Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math's 70-minute documentary The Final Member probably began as a low-budget lark, a raunchy midnight movie about the efforts of the world's only institutional penis collection - the Icelandic Phallological Museum - to complete its menagerie with a single formaldehyde-preserved human appendage. But in the process, the movie evolved into something quite a bit better than one might anticipate from this capsule synopsis. Three men take center stage here: the museum's founder, Sigurdur "Siggi" Hjartarson, a nonagenarian Icelandic hero named Pall Arason, and a curious American named Tom Mitchell, from Santa Ynez, California. Ararson and Mitchell have each signed a paper turning over his member to the institution, each hoping to be the one selected for a penis donation. Mitchell, however, is practically ecstatic; he vows to do literally anything in his power to be chosen by Hjartarson. And here the movie turns mesmerizingly weird. The presence of Mitchell in the documentary probably seemed like a no-brainer to the directors; this guy raises eccentricity to a surrealistic level. What can you say about someone so preoccupied with his own phallus that he has given it a pet name ("Elmo"), emails strangers pictures of it dressed up in little costumes, dreams of turning it into a comic book hero with a cape and superpowers, and has it tattooed on-camera with stars and stripes? In one revolting sequence, he even plans to have "Elmo" surgically removed for the sake of displaying it in Siggi's museum, and starts concocting medical reasons to convince a bewildered urologist to perform a penectomy and re-direct his own urethra. This all may sound wildly funny. Yes, and no. At first, Mitchell's antics are hysterical, but less so as we become aware of how uncomfortable he is making Hjartarson. We eventually start to feel creeped out by him; then we begin to feel genuinely bad for Siggi, given his constant harassment by this flake; at one point, Siggi shows us perhaps two dozen emails, all sent by Mitchell within the span of an hour or two. Siggi tells us exasperatedly, "I've never met anyone like this guy... ever." In the process, a theme emerges from the juxtaposition of the Siggi and Tom narratives.The movie implicitly reminds us that there are obsessives and then there are
obsessives - and many viewers who have given their own healthy devotion (and time, and effort) to a worthwhile project will A. sympathize fully with Hjartarson and B. begin to resent and detest Mitchell. We can recognize Mitchell's type immediately: the off-base monomaniac and fame-seeker who attaches himself or herself to a creative endeavor at the last minute and will do anything - including repeat pathological deception - to gain a desperate and crude stab at immortality. Siggi's quest itself assumes a much different tone; if he at first comes across as an affable oddball given his fixation with mammalian phalluses, we soon begin to overlook the unusual target of his pursuit and start comprehending him on an intimate level, as a sweet person who genuinely loves his stock and trade and is driven by the completion of one simple task before he dies, one that will constitute his small, diverting contribution to the world. At least during the early stages, he sees in Ararson - a quiet but fascinating and accomplished man - the perfect solution to the museum's dilemma. And as Siggi ponders how much longer Ararson will have to live, themes of mortality versus immortality emerge onscreen - especially when Siggi himself develops minor health problems and reasons that the end of his own life may not be too far off. Scenes like this are as relatable, poignant, and moving as one might hope. The sequences involving Siggi and Pall are bolstered by another asset as well - an exceptional one for a nonfiction film. Cinematographer Sean Stiegemeier's compositions of the area in and around Reykjavik- both interior and exterior shots - easily qualify as some of the most visually breathtaking documentary sequences ever shot, rife with cool blues, greens, and whites that perfectly capture the look and feel of contemporary Iceland. There are traces of Errol Morris throughout this picture, especially Gates of Heaven, which - like this movie - begins with an apparently absurd and trivial scenario and then cuts to the bone to reveal more resonant currents of human behavior. Member is also reminiscent of a fine but little-seen documentary by tyro Caitlin Grogan, Life as Lincoln (2010), which similarly hands us an amusing topic - the lives of Middle American Abe Lincoln impersonators - and cross-sections its human subjects to look at the positive and negative motivations belying gimmicky lifestyles. Unfortunately, Bekhor and Math aren't as gifted at blending disparate tones as Morris or even Grogan, and that is where the documentary falls apart somewhat; the picture strikes an uncomfortable tonal balance between the Mitchell and Hjartarson-Ararson threads, and one can reason that the filmmakers might have been better off either directing a raunchy comedy documentary about a deranged subject who has fetishized his own penis, or an earnest and moving look at a curator's reach for a legacy that stretches beyond his own fleeting life. As paired here, these substories make uneasy bedfellows. But to be perfectly apparent, Mitchell's saga is suitably entertaining if taken on its own, and the Hjartarson-Ararson sequences aren't simply good but sublime; they echo something unexpectedly profound and universal.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern