A few months ago I wrote a travel column entitled What The Hell Did I Just Book? – 11 Crazy Travel Destinations You Won’t Believe Are Real, in which I talked about the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I mentioned the documentary film The Final Member briefly, as it was still in post-production at the time. Well, now it’s out in the wild, and I watched it last night, and I wanted to talk to you about it.
This is more therapy than review, as the film has some disturbing moments in it, mostly due to Tom Mitchell, an eccentric American and one of two men agreeing to donate their penis to the museum. But we’ll get back to him later. First, let’s talk about second generation Phallogist Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson, founder and curator of the museum that started as a joke amongst friends. It all started with a bull penis his parents gave him to use as a whip for the animals. Years later when he was working as a Headmaster at a secondary school, some of his teachers worked on whaling ships during the summers, and would bring him whale penises as a joke.
“Siggi” gradually collected more specimens until in 1997 he founded the museum. His wife was ecstatic to have the room back, as the 62 specimens at the time took up useful space. He has sought out, or had delivered, more than 200 since then, from 93 species of mammals, including the human member referenced in the title. A charming and funny man who takes his work very seriously, “Siggi” brings a humanity to the proceedings, making this film poignant and easy to relate to, even if the subject matter is not.
Along the way we meet many members of his seemingly tight-knit and supportive family, and they are as charming as he is, if not more so. This is a family so full of life, cracking jokes at each others defense, just enjoying their lives while gently ribbing “Siggi” for his chosen profession/obsession. There is mention, by many of those interviewed, that this museum is trying to lift the veil of taboo from male genitalia, and that “Siggi” is doing a good thing, even if deep down they know that most just think of this place as being something silly.
The focus of the film isn’t just “Siggi” and his museum, but also his lifelong obsession with getting a human specimen for display. We meet Pall Arason, a man in his 90s who was a bit of a Casanova, having stated he’s slept with 300 women over the course of his life. Pall has decided to donate his penis to the museum after he dies, so that it can live on forever. For him it isn’t really about ego, he just figures that it is of no use to him once he has died. Another charming and funny man (There must be something in the Icelandic water), Pall regales us with stories of his youthful, gallivanting days. Speaking openly about his conquests with humor and tongue planted firmly in cheek, Pall is easily likable.
The same cannot be said of the aforementioned Tom Mitchell. Tom also wants his penis in the museum, so much so that it becomes a sad obsession of his own. As an American, he wants to be the first of Homo Sapiens to do so. He’s a very proud and patriotic man, as evidenced by his stars and stripes tattoo he gets ON his penis, in front of the camera, mind you, so that every visitor that sees it knows an American was first. He draws comics of his penis, named Elmo, as a superhero, cape and everything.He contracts a carpenter to make a custom display for it, with lighting and mirrors so you can see it from each angle.
He can’t even wait until after he’s dead to do it, so he gets a medical consultation about having it removed, stating that after an injury it is of no use to him anyway. So obsessed is Tom, that “Siggi” stops communicating with him entirely out of frustration. Tom’s requests, no demands, infuriate “Siggi” who has his own way of doing things with HIS museum, and doesn’t need another telling him how to run things.
“Siggi” though really is the star of the show, so entertaining to watch as he speaks frankly and sincerely of Pall’s mortality, as well as his own. His health issues become a bigger issue as the documentary goes on, and we start to wonder if he will live to see the first human specimen enter its formaldehyde filled display jar.
As far as filming, cinematography, and editing go, it’s par for the course for this type of character piece. Not too groundbreaking, yet not boring either. There are none of the usual cliches of modern reality programming, no jump cuts, no hidden camera type scenes. It is as straightforward as can be, but with characters so lively and interesting in their own ways, anything else would distract from the point of the film.
Somewhere between odd curiosity, carnival freak show, poignant character study, and touching story of mortality, while definitely not a film for everyone, The Final Member was an interesting and sometimes very funny look into the lives of three men who share an unusual obsession.
The Final Member is on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download now, from Drafthouse Films.