In 1974, people began giving penises to Sigurdur Hjartarson. The first was from a bull, the rest were mostly from whales. This was the beginning of a lifetime of collecting, which in 1997 would lead to the foundation of the Icelandic Phallological Museum. His family was thrilled at the time, mostly because all of the specimens would finally be removed from their house. The preservation and display of animal members became his life’s work. Now, however, he’s getting old and he still hasn’t completed the collection. He needs one last specimen to tie the room together: Homo sapiens.
This, in brief, is the starting point for Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s new documentary, The Final Member. Playing in DOC NYC’s Midnight Section, it is the rare combination of humble and uproarious that so rarely succeeds without some degree of Nordic involvement. Its strength lies in the trust Bekhor and Math place in their subject, confident that the men at the center of the narrative are inherently charismatic enough to drive a narrative. Other documentaries often fail because they spend either too much or too little time developing character, which can alternately alienate or bore an audience. The Final Member is just right.
Hjartarson is the hero, of course, but there would be no film were it not for his two potential donors. Pall Arason, in his early nineties, is a living legend in Iceland thanks to the role he played in opening up the countryside to tourism and his more salacious representation as perhaps the most prolific womanizer since the Vikings. Bekhor and Math take a hilarious diversion into his background, replete with evidence of his conquests, both topographical and sexual. Now close to the end of his life, he has decided to make a donation to the Phallological Museum upon his death.
Yet he keeps not dying. He turns 93, then 94. Hjartarson is in his late sixties, and developing health problems of his own. The bleak thought of not completing his life’s work begins to affect his mood. Bekhor and Math do an excellent job of keeping the tone just right, emphasizing the museum founder’s concern without turning this into an entirely morbid affair. And so we share in his excitement when a new offer comes in, this time from an American. Tom is a multiple divorcé with an immense need to share his pride and joy with the world, an organ his first wife named “Elmo.” This is when things get a little dicey. Tom is apparently so interested in the fame of being the first human specimen in the museum, that he is seriously considering amputating Elmo well before his own departure from this earth.
These three character introductions are maybe a third of the film’s content, packed into a 75-minute running time. Bekhor and Math have made a briskly efficient film, one that trusts these three men to tell their own stories. The Final Member bounces between Iceland and the United States, diverting into Hjartarson’s other hobbies and Tom’s visits to the doctor without losing any of the story’s eccentric momentum. Tom gets a tattoo, Hjartarson writes a book, Arason’s donation faces some unforeseen complications. There is even a brief introduction to bawdy Icelandic folklore.
It’s the perfect documentary for a midnight screening, for more reason than just its late-night subject matter. It moves so swiftly, keeping the audience in a state of bemused disbelief almost without respite. The gimmick of the museum full of animal genitalia, after all, can only be funny for a brief period of time. The Final Member moves past it very quickly, off and running into its many-layered narrative of strange men and their passions. It has the relentless charm of a great cult film and should be seen that way.
This review was originally published during DOC NYC on November 17, 2013.