Friday, April 18, 2014

A Proper Human Specimen: The Final Member

The Final Member, a documentary directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zack Math (opening today in select locations around the U.S.), is a portrait of three men with intense, and wildly different, relationships to the penis. Siggi Hjartarson is the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum which, he says, “started as a joke, with a bull’s penis given to me by a teacher in 1974.” But, after nearly forty years of collecting, it’s anything but a joke to him. It’s his life’s work, and the world’s largest collection of mammalian penises, lacking only one specimen to be considered complete: that of "a proper human." Ten minutes into the film--but twenty-five years into the history of his collection--two contenders come to the fore. One is a famous Icelandic explorer. The other, a strange, lonely man in California.
Pall Arason, the explorer, is very much attached to his image of himself as a trailblazer and an adventurer. “I’ve been the first in so many ways,” he says of his desire to have his penis be the first human specimen in the museum. “Womanizing” (the word he and several other men in the film use to describe his sexual history) is part of that image he has of himself, and of the men he is descended from. He claims to have slept with over three hundred women, “not counting prostitutes and such,” and shows off the book where he has documented all of their names. Siggi is shown sitting around with some of his friends debating how many women Arason has actually been with. They can’t agree on an exact number, but do agree that he’s certainly the most legendary womanizer in all of Iceland. Considering that the entire country only has a population of 300,000, that means a considerable percentage of the women there would have already seen his penis, even before its possible display in the museum.
But Arason has competition. Tom Mitchell, the lonely Californian, is also determined to be the first to have his penis displayed in the Phallological Museum, and his desire is so great that he considers donating it before his death. His relationship with his penis, which he calls “Elmo,” is complex, to say the least. He says, “I’ve always had a dream of not only Elmo being placed on display in a public place, but, as a result, possibly some fame and fortune. Not for myself, but for Elmo.” The journey that Mitchell goes on to complete this goal is one of the more winding ones that the film depicts, with many twists and turns, so I won’t spoil it any further.

For Siggi, it is not his own particular penis that is the issue. He has a scientist’s dislike for taboo surrounding the human body, and having a museum dedicated to the penis “helps in decreasing taboos about this organ.” A friend and fellow academic, Terry Gunnel, Ph.D., explains that, “Anything that Siggi comes across that mustn’t be talked about, as far as he’s concerned, it must be talked about straight away.” But there is also something of the scholar’s need to find a new area of study--or even the explorer’s need to find dark areas of the map--in his work. At one point he comes out and says, “I try to provoke people, to make them look at things differently. You want to explore things that other people don’t.” Having the human specimen will complete the museum, and thus his life’s work. Even after a full academic life, writing or translating twenty-two books, he feels he will be a failure if he doesn’t leave behind the complete collection. Is it, in the end, a monument to himself, to his own greatness, and thus a substitute penis?
It is to the film’s great credit that none of this is necessarily played for laughs. Even when it is funny, there is no hint of disrespect towards the subjects. The desire that Siggi has to complete his collection for the edification of the world; that Arason has to continue breaking new ground as an explorer even after his death; that Mitchell has to have his penis “be the world’s first true penis celebrity,” are treated as serious motivations befitting serious people. It is up to the audience to choose which horse they wish to see win the race, or whether the completion of the collection is a worthwhile goal at all. This viewer, for one, started out with my head in my hands over the absurdity of it all, and ended up in a state of rapturous attention, hoping against hope that Siggi, at least, got what he had wished for all those years. The Final Member is rewarding viewing for those who wish to see penises discussed for the length of a feature film, and, in the spirit of Siggi’s taboo-smashing, essential viewing for those who don’t.

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