensational just to boost his career?
B: You mean that old Kirk Douglas movie, whatsitcalled, Ace in the Hole?
A: No, this stars Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta.
B: Travolta's cool.  Yeah, maybe.
A: Or, wait a minute, how about a movie about a guy who voluntarily
   hammers a nail into his penis?
B: You serious?  Who did the effects work on that, Bottin? 
A: Actually, this looks like a documentary to me, now I look at it again.
B: You mean we're talking about a guy who hammers a nail into his dick for real?
A: I think so.
B: And they show this on-camera?
A: That's what it says here.
B: (Silence.)
A: Well?
B: What time does the bug movie start?

Okay, maybe I'm being unnecessarily cynical, but I just can't imagine many people, even among the hip arthouse crowd, rushing to see a film entitled Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, especially once word gets around that director Kirby Dick -- and how apropos is that moniker?! -- doesn't flinch from depicting Flanagan's acts of self-mutilation in graphic, stomach-churning detail. Yes, this is that notorious movie in which the eponymous subject cheerfully places the business end of a nail on his glans and proceeds to play a rather singleminded game of Whack-a-Mole. Even now, some of you are probably thinking "Yikes, I'll pass," but those who do will deprive themselves of one of the year's most bizarrely moving experiences. In fact, Sick, for all its perversity, is in many respects exactly the kind of movie that Americans, in particular, adore: it is, among other things, a love story, a comedy, a tale of courage, a true-life example of triumph (however temporary) over adversity, and even a disease-of-the-week flick. Though its hero dies at the end, as the title implies, the overall tone is uplifting, even optimistic. It's a Horatio Alger story in which Horatio can't stop coughing and happens to have a steel globe slightly larger than a pool ball shoved up his ass.

Flanagan can't stop coughing because he was born with cystic fibrosis, which the cheapo little dictionary that I keep next to my computer (Webster's New World, 1990 edition, if you must know) defines as "a children's disease marked by fibrosis of the pancreas and frequent respiratory infections." It's considered a children's disease because most of the babies born with it don't live to adulthood, but Flanagan, as it turns out, was the exception to the rule: though he finally succumbed to CF in early 1996, he lived to be 41 -- the oldest CF patient on record, ever. At one point in Sick, while singing a hilarious parody of the Disney tune "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," he wryly notes -- speaking of himself in the third person -- that "the CF would have killed him if it weren't for S&M," and it's this element that allows the film to transcend a mere catalogue of perversity. What initially seems inexplicable to those of us with comparatively white-bread sexual urges (get this: I sometimes like to do it in the shower!) makes perfect sense in the context of Flanagan's pain-wracked existence: masochism, which superficially involves a surrender of power, is oftentimes a means of regaining power -- specifically, the ability to control the pain one feels. And while most masochists don't suffer from anything so concrete as a fatal disease, their likely emotional torment isn't terribly difficult to extrapolate.

All this talk about disease and suffering, however, is misleading, at least with respect to the movie's tone. Whatever I was expecting from a documentary about a dying man inflicting pain on himself, I wasn't expecting a laff riot...yet Sick, when it isn't provoking tears or uncomfortable squirming, is among the funniest movies I've seen all year. Flanagan was an artist -- I guess the vague term "performance artist" is the most appropriate description, though he also dabbled in multimedia -- but what we see of his work (and, to a great extent, his personal life) in Sick looks a lot like a first-rate (albeit unconventional) stand-up routine. Flanagan's specialty, as you might expect, is gallows humor; his parody of "Supercalifragilistic...," which I mentioned a moment ago, begins like so (from memory, so it may not be word-perfect):

Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis
He should have died when he was ten but he was too precocious
How much longer he will last is anyone's prognosis
Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis
HumdiddleiddleiddleI'mgonnadie, humdiddleiddleiddleI'mgonnadie...

Sick begins with Flanagan reading his own obituary, which he apparently wrote himself, and ends with his performance of a song entitled "Fun to Be Dead" -- this after we've endured the sight of his agonizing final hours in a hospital bed, mind you. (The only reason that the moment of his death isn't in the movie is that Dick happened to be away when it happened, having been assured that Flanagan would probably last another day.) Midway through the picture, he discusses his idea for a video installation in which spectators would watch his corpse rot over a period of months or years; he ultimately couldn't raise the money. Incredibly, there's no sense of self-pity in any of this tomfoolery, and even the anger, which is unmistakable, is muted. Like any artist, Flanagan used his personal demons as grist for the creative mill, and while Sick is sometimes harrowing and difficult to endure, it's never remotely maudlin or hectoring. Flanagan's creative impulses might have taken a different path had he travelled a smoother genetic road, but his mind is so keen, and his sensibility so imaginative, that I suspect that we'd have heard of him even if he'd lived a healthy fourscore years.

That he survived as long as he did is probably attributable to his long-term relationship with Sheree Rose, the sadist in his life, who in many ways co-directed the movie with Dick; much of its running time is comprised of videotaped footage that she shot long before this project began to germinate. Her psyche, frankly, is even more perplexing to me than is his, but her dedication and courage is beyond question; her permission to include, for example, a candid and personally unflattering sequence in which she berates an ailing Flanagan (on his birthday, no less!) because he's too physically weak to submit to her, is a remarkable gift to both the film's audience and her late partner. (An even more remarkable gift -- this one from the gods -- is extant footage of a ten-year-old Flanagan's appearance on The Steve Allen Show -- not as a guest, just as a member of the studio audience -- in which he manages, during his brief time on-camera, to a) mention that he had just been released from the hospital, and b) declare that he has no interest in being an artist when he grows up.) A long performance-cum-demonstration entitled "The Autopsy" -- you can, perhaps, imagine some of the details -- manages to simultaneously depict the sincere love that Rose feels for Flanagan and the peculiar nature of their symbiotic relationship; like much of the rest of Sick, it's both utterly fascinating and almost impossible to watch.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of this unforgettable film, and I hope that the reluctant among you may have tentatively begun to consider seeking it out. The pertinent question, however, remains: have you the stomach for it? (If by any chance you've seen the terrifying video for Nine Inch Nails' "Happiness in Slavery": that's Flanagan...and most of what you see is not special effects. If you survived that, you should be okay.) The nail-through-the-penis bit is probably the worst moment, especially for the XY segment of the population, but there are several others almost as cringeworthy; when I saw the film a second time not long ago, I opted to close my eyes during most of them. As much as I'd like you to see Sick, I won't kid you: this is not an easy film to take, because you can't reassure yourself by reciting the mantra "it's only a movie." If you decide to go with the computer-animated bugs instead ("it's only a long string of ones and zeros"), I'll understand.

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Time was when it was easy to avoid movies written or conceived by Überhack Joe Eszterhas. The strategy was simplicity itself: you looked at the credits in the newspaper ad, and if the name "Joe Eszterhas" appeared anywhere among that itty bitty type, you just didn't go, period. Nothing easier. Sliver? I don't think so. Showgirls? No thanks. Jade? Sorry, gotta vacuum my bathmat for the next three weeks.

Lately, though, Big Joe has been throwin' some curveballs my way. First, his semi-autobiographical Telling Lies in America somehow managed to impress the New York Film Festival selection committee, which made me feel obligated to give it a chance -- to my eventual regret. And now along comes Mike Figgis' much-anticipated follow-up to Leaving Las Vegas, One Night Stand...which, though you'd never know it by examining the credits, is based on an original script by Eszterhas. True, Figgis' subsequent rewrites were so extensive that Eszterhas opted to remove his name, declining even a "story by" acknowledgement, but his fingerprints remain; however much Figgis attempts to (literally) jazz it up, the basic structure of this movie is fundamentally unsound. Every time the narrative seems about to lurch in an unexpected direction, something utterly banal happens...and remember, Zuzu, every you see a cliché on a movie screen, Joe Eszterhas gets $100,000.

Here's the first half-mil: Max (Wesley Snipes), a married commercial director from Los Angeles, is on assignment in New York, where he bumps into Karen (Nastassja Kinski), about whom, at this point, we know nothing except that Max thinks she's hot. (We know this because the mellow jazz accompanying the scene in which they meet suddenly turns bluesy the moment he spots her Across a Crowded Room ($100K); Figgis, as usual, composed the score himself, so this particular cheesiness is his own fault.) Both Max and Karen are married, but they flirt madly anyway; still, it's all fairly innocent until they just happen to be accosted by muggers on the way home from a concert. Such a Traumatic Incident ($200K) can't help but inspire the pair to adjourn to Karen's hotel room, where they proceed to make slow, languorous love until morning, whereupon Max catches a plane home. A subsequent bout of sex with his wife, Mimi (Ming-na Wen), during which she barks orders at him like a drill instructor, implies that she is His Lover's Total Opposite ($300K). A year passes, and Max returns to New York to visit his best friend, Charlie (Robert Downey, Jr.), who just happens to be dying of AIDS; Charlie's illness, naturally, forces Max to Take Stock of His Life ($400K). By the time Kyle MacLachlan turned up as Vernon, Charlie's brother, and introduced Max to his wife, who just happened to be Karen, The Woman Max Had Assumed He'd Never See Again ($500K), I just happened to stop caring about anything that was going on -- fortuitously, as it happens, since the final reel features not one, but two "clever," hollow plot twists of the kind that figured so prominently in Jagged Edge, Music Box, and Basic Instinct.

What attracted Figgis to this material is anybody's guess -- it's ideally suited for Zalman King -- but his attempts to lend it a bit of emotional and thematic weight are largely unsuccessful, despite good performances from most of the cast and a superlative one from Downey, who despite his Oscar nomination for Chaplin (which I never did see) remains one of America's most underrated film actors. To his credit, Figgis does his best to downplay the dopey narrative, concentrating instead on isolated bits of business and psychological tension; the best part of the movie, by far, is the aftermath of Max's affair, as he and Mimi struggle to maintain intimacy in the face of the secret that she never quite discovers. (At one point, Max almost hits Mimi, then catches himself, and while I've seen that moment dozens of times, this is perhaps the first time that I've really believed it.) Figgis also leans heavily on his trademark stylistic flourishes, but the discordant juxtaposition of sound and image and frequent mid-scene ellipses that so effectively conveyed the point of view of perpetually blotto Ben in Leaving Las Vegas seem inappropriate and desperate here. "Oh no," some of the more insistently breathless shots seem to cry out, "I'm directing a Joe Eszterhas movie!" "Oh no," I thought repeatedly, "I'm watching one. Again."

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As a master of self-deception and rationalization, I have a weak spot for movies that imaginatively depict the many ways in which people lie to themselves in order to remain sane. Early in Eve's Bayou, the first film written and directed by little-known actor Kasi Lemmons (she played Clarice's roommate in Silence of the Lambs, stuff like that), 10-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) catches her beloved father (Samuel L. Jackson) in flagrante delicto with the wife of one of his best friends. Devastated, she tells her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) what she saw, and the horrified Cisely concocts an alternative explanation for the bumping and grinding Eve witnessed, positing that their daddy had told the woman a joke, and that the two adults were falling against one another in helpless but harmless mirth. As Cisely spins this desperate yarn, Lemmons, in a beautiful moment of cinematic expressionism, shows the two girls at the scene of the crime, and we see them view the encounter as Cisely imagines it. Their small faces radiate skepticism -- it's clear that even Cisely recognizes that she's grasping at straws -- but their need to believe that it's true outweights their need to know the truth.

At this point, I was hooked, even though it was already clear that Lemmons had bitten off more than even a first-time filmmaker with unusually sharp incisors could possibly chew. Eve's Bayou is an insanely ambitious debut, a period piece that dares to tackle such heady subjects as teenage sexual jealousy and filial rage -- plus a soupçon of voodoo for good measure -- and what's most surprising about it is that it's largely successful. True, some aspects of the film seem exaggerated -- "italicized," as a less enthusiastic friend suggested to me -- but that's entirely appropriate for what is, in essence, a memory play: it's exaggerated in the same way that, say, The Glass Menagerie is exaggerated ("in memory, everything seems to happen to music"). And even in this iconic atmosphere, there are numerous moments that feel utterly believable, like the one in which the Batiste children thoughtlessly cheer another child's death because it frees them from the prison of their own home. (You'll have to see the movie yourself to find out why, I'm afraid.) From frame one, I had no trouble believing that these people were related, and their various alliances and betrayals made emotional sense to me...and that right there is more than half the battle.

More problematic, however, is Lemmons' handling of the setting and tone. Though the story takes place, as the title declares, down on the bayou (in Loozyyana, to be'g 'zact), and the movie was shot on location, everything sandwiched between the picturesque opening and closing shots of marshy swampland seems fairly generic -- most of it might as well have been set in a Detroit suburb, despite the colorful accents and black magic subplots. And when, exactly, is this all taking place? The clothes, cars, music, and such seem to suggest the '50s or early '60s (if a date is specified outside of the press notes, I missed it), but the performances and attitudes feel quite contemporary; there's certainly no suggestion that a bloody civil rights struggle is happening, or even fermenting, beyond the borders of this affluent black community. On the one hand, it's a pleasure to see a film about blacks that isn't centered on their conflicts with whites -- in which their color is taken entirely for granted; on the other, I often felt as if Eve's Bayou were a subdivision of Disneyworld's Fantasyland, right on the border of New Orleans Square.

One thing that's not in question, thank god, is Lemmons' considerable skill behind the lens. Black women haven't been given many opportunities to direct feature films, and those who have, unfortunately, have generally foundered on the twin shoals of didacticism and good intentions. After enduring several much-heralded disappointments -- Julie Dash's worthy but visually flat Daughters of the Dust, Leslie Harris' utterly inept Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. -- it's a thrill to finally see a movie by a black female that's cinematically exciting: a movie that's a movie, not a tract. Lemmons had $4.5 million to work with, yes, but she also knows what she's doing: a flashback set entirely within a mirror, for example, in which the character doing the reminiscing (a stunning performance by Debbi Morgan) watches the past, in the reflection's background, from the present, in its foreground, then leaves the frame from the present and rejoins it in the past, all in one that's filmmaking (albeit filmmaking borrowing heavily, if wisely, from the theater). And as a writer, Lemmons has got the unexpected-yet-inevitable thing down pat; the words "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old," spoken by an adult Eve in voiceover during the picture's first minute or so, immediately suggest a potentially hackneyed, Menendezesque horror story...but while Eve does, in fact, kill her father, it's not in the way that you might imagine.

Indeed, the very existence of this movie is an unexpected pleasure, especially since I'd heard no "buzz" about it whatsoever prior to its release. Of course, now Roger Ebert's gone off the deep end, insisting that it's "one of the very best films of the year" and demanding that AMPAS shower it with nominations, which does this impressive but very flawed picture a disservice. But then, that's what self-deception and rationalization will do to ya: some of us -- even myself, to a certain extent -- need Eve's Bayou to be a great movie more than we need to know how moderately good it really is.

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IN BRIEF: Imagine the first couple of reels of Aliens as populated by the cast of Beverly Hills 90210, and you'll have a good sense of the ridiculous, often (intentionally) hilarious first half of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's latest exercise in mass market cynicism. Simultaneously a parody of teen romances and a subtly grim satire of fascist imperialism -- the latter carefully designed to fly right over the heads of the film's target audience -- it's effective largely because Verhoeven's no-name, nouveau-Aryan cast plays it totally straight. The second half, unfortunately, is a big letdown; while it features most of the eye-popping special effects -- it's hard not to feel awe at the sight of thousands of alien insects as big as houses swarming en masse toward the lens -- it's ultimately no more involving than (which is to say, just as monotonous as) those video games in which the object is simply to fire repeatedly at anything that moves. Bonus points for the matter-of-fact depiction of a gender-blind military...though I suspect that our sun will burn out long before we become comfortable with coed showers. While it isn't quite as good as this past summer's Hercules (even though I allotted three stars to both -- there are gradations within each rating), Anastasia, the first challenger to the Disney animation throne, is better than most of The Mouse's other recent annual behemoths -- which is ironic, since the Disney template is visible in every frame. Naturally, it's a musical, but for once I'm not grumbling -- this is easily the best collection of songs written for an cel-animated feature since Howard Ashman died halfway through penning Aladdin's lyrics. (Two weeks later, I can still hum most of "Rumor in St. Petersburg.") Meg Ryan gives the title character a sorely-needed abrasive edge that makes her oodles more interesting than passive Disney waifs like Ariel and Belle; John Cusack lends his inimitable Cusackian charm to Anastasia's promoter-cum-suitor, Dmitri; Hank Azaria demonstrates yet again that he's got the best voice in the business (see also The Birdcage, The Simpsons). As history, of course, it's bunk, but then it isn't called Anastasia -- A True Story, so I'm prepared to cut it some slack. Print the legend. It's depressing to consider, but the truth is that The Wings of the Dove is the best of the recent Henry James movies precisely because it's the most shallow and superficial -- because it goes to the least effort to capture the essence of James' genius. Seem paradoxical? That's the trouble with adaptations of great novels: it's almost impossible to do them justice in terms of psychological and thematic complexity -- even the six-hour Little Dorrit didn't come close -- so the best you can hope for is that the movie version will be simplified to the point where it bears little resemblance to its source, apart from basic plot details. Director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini have gutted the novel, following Hemingway's dictum "take out all the good lines, and see if it still works," and this one does: in addition to a lucid, fierce performance by Helena Bonham Carter, it's got a terrific pitch: desperate woman (Bonham Carter) under thumb of cruel benefactor (Charlotte Rampling) loves poor working-class fellow (Priest star Linus Roache), can't live without money, manipulates lover into affair with rich dying American (Alison Elliott of The Underneath, insufficiently beguiling) so they can inherit her dough and live happily ever after. The result isn't remotely James, but believe me -- that's a good thing.

Next time (in all likelihood): Alien Resurrection, Habit, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Welcome to Sarajevo