There are few movies this year where you’ll see a man get the stars and stripes of the American flag tattooed on the head of his penis. But then again, there are few documentaries like “The Final Member,” a warm look at a quirky subject that gets to the human story behind it.
Meet Sigurdur Hjartarson, the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallogical Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to the penis. Receiving a bull penis as a gag gift in the ’70s, something clicked in Sigurdur’s brain and the next thing he knew, he was collecting specimens from any animal he could get his hands on, slowly filling his house with jars of penises of all shapes and sizes, from nearly every creature that walks, swims or flies that you can think of. With his home quickly becoming cluttered, his understanding family joked that he should he open a museum, and a lightbulb went off, and that’s exactly what he did. Granted, it’s not the Guggenheim, but the modestly sized building is really one of the few places where you can see the penis in the many shapes and sizes that nature has given it.
But now getting older and with his health getting worse, Sigurdur knows he will soon have to step down from the museum and before he does, he wants to make the collection complete. That’s right, he wants a human penis. Enter 95-year-old Icelander Páll Arason and 60-something American Tom, both willing to leave their cocks to history, albeit with very different baggage attached. Pall is something of an Icelandic legend, an adventurer who cut a swath across the country’s great wilderness, clearing paths, guiding tourists and visitors alike, showing them what the island had to offer. He is also a notorious womanizer, having slept with over 400 women — not counting prostitutes he clarifies — and he’s something of celebrity for all his deeds both heroic and carnal. He offers to donate his penis after he passes away, entrusting his well traveled dong to the museum for everyone to look at for years and years to come.
Tom on the other hand is upping the stakes, offering to donate his member now — while he’s still alive — willing to undergo surgery to make it happen. And he’s bringing a lot…more…to the table. Amply endowed, his seven inch long, and particularly thick Elmo (named by his ex-wife, and no, not after the Muppet) is certainly more display worthy than Pall’s skinnier, shorter five inches (which meets the bare minimum of the “legal length” Sigurdur is looking for). But Tom also has grander aspirations, hoping that his penis takes on some kind of celebrity, and before he even consults on the surgery, he’s planning a comic book and starts getting a mirrored display case made for the glorious day when Elmo will be mounted in a museum for all to see.
Directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math mostly do a good job of not getting lost in the oddball nature of the entire premise and really deliver a story that turns out be utterly fascinating, and yes, at times funny too. Sigurdur turns out to be a multi-talented individual, with interests that are far ranging. He’s an author of twenty-two books and he’s also translated a work of 16th century literature, completing one of his two life dreams (and yes, the other one is getting a human penis for his museum). But it’s Tom whose story emerges first as eccentric, but takes on elements of tragedy as we learn more. Without giving up the goods, it becomes apparent that there are deeper rooted issues and experiences that may be driving Tom to what he’s doing, hinting at a man who’s still has yet to deal with the darker furies lurking within him. Behind the comics, the dream of fame and fortune and yes, getting his penis tattooed (a particularly stomach churning sequence for any male member watching) Tom is clearly wrestling with some demons and they are manifesting themselves in a bizarre, exhibitionist way.
Running a lean 75 minutes however, you do wish “The Final Member” had padded things out a bit more. While we learn much about about both Sigurdur and Pall, Tom remains an enigma and the lack of interviews with his friends, co-workers, family — really, anybody — is a notable omission that prevents the film from being being a complete portrait of unique story. However, Bekhor and Math do such a good job of laying groundwork that when the finale does arrive (and we’ll leave you to watch the film to experience the twists yourself) it’s surprisingly moving, with Sigurdur’s one time hobby and obsession turning into a life’s work and the satisfaction in his face and heart, will be familliar to anybody who has pursued a passion wholly and without hesitation.
Peculiar as the tale is, it never gets in the way of itself and “The Final Member” ultimately reflects on how we choose to live our life, and even more, how we want it to be remembered. That it’s a penis museum through which the narrative is pitched certainly makes it compelling and perhaps a novelty, but the sincerity and honesty of the stories within, as odd as they are, make “The Final Member” worth seeking out. [B]
This is a reprint of our review Hot Docs 2013.