Netflix’s “The Bleeding Edge” Exposes the Horrors the FDA Approves From Medical Device Makers

Continuing their legacy of equally infuriating and enlightening documentaries, the producer-director team of Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick poke into the archaic and futile FDA approval systems for medical devices with their film The Bleeding Edge. Prepare to be scared shitless of vaginal mesh or high-tech surgery robots. Through a series of personal stories from both qualified medical professionals and laypeople, the film explores just what exactly the word complications means on a device’s warnings. In the cases Dick investigates, those complications become a ripple effect of lives ruined by untested but FDA-approved devices.

The film, which premieres on Netflix on July 27, traverses the spectrum of medical devices but opens and closes on one particular item, Essure, a metal coil that’s inserted into the fallopian tubes for sterilization purposes. We meet a mail carrier from upstate New York whose doctor sold her on Essure years ago. As the documentary jumps around to different people, devices and experts, we return again and again to the horrifying story of this mail carrier, who came to find that her body was rejecting the coil, which led her to nearly bleed to death. Another woman, a Latina account executive with four children, relays a frighteningly similar story, only with the added layer of racism; her doctor told her he assumed Latinas just bled more than white women did. Neither woman’s story takes a turn for the better, but it’s the Latina woman whose entire life — and the lives of her daughters — get smashed all because of one doctor not taking her concerns seriously.

Dick seems to anticipate that viewers — just like doctors — may be conditioned to think women overexaggerate their pain, so at the fifteen-minute mark of the film he jumps into the story of a respected older white male doctor who got a cobalt hip joint and began suffering from neurological issues. These were so severe that he had a complete mental breakdown in a hotel room, smashing things and scrawling cryptic messages on the walls. He begins questioning established medicine’s embrace of cobalt implants; upon the removal of his, every neurological issue he had developed disappeared. If a completely healthy man with medical training can go so quickly from zero to delusional, what of the millions of other Americans with cobalt in their bodies? What of the injured vets already fighting PTSD who live with an implant that could be poisoning them? What are the metal plates and screws in my own ankle made of, and why didn’t I know to ask?

The director backs up all these anecdotes with some hard facts about the FDA approval process for medical devices, which — even according to a former head of the department — is a broken system. The medical device industry is the least understood and regulated in the FDA umbrella. Dick exposes so much that I yelled, “Oh, my God!” multiple times while watching. There is nothing more upsetting than listening to a charming Southern woman say the words, “My colon’s falling out!” Worse yet are the profit-hungry companies that have been able to slide by unnoticed for so long. Here’s hoping The Bleeding Edge gets the right attention on a decidedly unsexy topic.

The Bleeding Edge
Directed by Kirby Dick
Opens July 27, IFC Center
Premieres on Netflix on July 27


Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.



The 25th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, spearheaded by the New York–based organization, is back. Notable selections from recent years have included Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, both of which have since earned Oscar nominations. In keeping with the advocacy group’s mission statement, the festival seeks to expose worldwide injustice. The two films featured tonight do just that: Mano Khalil’s The Beekeeper, about a Kurdish beekeeper who now resides in Switzerland after losing his livelihood at the hands of the prolonged conflict; and Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders, a five-part visual essay that focuses on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to examine themes of immigration, displacement, and xenophobia.

Tue., June 17, 6:30 p.m., 2014


Horror in Uniform

Like Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story (2010), Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War scathingly indicts U.S.-military culture. Yet the focus of each documentary is vastly different in scale: one person as opposed to one gender. Bar-Lev examines the exploitation of the corpse of Pat Tillman, the highly principled pro-footballer-turned-Army-Ranger killed by his own platoon in Afghanistan in 2004. Dick’s film investigates the scandalous epidemic of rape in the U.S. armed forces—the war on women who fight wars.

The Invisible War lays bare the reprehensible failings and hypocrisy of a powerful institution, as Dick did in previous nonfiction works such as Twist of Faith (2004), about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), an occasionally gimmicky exposé of the MPAA’s outsize influence and idiocy; and Outrage (2009), on closeted pols who vote anti-gay. Told through an array of talking heads—including servicewomen (and a few servicemen) who recount their attacks, military psychiatrists, NCIS agents, attorneys, journalists, and obtuse Department of Defense employees—and intertitles revealing appalling facts (20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving), Dick’s film unveils an environment that, in the words of one Army shrink, is “target rich for predators.”

Acting as the rudder of The Invisible War, a septet of women—many of whom considered military service a civic duty—details their rapes and the gross indifference, ostracizing, and victim-blaming by their superiors after they reported the crimes. Tiny, wiry Kori Cioca, whose assailant broke her jaw when she was attacked in 2005 while serving in the Coast Guard, opens up the Ohio home she shares with her husband (another Coast Guard vet) and young daughter to Dick and his crew. Cioca reveals the dozens of meds, some highly toxic when combined, the VA has prescribed for her PTSD and severe facial-nerve damage—surgery for which the agency repeatedly denies her.

Cioca’s superiors told her that she would be court-martialed for lying if she went forward with her case; almost all of the film’s seven subjects recall similar threats of retaliation. Attorney Susan Burke (herself the daughter of a career Army officer)—who recently represented Cioca and other women raped during military service in a lawsuit arguing that they were denied due process and their First Amendment rights—points out that victims of sexual assault in the armed forces have no impartial body to turn to. They must go to their chain of command; commanders, who often have no legal training and are loath to have their unit “tarnished” by an investigation, are likely to sweep charges under the rug and have, in Burke’s words, “unfettered power to do whatever they want.” An intertitle reveals an even more horrifying reason not to come forward: 25 percent of women in the military don’t report rape because the person to notify was the rapist.

Interview after interview, statistic after statistic, Dick’s advocacy project thoroughly incenses—and appears to be having tangible, policy-affecting results. Two days after Dick screened The Invisible War for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on April 14, the DOD head announced plans requiring, as The New York Times reported, that all sexual assault complaints be handled by more-senior officers, not unit commanders—a change that will hopefully lead to more prosecutions.

Yet Panetta’s actions, as the closing intertitles assert, are “not enough.” We are directed to a website and to “join the conversation” on Twitter—is this enough?—while Mary J. Blige’s “Need Someone” plays. The choice of this mewling ballad reflects Dick’s occasional missteps in The Invisible War, like having Cioca read her old suicide note aloud. For such a powerful exposé, the wish is that it ended more furiously, less softly.


Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War Exposes an Epidemic of Rape in the Military

Kirby Dick’s last documentary was titled Outrage, but you could call his newest the same thing. A measured, expertly constructed chronicle of rape in the military, The Invisible War is a humane exposé that does not cease to shock. That includes its own filmmaker.

“After we’d done 40 or so interviews, I would think, ‘I know what the stories are,'” Dick recalls in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “But with each new one, I actually couldn’t believe this happened to a person wanting to serve their country and that this is how the military responded.”

With a discipline matching its milieu, The Invisible War lays bare a disturbing, systemic problem: In the military, rape rates among women number at least one in five, and reporting of the crimes often leads to blame-the-victim retaliation. Dick has assembled a moving litany of testimonials, covering a variety of soldiers and scenarios, giving this heartfelt, steel-nerved, conscientiously argued film an emotional and political maturity rare among “issue” docs. In addition to the voices of the aggrieved (who include men), there are head-clutching interviews with sloganeering military officials. (“Ask her when she’s sober!” runs one cringe-worthy awareness campaign.) Braided throughout are verity tagalongs with one fiery young vet, Kori Cioca, who hacks through VA hotlines while seeking medical coverage for a jaw broken by a superior.

Dick and producer Amy Ziering were inspired by Helen Benedict’s depressing 2007 Salon article on women in Iraq, which they were surprised to discover no one was already adapting.

“It was almost like The Twilight Zone: Not only how could this be, but why aren’t there 100 films being made? Why isn’t everyone reacting to this?” Dick mused, sounding dismayed still now. “Even in the process of raising money, it took a while. I was really shocked.”

The Invisible War, though revelatory, is perhaps the most straightforward film yet from a director who likes to broach the fault lines of sex and society. Dick has repeatedly examined hard-to-face taboos and hypocrisies: abuse by Catholic priests (Twist of Faith, 2004), closeted anti-gay politicians (Outrage, 2009), and the culturally insidious, frequently moronic, and arguably monopolistic MPAA (This Film Is Not Yet Rated, 2006).

Theory-heads could point to his portrait-of-a-deconstructionist Derrida (2002) as one model for Dick’s mode of intelligent questioning. But the fascinating Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) presented his ethos earlier and made a splash in the pre-boom era of documentary with a penis-nailing scene heard round the world.

“It pushes people to consider a perspective that might otherwise have been considered marginal or even not wanted to think about,” says Dick (who, in a neat bit of ’90s outsider-documentary synergy, went to see Crumb with subject Flanagan).

Shockingly, the women and men of The Invisible War qualify as marginalized. Soldier after soldier (one even an investigator herself) report being ostracized, hostage/prey to protocols that sometimes saw assailants adjudicating their victims. One lawsuit on behalf of victims was dismissed on the grounds that rape was an occupational hazard (“incident to service”). Given close-quarter fraternity and a hierarchy undergirded by take-a-bullet trust, military rape is a betrayal that one commentator compares to incest.

That doesn’t mean that Dick has crafted an anti-military screed. On the contrary, The Invisible War rings out with the rank and file reaffirming the boons and lessons they won from the military. Words of dissent are voiced—among them, Cioca’s indelible comment in a military museum that maybe the victims deserve Purple Hearts. But The Invisible War, while unsparing with facts, is never an ideological pile-on.

“Honestly, I think it’s the most positive, pro-military indie film ever made, ironically,” says Ziering, who conducted the (by all accounts) cathartic interviews. Dick aspires to the evenhandedness of responsible reporting, with an emphasis on evidence and anticipating criticism. “In some ways, documentaries have taken over the role that nonfiction books played up until the last decade or so,” he observes. The filmmakers feel this approach is key to reaching the two different audiences they’ve targeted: not only the public but also policy makers.

“The president, the secretary of defense, the [Joint Chiefs of Staff]—those are the people that I want to feel the most pressure, not a half-dozen perpetrators,” Dick says.

In fact, the film, carefully circulated among government muckety-mucks since Sundance, has already achieved the rare documentary distinction of praxis. In April, soon after seeing the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced new policies governing rape reporting and prosecution in the armed forces.

It could be a step toward change, though the track record of follow-through isn’t great. Dick is careful to be optimistic but cautious. “I’m somewhat hopeful that this could be a positive thing for society in the long run,” he says. “But they’ve got a long way to go.”

The Invisible War opens June 22 at AMC Loews Village 7. Look for a review in next week’s Voice.


Kirby Dick’s Outrage Outs Closeted Pols and the Media that Protect Them

Director Kirby Dick doesn’t actually stick his camera under any Capitol Hill bathroom stalls in the new documentary Outrage, but his goal is more or less the same: to catch conservative, family-values politicians with their pants down. Armed with a chorus of incriminating voices from across the alternative press and the corridors of state and federal government, Dick sets out to spill the beans on gay elected officials living in the closet. Call it yellow (or is that pink?) journalism if you must, but as Outrage persuasively argues, it comes not to invade its subjects’ personal lives, but instead hold them accountable for their hypocrisy. It outs so that it can, in turn, rage against these Janus-faced men of the people (and they are all white men) who play to their Christian conservative base while lobbying for another sort of approval in gay bars, chat rooms, and public toilets.

This isn’t the first time Dick has raided the wardrobes of America’s moral guardians, having previously taken on the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith (2004) and the double standards of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board in the jaunty This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006). In each case, Dick approaches his subject with little of the self-righteous effrontery of Michael Moore or Bill Maher, instead maintaining a modicum of objective distance and even mustering a certain sympathy for both the accuser and the accused. If anything, he’s almost too tactful, so that while Outrage is clearly meant as one more flaming arrow fired into the GOP’s perforated hull, everything is packaged so smoothly and tastefully that you can almost imagine Republicans thanking Dick for alerting them to their own party’s traitorous elements.

The film presents a mixture of mostly extant innuendo with some new wrinkles. Opening with audio of Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s unconvincing police interview following his 2007 arrest on sex solicitation charges in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, Dick surveys a series of other headline-grabbing closet cases, including Virginia Congressman Ed Schrock, who resigned in 2004 after leaving voice messages on a gay phone-sex line; New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who left office the same year after confessing (under pressure) to his homosexuality and an affair with one of his male staffers; and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch—the only prominent Democrat outed in the film—whom gay activist David Rothenberg accuses of having ditched his longtime boyfriend for the more powerful aphrodisiac of political power. Among sitting politicians, the most insidious claims are leveled against California Congressman David Dreier and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the latter of whom has been bandied about as a 2012 Republican Presidential candidate.

Like the Beltway blogger Michael Rogers, who provides lively color commentary throughout, Dick positions himself as something of a reluctant witch hunter, less interested in his subjects’ sexual orientations than their voting records, nearly all of which (save for Koch’s, a fact that gets somewhat lost in the movie’s shuffle) reveal strong anti-gay-rights stances. He also accuses the mainstream press of a “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” designed to perpetuate the double lives of gay politicians, producing a smoking gun in the form of a Larry King Live episode censored following its initial broadcast to remove Bill Maher’s outing of Dubya campaign manager Ken Mehlman. That’s partly because even the reporters who cover Capitol Hill are light in their shoes, Outrage claims, wagging its finger of shame at Fox News’ Shepard Smith before one of Dick’s subjects suggests that D.C. may be a “gayer” city than San Francisco.

Among the film’s more compelling testimonials, the always quotable Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank and former Governor McGreevey speak to the liberating effects of coming out, while McGreevey’s ex-wife makes a candid appearance as Outrage‘s only on-camera “beard.” For a dollop of historical perspective, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner shows up to invoke the specter of Roy Cohn. Finally, Crist emerges as the film’s tragic fool—at once deplorable and pitiable—pulling a mystery girlfriend (whose revealing brush-off message to the filmmakers gives the movie one of its juiciest bits) out of his hat when he is mentioned as a possible McCain running mate and, later, is seen with his eyes fixed on the bigger prize, getting hitched (to a different mystery woman).

Moment by moment, Outrage proves duly provocative, well sourced, and almost certain to go more viral than swine flu. But Dick’s film only strikes its most resonant note just before the final fade-out, as Crist and bride Carole Rome descend the steps of a St. Petersburg chapel in a kind of Orwellian vaudeville—the very embodiment of the infernal entanglement of church and state and our collective desire to believe in the white-picket surface of things. By abetting—even encouraging—their doublethink, Outrage implies, we are living in the closet, too.


Tribeca Film Festival 2009 Guide

For its eighth installment, the film festival frequently criticized for its sprawl and unwieldiness returns in trimmer shape: 85 features will unspool at this year’s Tribeca, down from last year’s 120 and fewer than half of 2005’s record high of 176 titles. Bookended by Woody Allen’s Whatever Works—his first New York–set movie since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda—and the, um, Nia Vardalos–toplining My Life in Ruins, the fest, which runs April 22 to May 3, promises the usual mix of the good, the bad, and the worse. Below, our guide to 10 standouts, plus three titles, unavailable for preview, that we’re eager to see.

Blank City

“It felt like our lives were movies,” Debbie Harry says in Celine Danhier’s well-researched doc on the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression scenes of late-’70s/early-’80s New York. Amiable Jim Jarmusch and others recall the good old bad days of the East Village and LES, where everybody seemed to collaborate with everyone else. All the eyewitnesses wisely temper nostalgia with astute observations 30 years after the DIY heyday, none more so than extra-cranky Lydia Lunch, who notes of the “No Wave” label: “It’s defined by what it isn’t. What is it? I don’t fuckin’ know.”

The Exploding Girl

Zoe Kazan—the only actor who didn’t chew and spit out the scenery in Revolutionary Road—finds a much worthier vehicle for her talents in Bradley Rust Gray’s lovely film about a young woman at home in NYC during a semester break. When not palling around with Al (Mark Rendall) or enduring a series of maddening cell phone calls with her boyfriend, Kazan’s Ivy is frequently seen in moments of silent contemplation while the city blooms and bustles around her.

Film ist. a girl & a gun

For this hypnotizing exploration of cinema as an expression of either Thanatos or Eros, international-film-archive spelunker Gustav Deutsch starts with D.W. Griffith’s maxim (revived by Godard) that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Assembling bits from ethnographic films, war footage, science documentaries, early porn reels, and scenes from 1930s narrative Euro features, Deutsch uncannily collapses all boundaries between the genres, suggesting a feverish celluloid dream—or nightmare.

The Fish Child

Lucía Puenzo reunites with Inés Efron, the star of her promising debut, XXY, in this sapphic Chabrolian thriller. Playing a bourgeois Buenos Aires teen in love with her maid (Mariela Vitale), Efron—who also appears in Lucrecia Martel’s upcoming The Headless Woman—is establishing herself as one of Argentina’s most fascinating young stars. Her gangliness, suggesting Badlands-era Sissy Spacek, and her stealthy sexual confidence are reminiscent of late-’90s Chloë Sevigny.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

This charming Boston-set, black-and-white 16mm musical from Damien Chazelle is the kind of movie a young Cassavetes might have made were he working for MGM’s Freed Unit. The romance and breakup of the titular sweethearts (Jason Palmer and Desiree Garcia) make up the film’s first 10 minutes, leaving the remaining time for Guy’s trumpet solos, Madeline’s tap dance at the tourist-trap resto where she works, and the possibility, as in all great musicals, that adventure lies just around the corner.

In the Loop

An acidic satire of the U.S.-U.K. rush to war in Iraq, British-TV vet Armando Iannucci’s first film skewers both 10 Downing Street and Beltway pomposity/incompetence through an outrageous, verbally aggressive script. As the bumbling Brit minister of information (Tom Hollander) and his handlers fly to D.C. to arrange a meeting with self-important State Department doves and hawks—and a Colin Powell–like general, nicely played by James Gandolfini—ridiculous cultural misunderstandings further add to wounded pride and endless grandstanding.

Soul Power

While editing the 1996 Rumble in the Jungle doc, When We Were Kings, director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte became fascinated with the funky three-day concert that preceded the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire. From a wealth of footage, he’s assembled one of the most energetic music docs in years, featuring Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars as they entertain passengers on the long flight to Kinshasa; Spinners lead singer Philippé Wynne duking it out with the Greatest; and Sister Sledge, barely out of their teens, grooving backstage.

Still Walking

Hirokazu Koreeda’s touching, acutely observed drama about a 24-hour gathering of the Yokoyama clan—together for their annual remembrance of a deceased son—dissects family allegiances and fissures with uncommon grace. As the surviving son (Hiroshi Abe), his sister (You), and respective spouses and broods settle in at their elderly parents’ seaside home, quotidian events—meal-planning, children playing—subtly shift to the more emotionally raw realm of buried resentment and disappointment, and the futile efforts for parental approval.


The highlight of Tribeca’s Restored/Rediscovered program, the first feature by Bette Gordon—who appears as a talking head in Blank City and whose latest, Handsome Harry, also plays in the fest—captures the scuzzy beauty of early-’80s Gotham in this Kathy Acker–scripted tale of a porn-house ticket seller (Sandy McLeod) who starts to take her work home with her. A baby-faced Luis Guzmán and Koch-era downtown doyennes Nan Goldin and Cookie Mueller are scene-stealers.

Yodok Stories

Andrzej Fidyk—who made 1989’s North Korea: The Parade, featuring 50,000 young people performing in Pyongyang Stadium—comes up with a head-scratching, though often fascinating, solution to the problem of representing the horrors of NK’s concentration camps: Find a defector to South Korea who has been trained in the Communist country’s spectacle-making and is willing to orchestrate a large-scale musical about the ongoing atrocities. Based on the testimony of former camp prisoners and guards, the resulting production displays several incongruous Andrew Lloyd Webber flourishes while remaining weirdly cathartic.

Three we want to see:

All About Actresses

The premise of this faux-documentary by actor-director Maïwenn Le Besco (sister of actor-director Isild Le Besco)—a tortured actress (guess who?) makes a film about French divas—suggests that this might be the most insufferable movie in Tribeca. But the chance to see thesp legends Jeanne Balibar and Charlotte Rampling play versions of themselves is worth the risk.

Making the Boys

Showing in conjunction with William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation of The Boys in the Band (Mart Crowley’s landmark play about self-loathing faggotry that opened Off-Broadway just a year before Stonewall), Crayton Robey’s work-in-progress doc includes interviews with many of those involved in both the stage and screen versions. Perhaps most poignant will be the absence of many of the actors, all of whom reprised their stage roles in Friedkin’s film—several died of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s.


Kirby Dick, who uncovered the secretive proceedings of the MPAA in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, turns to an even more hypocritical coven: closeted lawmakers who support anti-LGBT legislation. Dick’s doc promises to be incendiary stuff; let’s just hope he doesn’t rely on the spying gags deployed in This Film to uncover men’s-room foot-tapping.


The Science of Bleep

Why we choose to watch the movies we watch is strictly personal, a matter of taste mediated by finance and geography. The nature of what we can watch is something else. As explicated by Kirby Dick’s snappy exposé This Film Is Not Yet Rated, it’s a matter of public concern.

Dick (whose previous docs include Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate; Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist; and the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith) has an interest in outré content that This Film Is Not Yet Rated pushes further into the social sphere. Establishing that the American movie industry has always been subject to political regulation, Dick notes the 1920s importation of Republican politician Will Hays to police Hollywood and the postwar witch hunt conducted by the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee, to focus on the current rating system implemented in the late ’60s by D.C. insider and former Motion Picture Association of America honcho Jack Valenti.

The rating system is secret and the raters—identified by Valenti only as “parents”—are sworn to secrecy. Dick studies the circumstantial evidence and interviews expert witnesses, including filmmakers Kevin Smith, John Waters, and Kimberly Peirce (who hasn’t completed another film in the seven years since her re-edited-for-R Boys Don’t Cry). His conclusion: The scarlet NC-17 is, as an economic kiss of death, reserved largely for independents. Also, so far as the MPAA is concerned, the representation of female pleasure is far worse than the depiction of violence—particularly violence against women.

Any investigation into Hollywood inevitably mutates into a noir. Dick hires an affably hard-boiled private eye to discover who the raters are and how they operate. Assisted by her teenage daughter, she stakes out the MPAA’s heavily secured Hollywood headquarters and takes license numbers. Selective garbology yields a rating sheet for Memoirs of a Geisha. Although MPAA’s anonymous minions dutifully tally the pelvic thrusts in a sex scene or total instances of the word fuck, their guidelines are secret; they pride themselves on not telling filmmakers what changes would be necessary to secure a PG or R. (They’re not censors after all.) Mary Harron recalls that although American Psycho was rated NC-17 for “tone,” she ultimately deduced that, for all the movie’s violence, the most MPAA-offensive scene was a lighthearted threesome.

Inevitably, Dick goes to the interpersonal and submits his film—amply spiced with nudity, expletives, and pelvic thrusting—to the MPAA. This ploy enables him to document the arcane process by which, denied a commercial rating, filmmakers can petition for reconsideration. The appeal board includes at least one (nonvoting) member of the clergy but is mainly staffed with industry biggies. Their rules do not allow citation of precedent. Ignorance is enforced; it is forbidden to even refer to any other film. Any such allusion would be, in the literal sense, obscene—”not to be shown.” And as Dick makes abundantly clear, so is the rating game itself.




Directed by Kirby Dick

Artistic License, opens July 1, Quad

A rebuke to those who dismissed Mystic River‘s Greek tragic symmetries as jerry-rigged, the documentary Twist of Faith recounts a real-life case where the specter of childhood sex abuse endlessly seeps into the present. Tormented by memories of being molested as a teenager, Tony Comes, now an adult with a family, unknowingly moves in five doors away from his alleged abuser, ex-priest Dennis Gray. Tony can’t toilet train his son without thinking of the past; he and his wife, Wendy, independently describe how Tony’s recollections haunt their marriage, nullifying physical intimacy between them and displacing Wendy’s own, admittedly less traumatic problems. Twist of Faith alternates between footage of Tony’s family life, much of it shot by the subjects themselves, and Gray’s 2003 deposition, in which the former Catholic school teacher either fudges his answers or pleads the Fifth. (He has denied the charges and all lawsuits against him were settled). Director Kirby Dick (Derrida) shapes the movie in such a way as to leave everyone flummoxed. Gray’s accusers remain perplexed that a man could be reciting Mass one minute and violating his pupils the next—it seemed, as Tony puts it, “too screwed up to question.” Publicly impugned for sweeping allegations under the rug, Toledo auxiliary bishop Robert Donnelly puts up a phenomenally unconvincing defense. Indeed, much of the film concerns Tony’s diminishing confidence in the Catholic church. How can he possibly entrust his daughter to Sunday school? In the film’s powerful final chapter, Tony prepares for her Communion. BEN KENIGSBERG


The Pain Artist

When Bob Flanagan performed in New York in 1991, potential spectators were warned: “Not for the faint of heart.” And that was back in the golden age of transgression, when artists routinely presented the unspeakable to audiences of the imperturbable. (There was the performer who bit the heads off live mice, for example, and the one who suspended himself on fishhooks stuck through his skin.) But Flanagan went farther than most. As a self-described “hetero-masochist, in extremis,” he was notorious for nailing his penis to a board. Flanagan happened to perform in a context that explained him, but that didn’t make the work any easier to watch.

Now a publicist for Kirby Dick’s new documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, says she’s had a hard time even getting critics to screenings. As one put it to her: “Why do we have to see all that?”–an unexpected complaint in the age of the confessional, the sensational, and the hyperexplicit. Sheree Rose, who was Flanagan’s dominant partner in life and in art, speculates: “People aren’t used to seeing anything that real on the screen.” While we increasingly raise the image threshold of what we can look at, real suffering is as hard to take as ever–and as hard to represent.

Flanagan was all about real and shameles sself-disclosure. He lived his life at death’s door. A medical anomaly, he managed to survive with cystic fibrosis until the age of 43. (Most CF sufferers die as children or young adults.) Certainly Flanagan behaved like someone with no time to be untrue to himself.” This is the person I am,” he once declared.” I’m not afraid of any aspect of what I am.”

That included the part of him that lived as a “supermasochist”–and always had. As a boy, he’d begun inflicting pain on himself because it helped him cope with the chronic pain of CF. Flanagan used to put it this way: “I’ve learned to fight sickness with sickness.”

In the late ’80s, he began staging his pain-inducing rituals as an art form. “I never wanted to call myself a ‘performance artist,'” Flanagan once said. “I just went out and did these things from an honest place.” Spectators fainted on both coasts. A hopeful Jesse Helms even sniffed around for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. (There was none.) Flanagan only did the nailed-penis act twice in his life, but something like that tends to become the defining moment in an artist’s career. More routinely, he would nail his scrotum, insisting that it didn’t really hurt. Obviously, he had a high tolerance for pain.

The guy sounds scary. But Sick transcends the usual shock-horror expectations about transgressive artists and becomes a meditation on universal themes: suffering, shame, intimacy, desire, and death. Flanagan is so honest, and his angry response to what the universe has dealt him usually takes the form of deadpan humor.

The s/m life presented in the film is completely unglamorous, far removed from the leather-clad ideal. For Flanagan, this is a need that has nothing to do with style, everything to do with pain management and the consequences of dependence. His Supermasochist character appears in a hospital-gown cape, oxygen tube in his nose, Hickman catheter in his chest, scrawny, pasty, and singing (to the tune of “Supercalifragilistic”), “A lifetime of infection and his lungs all filled with phlegm/The CF would have killed him, if it weren’t for s-and-m.”

Cystic fibrosis is a disease that fills the lungs with mucus, providing fertile ground for bacteria to grow, but, worse, making it difficult to breathe. After his death, Flanagan’s lover and collaborator of 15 years, Rose, points out in the film that, basically, Bob drowned. Anyone with CF needs to be hit hard on the back periodically to break up the mucus. Does this make someone want to be hit? Does it really make sense to control pain by adding pain?

When the filmmaker interviews Flanagan’s parents, he asks if maybe they loved Bob a little bit more when he was suffering. “He was in pain so much of the time,” his mother replies. Flanagan’s parents found out about his sexual proclivities only near the end of his life. “I’m still stunned by it,” his mother admits. “Where was I?”

As a boy, Flanagan used to stick pins through a belt and whip himself with it. No one ever found out. He’d wrap belts around his wrists and hang himself from doors, eventually ruining nearly every door in the house–much to his parents’ bewilderment.

Flanagan was never out to shock. He was a practical masochist, just trying to find a way to beat home in his ravaged body. But his work was marginalized even in the art world until his last major effort, “Visiting Hours,” a retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and The New Museum. This show was much more focused on illness than on sex, though that reflected how he felt at the time: lousy. Flanagan exhibited himself in a hospital bed set up in each museum, and by the time the show hit New York in late 1994, he was finding even that very taxing.

Flanagan and Rose met in Los Angeles in 1980. Flanagan had published one chapbook of poems by then, but he kept his s/m obsessions to himself. It was Rose who insisted that he integrate his masochism into his art. Warned that he might only live a couple of years, she also began documenting everything.

Filmmaker Kirby Dick met Flanagan in the early 1980s at Beyond Baroque, a nonprofit space in Los Angeles where the artist sometimes read his poetry. They became friends, and Dick followed the course of Flanagan’s artistic progress and physical collapse. Dick approached Flanagan and Rose in 1993 about doing the documentary.

At first, says Dick, they refused because Rose said no. Flanagan had given Rose total control over every aspect of his life; he would have given up his art career if she’d asked. “By allowing me to film Bob, Sheree felt she would be giving up an aspect of her role as Bob’s dominant to me,” says the filmmaker. She eventually relented enough for Dick to begin filming Flanagan, but it was several more months before she allowed Dick to film her.

Rose says that Dick came in “because we needed a third person.” Many of the most amazing moments in Sick come from her archive. Like a conversation near the end of Flanagan’s life, recorded on videotape, in which he and Rose argue because he will no longer submit to her. “I can barely breathe,” he counters with some outrage. She recorded the film’s most dramatic scenes–in the hospital during the last days of his life, as an airbag forces oxygen into his lungs–and took post mortem photos. All of this had been agreed to by Flanagan.

As Dick puts it, “Bob wanted this chronicle of his illness and death to happen because in many ways it was an extension of his work.” Sick includes a brief exchange in which Dick tells Flanagan that the film might not get finished till after he’s dead. The filmmaker confesses, “Some people say I’m a vampire.” Withtypical gallows humor, Flanagan suggests, “Maybe more of a vulture.” (Rose and Dick are currently at odds over how the credits for the film have been allocated.)

Flanagan’s struggle to stay alive is never sentimentalized in Sick, nor is he ever a pathetic character. But after a lifetime spent in contemplation and expectation of his death, he is utterly panicked and unprepared when it arrives. “Am I dying?” he asks Rose, in distress. “I don’t understand it…This is the stupidest…I’d never believe this in my life. I don’tunderstand it.”

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Sick is how much of an everyman Flanagan seems by the end.