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Review: ‘The Final Member’ documentary on display this weekend at Zeitgeist

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The Final Member

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“This all started as a joke with a bull’s penis in 1974…”

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And so begins the story of Sigurður Hjartarson and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the world’s largest collection of penises and penile parts, as seen in the delightfully off-kilter and absurdly hilarious new documentary, The Final Member.

Over forty years ago, when a friend gave Hjartarson the gift at a party, neither knew that it would be the start of something so interesting, yet so bizarre. From that initial specimen, Hjartarson – an academic man with a wealth of intriguing hobbies and interests – begins to build quite an impressive collection.

His patient wife explains, “More and more penises kept coming into the house. Then it just got out of control.” (Probably not something you ever expect to hear your wife or mom say). His daughter adds, “My dad has been collecting penises for as long as I can remember.” (I doubt she ever wanted him to come in for career day at school).

In 1997, with an ever-growing collection of penises, Hjartarson did the only logical thing – he opened a museum, likely the first of its kind. The Icelandic Phallological Museum houses hundreds of specimens, mostly from mammals, including: a blue whale (the largest), fox, mouse, bear, dolphin, and all the way down to the smallest, a hamster. But one prized piece has eluded Hjartarson and the museum for years . . . a human specimen.

How hard is to get your hands on a human penis these days? You would think there would be plenty of weird folks around the world willing to donate their “specimen” to the museum. Alas, Hjartarson knows his collection is incomplete without said specimen. And the pressure is on, as Hjartarson gets older, he worries he will not live to see the big day. Desperate, he even toys with the idea of making the donation himself when he passes away.

There are, of course, requirements for donation, including complete legality and size (a 5 inch minimum). Luckily, there are two other volunteers/candidates: Páll Arason, a 90+ year old Icelandic native famous locally as an adventurer and womanizer – and – Tom Mitchell, a American braggadocio with grand plans for his member, which he has affectionately dubbed Elmo and insists on referring to by name.

The Final Member is setup as a quest and evolves into a quasi-“Battle of the Bulge” as both men are eager to be the first (and only) one to donate. The film is chock full of ridiculous quotes (as shown earlier) and hilarious scenes, including the 90-year old Arason getting a plaster mold of his privates and Mitchell visiting a carpenter to have a display case made.

Hjartarson is an interesting, articulate, and sincere man, a fine interview subject who is, somewhat surprisingly, the most normal of the three men (despite the fact that he operates a penis museum). A former teacher, he has an array of overlooked and/or taboo interests that he strives to bring out into the public in an educational manner. He realizes what he does is a little weird and he is perfectly okay with it.

Arason is the most endearing. As he ages, the once proud lothario – who keeps a journal about and fondly reflects on the hundreds of woman he has slept with (prostitutes not included) – is bothered by the disheartening effects aging has had on his sex drive and member (i.e. he might not make the minimum size requirement anymore). Given his local notoriety and advanced age, he is the preferred contender and also the most likely candidate (but not if his competitor has anything to say about it). And he certainly seems game for it, as he declares early in the film, “I have no use for my penis once I’m dead.”

Mitchell is a much more peculiar and opinionated man, and therefore, the most amusing of all to watch. Delusional, he has an almost unbelievably large ego, which results in enormous pride for his package as he insists on being the first to donate – not only for self-satisfaction, but to show the world that America really is the biggest and the best. In other words, he is the prototypical American stereotype that other countries love to hate. He is off-putting, to say the least, the kind of guy you go out of your way to avoiding talking to at party.

But that does not prevent you from watching and laughing from afar. Throughout the film, he relentlessly pesters Hjartarson with an endless list of off-the-wall ideas. His engorged ego starts to get the better of him and his thoughts grow grander and more bizarre – like tattooing the stars and stripes on his penis (which I flat out refuse to refer to as Elmo), building a grandiose display case for it, creating a superhero comic based on his penis, and even considering having his genitals surgically removed while he is still alive.

At times, the film over-dramatizes (done so, hopefully, a bit tongue-and-cheek) the situation with melodramatic music and shots of them gazing thoughtfully out the window or across the sea. The situation is clearly not that dire and attempting to prop it as such can be a little distracting. The directors, Canadian filmmakers Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math, never directly comment on or poke fun of the proceedings, but rather choose to let the copious amounts of humor emerge naturally from the events, of which there are plenty.

The film is an appropriately brief 75 minutes, but the editing could be a little tighter as it occasionally drifts into unnecessary tangents or spends too much time overdramatizing, which ultimately makes things feel staged. But even with all that, The Final Member is absurdly funny and, by far, the most I have laughed at a documentary since King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007).

* * * * out of 5 stars

The Final Member opens Friday, April 24 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center playing nightly at 7:30 p.m.

So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.

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