"I have no use for my penis after I'm dead."
As I walked into the screening of Jonah Bekhor and Zack Math's The Final Member, I expected a two-hour-long fluff documentary about a kooky man who collects phallic-shaped objects. What I got instead was a thought-provoking and oddly gripping character study about mortality, masculinity, and ego. The documentary covers Siggi Hjartarson, founder of the one and only Icelandic Phallological Museum, on his 40-year quest to find a human penis to complete his collection of mammalian members.
At the forefront of the race to donate his penis to the museum is Pall Arason, a national hero and adventurer of sorts, who kept a long diary of his 300-odd conquests during his life. Thought to be a womanizer, Arason is a charming 95-year-old man who doesn't grapple much with what it means to leave his "manhood" around after he is gone. Signing a postmortem donation form, Arason comments matter-of-factly, "I have no use for my penis after I'm dead."
Arason is joined in the race by the most curious figure of them all, Tom Mitchell, a Californian physician who quickly reveals his megalomania within minutes on screen. Dubbing his penis "Elmo", not after the cloying Sesame Street fixture but an old nickname from his first wife, Mitchell appears to be an idiosyncratic, if not deeply troubled individual. Mitchell claims that he wants Elmo to be "the world's first true penis celebrity." Hjartarson is at first highly interested in Mitchell's potential donation — he sends a plastic mold of his erect penis that is inches longer than Arason's. Mitchell seems like the perfect donor.
But soon Mitchell announces that he wants to surgically remove Elmo (which, by the way, he has tattooed red, white, and blue) in order to donate his penis while he is still alive. Yes, you read that correctly. Mitchell lets the dream of penis celebrity overcome him: building a glass case for Elmo, inquiring with sex reassignment surgeons, and barraging Hjartarson with tons of emails. Hjartarson finally realizes, "This guy is kind of weird."
In fact, the film isn't about which penis lands in the museum (no spoilers, here), it's really a study about what kind of man wants to donate his penis to the annals of history. The Final Member seems to say that while Hjartarson's quest to complete his museum is fueled by a natural cataloguer's drive, the urge to have one's penis live on is, after all, kind of weird. Arason and Mitchell both contend against their own egos, Arason's to commemorate his lifetime womanizing and Mitchell to glamorize his image. Both are seeking recognition and affirmations of their masculinity through the one body part culture tells men they need to proudly display: their dicks.
While watching, I tried to picture a similar group of women battling it out to hang their labia on a commemorative plaque. I couldn't. I've never felt that my identity or ego was very wrapped up in my genitals, but here were three men, disputing and pondering what it would mean for their penis to be known, measured, and in its own way, immortal. Even Hjartarson, a practical and scientific man, becomes preoccupied with obtaining a donation that meets the historic "legal length" of five inches, an arbitrary measurement he borrows from folklore.
As Pall Arason progressively ages through the documentary, and his penis shrinks accordingly, he loses the penis confidence he once had. Mitchell (who regularly dresses his penis in different costumes) struggles with questions of what it would mean if he died without his penis ever being known or appreciated; Arason ultimately questions what it would mean to be too public, too naked.
The Final Member is not just about wang jokes and novelty penis cutlery — though, there's that too — it's a story about why humans bother leaving behind anything at all. At the heart of the film is Hjartarson, a naturalist who hobbies around writing history books about wolves and Iceland, dedicated to having a legacy that overturns taboos about penises and our overall sense of bodily privacy. Making history has always been a peculiar and specific human fascination and, as the film suggests, the stakes only get higher and all too personal when it's the male ego being preserved.
The Final Member is in limited theaters April 18th.