Arctic Circle, Canadian films, cinema, co-directors, documentaries, eccentric people, fame, film reviews, films, Icelandic Phallological Museum, Jonah Bekhor, legacy, life's work, Movies, national pride, Páll Arason, penis museum, phallus, set in Iceland, Siggi Hjartarson, Sigurður Hjartarson, The Final Member, Tom Mitchell, Zach Math
Calling The Final Member (2012) “the best documentary ever made about a penis museum” seems a little unnecessary since, to the best of my knowledge, it’s also the only documentary ever made about a penis museum. While the Icelandic Phallological Museum and its creator/curator, Sigurður (Siggi) Hjartarson, may be the subject of Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s massively entertaining film, the actual focus is a little trickier and more universal: the endless quest for fame, in our modern world, and the lengths to which ordinary folks will go to make sure that the history books don’t forget them. Aging Icelandic adventurer Páll Arason and eccentric American Tom Mitchell, as we’ll see, are both prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to help Siggi finish his collection: in order to secure ever-lasting notoriety, the two men vie to be the “final member” added to Siggi’s museum of mammal specimens…the human specimen.
Siggi Hjartarson is quite the interesting character. 40 years ago, Siggi was given a bull-penis walking stick as a gag gift and, to continue the “joke,” began to collect various other penis specimens. In short time, Siggi’s “joke” became a hobby which morphed into a bona fide collection which, once it had outgrown the modest confines of the Hjartarson household, became an honest-to-god museum. The Icelandic Phallological Museum, which opened its doors in August of 1997, still stands (as far as I know) as the only museum in the world dedicated strictly to the mammalian phallus in all of its myriad forms. From the very largest sample (a sperm whale) to the very smallest (a hamster), Siggi built his collection up until (according to him), he was only missing one last penis: a human one. Since donating human organs is a much more complex business than acquiring animal samples, Siggi has dealt with one frustration after another, always agonizingly close to finishing off his work of nearly a half-century but, alas, no cigar.
The winds of fortune seem to blow his way, however, when local legend Páll Arason agrees to donate his penis to the museum once he dies. Arason was an adventurer who achieved some measure of fame in the ’40s and seems to have coasted on his laurels for the resulting decades: he’s also a self-proclaimed Lothario who claims to have slept with over 300 women (not counting prostitutes), making his penis something of a celebrity, in its own right. Siggi is overjoyed: not only will he be able to finish his collection, at long last, but he can do so with a specimen that will really make his country proud: go team!
When it rains, it pours, however, and Siggi’s good luck turns into an embarrassment of riches when American Tom Mitchell contacts him and wants to offer his own “donation.” Unlike the aged Arason, Mitchell is…shall we say…more than a bit eccentric: he’s named his penis “Elmo,” wants to make it famous in its own right (via a comic book, if possible), enjoys dressing it up in costumes and sending the pictures to poor Siggi (the George Washington get-up must be seen to be believed…talk about a dick-head!) and has some very distinct ideas about presentation. He also wants to make his donation before he dies, for some rather complex but no less odd reasons, and is eager to be the first such donor anywhere: in other words, Tom really wants this, man!
Stuck between two “suitors,” Siggi must steer through some pretty choppy waters as he tries to make his decision: Arason’s penis would be the preferred one, for matters of national pride, if nothing else, but it’s also considerably smaller than Mitchell’s, and wouldn’t be as good a specimen. There’s also the matter of timing: Mitchell is ready whenever he can make up his mind about presentation issues but poor Arason has to, you know, die first, which is kind of a bummer. On the other hand, Mitchell is quickly driving Siggi to distraction with his endless phone calls, letters and penis pictures: at one point, Siggi solemnly tells the camera, “This is a funny guy…I’ve never met anyone like him before” and there’s no way we can disagree with him…Tom is a genuinely strange guy, even if he seems like a polite one.
As time drags on and Siggi’s health becomes an issue, he becomes more and more eager to finish his lifework, even if it means making some uncomfortable decisions. Will he go with the local hero and make his countrymen proud or will he opt for the more difficult, if “impressive” foreigner? Will Siggi ever finish his collection or will he be doomed to stare at that one, empty display case for the rest of his days? Who will end up being “the final member?”
Subject-matter notwithstanding, The Final Member is actually a pretty breezy, easy-going documentary full of gentle humor, some interesting observations on the human condition and some truly unique characters that have the added benefit of being real. While the film may, nominally, be about Siggi’s hunt for the human specimen, it’s actually about Páll and Tom’s hunts for immortality: both men want to leave something behind to insure that they’re not forgotten, something that will help cinch their spot in the record books…what better way than to be the first (and, presumably, only) human specimen in the world’s only penis museum? Take that, Guinness Book of World Records yo-yo champion! In an era where it seems that everyone is looking for their 15 minutes of fame (or 15 seconds, if that’s all they can snag), there’s definitely something universal about watching two individuals try to get theirs, regardless of the end results: even Siggi is looking for his own kind of immortality, in a way, by leaving behind his one-of-a-kind collection…no one is immune from the “fame” bug, it seems.
As a documentary, The Final Member is extremely well-made: full of bright, vibrant cinematography, interesting “talking head” interviews with various academics regarding the history of the phallus and the penis’ place in modern society and fascinating characters, there, literally, isn’t a dull spot to be found in the entire film. I’ve often felt that the average moviegoers tends to view all documentaries as dull, stuffy, “egghead” fare, despite the fact that docs come in just as many flavors as fictional films: The Final Member is certainly the film to prove the naysayers wrong, as there’s absolutely nothing stuffy or pretentious about the subjects or filmmaking. If anything, Bekhor and Math tell the story in as straight-forward a way as possible: no need to gussy anything up when the material is already so quirky and odd.
At the end of the day, The Final Member is a really fun, interesting film (if occasionally a little sad) that’s going to end up being a tough sell for a lot of folks: if it wasn’t already clear from the subject matter and preceding discussion, the film is chock full of penises, from the very first frame to the very last one. Not only do we see the most dizzying collection of animal penises ever (I can honestly say that I’d never thought about the subject of animal penises one way or the other but The Final Member pretty much makes that moot) but we also get plenty of shots of Páll and Tom’s respective “manhood,” whether it be the scene where Páll gets a cast made, for measurement purposes (apparently, there’s a “legal minimum length” in Iceland, which sounds like it would make its own fascinating film) or the one where Tom feels patriotic and gets his tattooed in red, white and blue (yeah…wow).
If you’re the kind of person who has any hangups regarding the nude human body (or the nude animal body, for that matter), this is absolutely not the film for you, in any way, shape or form. Mark my words: you will see the “full monty” on multiple occasions. If, however, you’re the kind of person who is fascinated by niche subjects, odd characters and truly unique ideas, then The Final Member will be right up your alley. While I never could have dreamed that a film which features wall-to-wall phalluses could be “whimsical,” Bekhor and Math’s film is just that. By the time it was over, I found myself not only rooting for Siggi, but generally liking the guy, as well. There’s a lot to be said for someone who sticks to their guns and does whatever needs to be done to finish a project, no matter how difficult or time-consuming. Will I be booking a flight to go check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum? Not anytime soon, to be honest, but I’m sure as hell glad that it exists and that there are still dreamers like Siggi, Páll and Tom to help make this globe of ours a little more interesting.