CIFF: The Final Member, by Aaron Pinkston
At the opening of the documentary The Final Member, we meet Sigurdur Hjartarson on his way to work, the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Let’s stop there for a second. I did a double-take, wondering if that is what I think it is. It is. In Iceland, just 30 miles from the North Pole, there is the world’s only museum for penises. Siggy has a bull penis, a sperm whale penis, a field mouse penis, even a 2-millimeter hamster penis. There is just one piece missing: the human penis. Basically, someone needs to donate their penis, a difficult decision given the penis-shy society we live in today. For the longest time, no one would step forward and donate their penis, possibly for shame of being found out and the reputation this could cause on the man’s living family. Luckily, two men rise to the challenge, and The Final Member tells their journeys to become the first penis on public display.
As one would expect, The Final Member is bawdy, outrageous and sometimes gross. But it is also hilarious — the funniest documentary I’ve seen since The King of Kong. The filmmakers, Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math, set their stage by talking with scholars and experts about the penis and its place in public society. It poses questions about why we can’t seem to talk openly about penises in the 21st century and why there remains this taboo on the organ, even though it’s presence is practically everywhere. It doesn’t make any real effort to explore these philosophical ideas, but it certainly does its best to confront the viewer with this topic — often in very funny ways. Yes, there are animated graphs comparing penis sizes. There is also a tale told from Icelandic folklore, called “A Legal Length,” about a wife’s desire to create a law which will allow her to divorce her poorly endowed husband — complete with animated photos. In a word, this film is anything but stiff. OK, I’ll cut it with the puns out now. At least I’ll try.
The film really takes off when we meet the three major players: Sigurdur, the museum’s curator, and the two men hoping to be the first human penis inducted to the museum. The first is a bit of a local legend in Iceland, author, explorer and known ladies’ man. Into his 90s, he is willing to donate his penis, but it may prove to be too small given the man’s age. The other, an American, is the type of character every documentarian wishes he or she could find. Tom Mitchell is a California rancher who has a bit of an obsession with his penis — he even refers to it by the name ‘Elmo,’ supposedly no relation to the famous Sesame Street character. Mitchell is the perfect blend of quirky, creepy and outright, making him a really fascinating subject. Once the film introduces him, he takes pretty full control. The subjects are completely straight-faced and completely open to these interviews. I guess it takes a specific type of person so passionate about their penis preservation, and this type of person makes a pretty interesting documentary subject.
I wouldn’t be surprised if portions of the film were staged, because some stuff is just too weird to explain, and I’ll let you explore it without spoilers. OK, I’ll spoil one thing — the montage of pictures of Mitchell’s penis dressed up as Abe Lincoln, Uncle Sam, and other historical figures, photos which were sent to Sigurdur by e-mail without being asked, seems like it may not have been an organic idea. At the very least, the film seems to be specifically edited in a way to build a natural drama and conflicts between the characters. Well edited, at that, as the film builds in ways the viewer probably doesn’t expect after the opening moments showing us penis graphs.
About halfway through the film, the focus shifts to Tom Mitchell’s past and true reasonings for his mission. Earlier on he talks about this as a way to treat his exhibitionistic tendencies in an appropriate venue. There is some merit to that, but when the film digs a little deeper into the man’s psychology, you strangely being rooting for him. When he’s introduced, he’s an incredible rube — creepy, offstandish, the type of person you would laugh at — and the film feels very much like it is setting him up for laughs. But as we learn more he seems like the odd uncle type, completely honest and even noble. It’s a dirty trick the filmmakers employ, but it gives a life to the film just when it needs it. There are only so many penis jokes and strange escapades you can feed to the audience before they need a little something more.
There is something naturally perverse and grotesque about the subject matter and the level of participation, but the film ultimately lives with the concepts of legacy and true human emotion. The film sneaks up on you in this way, draws you in with the penis talk and surprises you by the end. The Final Member is a quirky display of power dynamics and obstinate people working together. But mostly it’s intended to rile you up, gross you out and make you laugh hysterically. And it does all three of those quite well.