The Final Member
Dir. Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math
Others: Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan Supermasochist, Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, Gates of Heaven
Links: The Final Member - Drafthouse Films
The novelty of a weird museum is an easy way to pique the interest of tourists, although the result is not always satisfying. Off the top of my head, I’ve been to the Torture Museum in San Gimignano, Italy, as well as the Secret Museum in Naples, and they disappoint precisely because the promise of unseemly history is more alluring than what’s on display (on the other hand, though, I’ve been to museums about seemingly boring subjects that were nonetheless fascinating because they were so well-curated). The Final Member is a documentary about another weird museum, one with a focus on male genitals. The novelty of Iceland’s Penis museum is funny for about five minutes — there are so many giant dicks mounted on the wall — so the films shifts focus toward a quixotic pursuit for a human specimen. Turns out that the quest for a human dick is quite the challenge, albeit a tedious one.
Directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math start with a profile of Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson, the former teacher who founded the Penis Museum over 30 years ago. Originally, the museum was his private collection of preserved male genitals, ones that belonged to all manner of fauna, and Hjartarson’s family was anxious for him to move the collection away from home (his wife wanted the extra space). The museum is now a medium-sized room, with protrusions and curiosities that are either wall-mounted or kept in jars.
Siggi’s proverbial white whale is not a whale penis, but a human one, and he has two candidates who are jockeying for eternal glory. There’s Páll Arason, an aging folk hero and explorer who claims to have slept with over 300 women (he keeps a history of them in a scrapbook). Then there’s Tom Mitchell, an American in his 50s who nicknamed his penis “Elmo.” At first Siggi prefers Elmo over Páll’s dick — Elmo is bigger, for one thing — but what matters is that Tom is willing to part ways with Elmo, surgically speaking, if it means he can have the coveted spot. Still, Tom is more trouble than he’s worth, which forces Siggi to struggle between choosing him and Páll, who would better honor his country’s legacy.
The most important thing about The Final Member is that transitions from dick jokes toward something more serious. Siggi and his family acknowledge the inherent weirdness of the museum, yet the subsequent penis quest seems normal because Siggi and the others treat it so matter-of-factly. The only true weirdo is Tom Mitchell, whose obsession with his penis is a little disquieting. A man’s attachment to his dick is one thing — and I don’t mean just in the literal sense — but it’s quite another to actively try to mythologize a sex organ. Tom is hell-bent on preserving Elmo’s legacy as a symbol for American pride; in one surprisingly funny scene, he gets an American flag tattooed on the head of his cock. He’d be disturbing if it weren’t for his aw-shucks demeanor, and a sincere motivation for his quest. There’s a highly specific reason Tom wants to preserve Elmo — one that I won’t reveal, except to say he’s, uh, overcompensating for something.
Tom’s descent into weirdness is the highlight of The Final Member, but the film starts spinning its wheels during its final third. It’s as if Bekhor and Math ran out of material, and tried to pad out their documentary so it could be feature-length (there’s nothing cinematically unique here, so it looks and sounds like straightforward journalism). Someone should tell the directors it’s not the length of the film that counts; it’s how they use it. But instead of a streamlined narrative, there are repetitive scenes in which Siggi, Tom, and Páll fret over a penis’s resting place. Too many scenes hit the same note, a droll combination of frustration and passion, to the point where the plot grinds to a halt. The Final Member does have a climax, but it’s too little too late. In a shorter film, there’d be an explosion of excitement at the end, and a sense of serene satisfaction would soon follow. To my chagrin, that’s not the case here.
There is double standard regarding nudity in the movies. Female nudity is common, while there is genuine reticence to show a penis on camera. There are lot of dicks in The Final Member (even many more than in this year’s homoerotic thriller Stranger by the Lake) and the cumulative effect is numbing — in a good way. An on-camera penis no longer feels transgressive when it’s handled in a matter-of-factly. There are scenes in The Final Member in which medical professionals and historians discuss dicks and their somber tone is unintentionally funny. But at a mere seventy-five minutes, the documentary still manages to overstay its welcome. Without any verve or new details to consider, the whole thing starts to feel flaccid.