There are generally two types of theatrical documentary. One involves months, even years, of meticulous research, planning, interviews and fact-checking. The other type often feels like all the film-maker needed to do was turn up, start filming, and let the characters tell the story. The Final Member is firmly in the second camp, but is taken to another level by some beautiful photography, a wonderful soundtrack, and a tension-building finale to rival the best Hollywood thriller.
Siggi Hjartarson runs the world’s first and only Penis Museum, in Iceland. His collection started in the 1970s with a joke gift of a bull’s decapitated member from a friend (odd, but certainly more original than a ‘grow your own girlfriend’ kit and some chocolate boobs). Over the years his collection grew, and he now has thousands of specimens of mammalian penises. Just one thing is missing from his House of Glans though; a Homo sapiens penis.
Believe it or not, two men have chosen to volunteer their phallus to the museum. 93-year-old Pall Arason is Siggi’s preferred candidate; a famous Icelandic adventurer who claims to have slept with 300 women “not counting prostitutes”. Pall’s rival is 60-year-old Tom Mitchell of the USA, a man who introduces himself “I’m Tom Mitchell, and I’m an American”. Pall’s fame in Iceland would make him the ideal candidate, but his advancing years may potentially cause too much shrinkage, and Tom is prepared to go to great lengths, including offering to donate his penis while he is still alive, in an effort to beat off the competition from Pall and ensure his Yankee Doodle Dandy becomes “the most famous penis in the world”.
Siggi’s frustration with Tom’s overzealous communications and ideas for how best to display his penis lead to some of the film’s most wonderful moments. The absurdity of the situation finally dawns on Siggi when he receives word that Tom has commissioned his own display cabinet for Elmo. That’s right, Tom has named his penis Elmo, but don’t worry, it was “long before the Muppet appeared”. Siggi is furious at the eroding of his authority, and issues Tom with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer and heads off to translate a book by a Spanish monk into Icelandic.
The real star of the show is Pall Arason though. His brief appearances in the film are a wonderful portrayal of the type of eccentric character you fear the 21st century will no longer produce. In the absence of a documentary of Pall’s life, we’ll have to make do with archive footage of his appearance on a UK television show (unnamed, but it surely must either be The Word or Eurotrash), where a poor researcher is charged with making a plaster cast of Pall’s penis. The ensuing cock-up is comedy gold that left me laughing out loud in spite of myself. Sometimes the simplest things please the simplest minds.
In spite of my remarks in the opening paragraph, I know how much hard work went into making this documentary. To use a football analogy, the best kind of referee is one that you don’t notice during the match. In film terms, the greatest success of The Final Member is that you don’t notice the artifice of the film-maker encroaching into a compelling story.
The Final Member is destined to become a festival hit, and you can be one of the first to see it at the Glasgow Film Festival on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th February.
Tickets are available here.