"You realize almost everything you say is sort of an inadvertent penis pun," Jonah Bekhor told BuzzFeed, demurring on his increased penis pun expertise since signing on to co-direct the phallocentric documentary The Final Member in 2007. And indeed, he said a few suggestive things ("penetrating," "hard," and "seminal"), but the puns are only part of the story.
The Final Member, out April 18 and directed by Bekhor and Zach Math, centers mainly on Sigurður "Siggi" Hjartarson, the founder and then-curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses a huge collection of mammalian penises.
Hjartarson, a scholar and an obsessive collector, is trying to complete his collection with an elusive human specimen. Pall Arason, an aging Icelandic adventurer and known womanizer, has agreed to donate his penis after he dies; Tom Mitchell, a well-endowed American who calls his penis "Elmo," wants to remove his penis and donate it before he dies. The resulting race (in which the elderly Arason is none too invested) brings out crises of masculinity, questions of bodily autonomy, and the obsessive but strangely accessible dreams of the men in question: Mitchell is worried that his penis won't be displayed correctly; Arason and the men around him worry that he's shrunk with age. It is ultimately touching to watch these insecurities play out on screen.
"This is a film that could only end through death or dismemberment," Bekhor said, explaining the documentary's odd but high stakes.
Bekhor and Math began working on the film in 2007 with an exploratory trip to Iceland to meet Hjartarson within three weeks of hearing him in a radio interview. From the peculiar curator, they learned about the dueling donors, Arason and Mitchell. Bekhor was drawn in by the "very comic, very curious idea of a penis museum," but he stayed for Hjartarson's "40-year obsessive odyssey," and for the attendant alienation, competition, fear, and reckoning with mortality. "What the allure was for me was, thematically, things are going on that are so essential — this question of legacy, the question of taboo, the idea of what we leave behind: mortality," Bekhor explained. Somehow, he and Math made a movie that includes both an image of a penis dressed in a small wizard costume and a persistent sense of life's ephemerality.
Together, the directors flew back and forth from the museum in Iceland to Mitchell in California. Bekhor recalled getting caught in an Icelandic whiteout with "no sense of space" driving with Hjartarson to finally pick up the human specimen. At the end of the film, the long-coveted penis in a jar looks somewhat strange and gray, "like a little centaur," Bekhor said.
Both Hjartarson and Mitchell have expressed some dissatisfaction with the documentary. The former told The Daily Beast that "they never told me that they would put this film up as a 'race' between Tom Mitchell and Mr. Arason," while Mitchell has taken to Twitter to criticize the documentary. His Twitter avatar is a photograph of the head of his penis — hence, the tweet is not embedded — but on Nov. 1, he wrote, "They made me come across as an idiot. Sorry, that's not the case. At least, I don't think I am." He may have come around, though, because a tweet from April 17 with a very graphic photograph of his penis positioned on bread read, "The movie about the penis museum opens in theaters around the country later this week and...big Elmo is in it!"
Bekhor agreed that the film went against Hjartarson's scholarly ethos, but maintains that he and Math were honest with the subjects about the documentary's content. "It's important for me to do right by people, philosophically," Bekhor said. As for Mitchell specifically, "He's an admitted exhibitionist," Bekhor said, noting he feels he's helped Mitchell "realize a dream" of penile fame.
"Pall made his grand declaration that he wanted his penis to live on forever," Bekhor said, and Mitchell, in the film, says he wants his member to be a "penis celebrity." And while The Final Member does serve to make Mitchell and Arason's penises famous, it also manages to make the men attached to them seem human.