Our Bodies, On Shelves, by Craig Schroeder
I’m scared I’ll die and have nothing to show for the life I’ve lived. That’s not a novel phobia and I’m aware it’s an odd admission to begin a piece of this nature. But I can’t help it; the thought occupies a lot of my time. The Final Member is a documentary that addresses this fear. It’s about leaving a legacy. It’s a film about creating a lasting impression on the world, for the sake of mankind or for your own edification. It’s a film about understanding the base desires of the human species. It’s a film that quiets the insidious voice in the back of your brain, telling you no matter how much you try, your life will end ingloriously and without purpose. Oh, and it’s also a film about an elderly Icelandic man with an expansive collection of preserved mammalian penises.
The Final Member, from directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math, is about Sigurður Hjartarson, or Siggi, the curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, an institution in a small town outside of Reykjavic that houses a collection of mammalian penises. Over thirty-seven years, Siggi has obtained a specimen of almost every land and sea mammal found in Iceland. But there is one specimen that has eluded him: a human penis. The Final Member follows Siggi as he attempts to obtain the Holy Grail of his collection from two potential donors: Pall Arason, an Icelandic man who promises Siggi his penis once he dies, and Tom Mitchell, a peculiar American who wishes to have his testicles and penis–which he has named Elmo–removed and displayed in Siggi’s museum. What unfolds is not only riotously funny, it is a profound study on living a significant life and the fear of being forgotten.
The Final Member could have easily been a cynical experiment in film making: point the camera at the freak and watch what happens. But Bekhor and Math are wholly focused on creating a film about so much more than its eccentric subjects. Rather than identifying their subjects as crazy raisin-cakes, Bekhor and Math treat each of them with respect and understanding. By concentrating on the psyche of its subjects, rather than their inherent strangeness, the film becomes an effective meditation on the human condition; each man comes to represent a different paradoxical struggle between the id and the ego. Siggi is an an empirical-compulsive, driven to collect but also able to understand the significance of his collection and what it means for his species. Tom Mitchell, a man who dresses his penis in an Abraham Lincoln costume, comes to represent the Übermensch, he’s competitive and vain–he tattoos his penis with the stars and stripes and often brags about his size in relation to the competition’s–but he is deeply insecure. And Pall Arason, an aging, quasi-celebrity who has spent his life in the spotlight, doesn’t want to be forgotten.
Though Bekhor and Math present their subjects in a laissez-faire narrative, they are confident directors who never forget their responsibilities as filmmakers. The pair are able to inject comedy via editing–pairing Siggi’s docile nature with the increasing strangeness of his prospective donors–without ever interrupting or devaluing the story. And when the “competition” between Mitchell and Arason heats up, Bekhor and Math are able to build tension between two men who never occupy the same space.
The Final Member is to be commended for its treatment of male genitalia. Though (or perhaps, because) penis-having movie-goers are the more targeted demographic, the film industry has a reluctance to put a real one on the big screen (I can think of three films in the past six months with depictions of male and female genitalia that use prostheses for the men, but not the women). I can’t begin to identify a finite reason for Hollywood’s penile aversion–though I’d start by treating latent homophobia or the byproducts of female objectification as the main suspects–but I can confirm that The Final Member is a step in the right direction towards normalizing the human body, specifically, the male body. It’s not afraid to laugh at the absurdity of genitalia, but the film is intent on understanding why people react uncomfortably to something so ordinary.
At one point in the film, Siggi obtains a sperm whale’s penis. It’s larger than Siggi and is delivered in a cylindrical tube. When Siggi opens the tube, the penis slides out and coils on the ground. Siggi cleans the whale’s penis and preserves it in a giant jar and displays it in his museum, transforming it into an oddly alluring masterpiece. The Final Member has a similar emotional trajectory, beginning as a bizarre spectacle and eventually ending as something infinitely fascinating.The Final Member is just like a sperm whale penis. How’s that for a pull-quote?