The Final Member: Film Review
Friday, April 18 (Drafthouse Films)
Jonah Bekhor, Zach Math
An eccentric Icelander's museum needs a human specimen to make its collection of animal penises complete.
A documentarian might as well be satisfied to shoot a project about Sigurdur “Siggi” Hjartarson, an Icelander whose childhood encounter with a preserved bull's penis inspired a 40-year obsession and, eventually, the inauguration of a museum dedicated to phalluses. What could be stranger? Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math's The Final Member answers that question, introducing us not only to Hjartarson but also to two men racing to make his museum complete — by donating their own private parts. Funny, fascinating and packing a surprisingly poignant twist, the doc will get plenty of free publicity and, for unsqueamish moviegoers, will live up to the hype.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum, founded in 1997, houses everything from a hamster's 2-millimeter penis bone to the massive member of a sperm whale. Scores of squishy specimens are displayed in jars of preserving fluid, while others are dried — jutting proudly from mounts on the wall or fashioned into fetish objects, like the walking cane that inspired Siggi's hobby. Both academic and cheeky, it pairs educational displays with novelty items like anatomy-themed cutlery sets carved by the proprietor.
Before it can even get embroiled in the museum's peripatetic history (though it was founded in Reykjavik and is located there now, when the doc was shot it had moved to the distant town of Husavik due to poor finances), the film focuses on an issue that concerns Siggi more than the rent: The aging man feels he'll be a failure if he dies before his collection boasts a human penis.
(Cue an amusing discourse on how long an organ must be in order to qualify for the museum's collection. Believe it or not, an Icelandic folk tale addresses this question.)
Two volunteers appear: Nonagenarian Pall Arason, once a famous Icelandic explorer and unrepentant Lothario whose little black book boasts 300 conquests (not counting prostitutes); and Tom Mitchell, an American who started calling his penis Elmo long before a Muppet controversy made that name a bad joke.
Mitchell's bizarre attitude and plans quickly make him the movie's focus: Inexplicably proud of his privates, he is intent on being Siggi's first human donor. Shocking even the museum's founder, he begins planning to have his penis amputated while he's alive, so Elmo can go where no man has gone before.
There's more, much more, to this stranger-than-fiction individual — a montage of photos in which Mitchell dresses Elmo up as an astronaut and Abe Lincoln isn't the weirdest that things get — but suffice to say that a man who initially seems pathetic, delusional and perhaps just plain dumb has his reasons.
Bekhor and Math present Mitchell's case with dramatic flair (a good thing, given the film's sometimes clumsy cinematography), returning occasionally for sidebars on cultural taboos and status reports on — should we even discuss this? — Arason's prized possession, which is shrinking dramatically as he ages. Never quite forgetting the non-humans who unwittingly contributed to Siggi's collection, the film occasionally shows him handling, chopping and sloshing around the many-shaped appendages that enable the procreation of mammals large and small.
Production: Phallological Productions
Directors-producers: Jonah Bekhor, Zach Math
Directors of photography: Viggo Knudsen, Sean Stiegemeier
Editors: Andrew Dickler, Tyler Hubby
Rated R, 71 minutes