The Final Member, a feature documentary by Canadian directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math, is the story of Sigurður ”Siggi” Hjartarson, curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, and his quest to complete his penis collection with a human specimen. Yup, we said “his penis collection.”
We’ll admit that with a logline like that, there was no way we were going to skip this film. Our curiosity was purely scientific, of course – seeing that the 150-plus specimens in Siggi’s collection are in no way sexy. Still, we had to ask the directors how they approached committing so much male junk to film.
“There was definitely a sensitivity for us, but not because we thought that anything we were doing was particularly taboo, and there is certainly nothing salacious or lascivious about this story,” says Bekhor. “But there are authentic graphic moments in the film that we needed to cover. Tonally, we never wanted to capture them in a way that was gratuitous, or deliberately smacked of shock value. These moments handled properly are some of the most sublimely comic, memorable moments in the film. Handled differently and they could have easily been scarring, and would have completely undermined the story we were trying to tell.”
Siggi’s quest takes the documentary from Icelandic folklore to Italian plastination labs, exploring the surprisingly difficult task of nailing down the perfect human penis. Eventually, though, one gets over the superficial, though genuine, pleasure of watching a great number of people talk very solemnly and sincerely about inherently silly things (though a recording of a botched, though straight-faced, attempt to make a mold of a penis is one of the most hilarious archival footage sequences in recent memory). The film is an unexpectedly suspenseful saga, populated with larger-than-life characters none of whom lack for originality of vision.
“It was the radio interview I heard while driving my car back in the summer of 2007 profiling Hjarterson,” says Math, when asked how he and Bekhor came into the project. “His story was both fascinating and funny in a very askew manner. Narratively speaking it possessed great tenets; the potential for a unique story was immediately evident. We were exploring the notion of manhood in the abstract as it relates to one’s legacy.”
Truly these men were begging to be documented: There’s 95-year-old Páll Aranson, celebrated Icelandic explorer and Casanova. A dapper, bow-tied, diminutive gentleman who looks like he stepped out of a Quentin Blake illustration for a (particularly ribald) Roald Dahl story, Aranson is given to discussing his colorful sexual history with a genial, grandfatherly mildness of tone (“I got crabs from the one in Rome”). His phallic rival is American Tom Mitchell, who immediately introduces a competitive strain of patriotism to the affair—not to mention a complicated psychological cocktail of romantic disappointment, a hunger for fame, and body dysmorphia. And of course there’s Siggi, the infectiously passionate curator, zoologist and amateur woodcarver, whose latter hobby has spawned a (rather covetable) set of penis-shaped paraphernalia—gavel, portable drinking set, utensils, salt and pepper shakers. Put characters like these together, and you have an instant story—stemming from, as Math puts it “these eccentrics’ extraordinary commitment to their goals.”
Despite its modest runtime, The Final Member probably features more onscreen penis than most other offerings at your local arthouse. And since male nudity is still such a rarity on the wider screens of America (relative, that is, to the female variety), we think this more than just a dubious accomplishment. So, inspired by Siggi, we’ve curated an exhibit of our own—a partial discussion of our favorite onscreen peen through the years, with Bekhor and Math serving as guest curators (they both picked the same film).
The $10 million Penthouse film about the decadent life of the Roman emperor Caligula showcases too many erect penises to reasonably count. Accompanied by dozens of vaginas, breasts, and a flurry of buttocks, by the end of the film penises become fairly commonplace. The truly remarkable thing about Caligula is that stars Malcolm MacDowell and Helen Mirren have enjoyed ostensibly successful, mainstream film careers, after participating in this literal penis orgy.
The Piano (1993)
When Jane Campion shows Harvey Keitel’s Baines in brief, matter-of-fact full frontal, it’s just one more sign that he is diametrically opposite to Sam Neill’s buttoned-up Alisdair—and by far the better lover for Ada (Holly Hunter). As with the Māori tattoo on his face, Baines’ casual nudity (a visibly healthy, open sexuality) ties him to New Zealand in the same way Alisdair’s repression ties him to England—or rather a figurative England, a world where any kind of sexual feeling is so absolutely outcast that his urges can only erupt, unhinged, in the wild, secret, indigenous forest.
Boogie Nights (1997)
If there is only one scene that everyone remembers from Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to 1970s pornography Boogie Nights, it’s the scene in which Dirk Diggler, played by Mark Wahlberg, finally shows off his generous endowment at the very end of the film.
Brown Bunny (2003)
Vincent Gallo’s controversial indie Brown Bunny crosses the line from mainstream sex scenes into outright pornography when leading lady Chloe Sevigny performs oral sex on Gallo in close range of the camera lens. Dazed audiences and artists debate the cultural significance of the scene, but in the meantime Sevigny says she might have to attend therapy sessions to really make sense of it.
Eastern Promises (2007)
In Cronenberg’s crime thriller Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen’s bare, flaccid penis is not the main attraction during the three-minute nude fight scene in a Russian bath house. Instead of an object of lust or prowess, his unprotected appendage is a symbol of his vulnerability, just like his blood-streaked back and naked body as he is stabbed, pummeled, and bruised by some particularly nasty criminal thugs.
Superbad (2007) – Filmmaker Pick
The montage of anthropomorphized, childhood, penis drawings in Superbad is pure genius. When we started making [The Final Member], I happened to stumble upon the book of David Goldberg’s drawings from Superbad. In his introduction, he details his creative pilgrimage to prepare to make these “penile masterpieces” for the movie. His final stop: the Icelandic Phallological Museum. This is how he described the experience: “In this place of uninhibited beauty, surrounded by over one hundred and fifty penises, harvested from forty-two different varieties of sea and land mammals (currently awaiting their first human penis), pen first touched paper. It was there where the penises of my mind became reality, and it is this reality I now present to you.” Clearly, Siggi’s museum is an inspiration to Canadians everywhere. –Jonah Bekhor
If Michael Fassbender wasn’t a star before, a certain few seconds of him walking from bedroom to kitchen in the beginning of Shame did the trick. (“Do you play golf like this, with your hands behind your back?” asked George Clooney at the Golden Globes a few months later.) Beyond the hype, though, Fassbender’s penis—and by extension the man himself, in all his bleakly devastating desirability—is the contradiction at the heart of Shame: the beauty turned ugly, an object of masculine pride turned into a symbol of wretched sickness. Brandon’s sizeable physical gifts make us complicit in his struggle, too, playing up our own inner voyeurism. After all, on some naggingly animal level, this is an actor we want to see have sex, fictional psychological illness aside. Does that place us in the same moral territory as Brandon himself, with his predilection for porn and webcams? MM
The Final Member debuted in New York on April 18, and Los Angeles on April 25, courtesy of Drafthouse Films.