Sigurdur Hjartarson's wife of 52 years is a patient woman, but she reached her limit.
"More and more penises kept coming into the house. Then it just got out of control," recalls Jona Sigurdardottir.
Her husband, a retired Icelandic headmaster nicknamed Siggi, collects preserved mammalian penises. He has been at it for four decades, amassing specimens from rats, pigs, horses, dolphins, reindeer and even an extinct cave bear. In 1997, he finally moved his formaldehyde jars and their coiled contents out of the house and into the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The small, tourist-attracting institution in Reykjavik is Hjartarson's bid to counter any taboos that remain around the male organ.
Hjartarson is the subject of a documentary, The Final Member, by Toronto-born filmmakers Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor. The film, screening at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this Thursday before its premiere on Netflix in March, follows Hjartarson's obsessive quest to secure the most coveted specimen for his collection: a human penis.
What kind of man wants his member publicly enshrined alongside that of a walrus? Two curious and competitive potential donors come forward, as the film delves into man's relationship with his buddy and traces social anxieties about size, masculinity and leaving something behind, quite literally.
"It all deals with legacy and men's relationship with their sexual organ that has become mysticized," Math said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "What do we leave behind? These guys feel it's very much entrenched in this organ. They're putting their flag on top of the mountain."
The first would-be donor is Pall Arason, a 95-year-old Icelandic explorer who hopes to immortalize his womanizing tendencies. "I have no use for my penis once I'm dead," is his thinking. Arason meets his competition in Tom Mitchell, a Californian who has christened his shaft Elmo and, in a swell of patriotism, tattooed it with the American flag. "I've always thought it would be really cool for my penis to be the world's first true penis celebrity," Mitchell says, straight-faced.
Several logistical problems emerge in obtaining a human sample, not least of them strict organ donation policies. How would the family of the deceased feel about such a posthumous donation? Sure, a kidney to a living patient or a brain to science, but a penis to Iceland? Few families want their patriarch buried sans schlong, the filmmaker explains: "It's thought of as being disrespectful."
Beyond logistics, there is also pride, and here the documentary uncovers a warren of male insecurity. Whereas men are obsessed about penis proportions, Math contends that women are "relatively indifferent" about size: "It's not an overriding female want or need." The Icelandic donor threatens to back out as shrinkage takes hold in his old age; the Californian insists on having his penis mounted erect and freaks out about the specs, right down to pricey Italian plastination techniques and a custom-built display case.
Math admits that he cracked up about the museum's "smallest item," a two-millimetre weenie belonging to the hamster, and that it took him seven takes to get the shot. "Maybe that ties in with this societal notion of size – large being masculine and small being funny in a way." Contrast the hamster's penile bone with the largest specimen in the museum, a cannon-sized phallus from the sperm whale (which apparently also boasts 972-kilogram testicles) and you might find yourself tittering, too.
Ultimately it is Hjartarson who emerges with the healthiest attitude about male sexuality. Bawdy but not lecherous, the curator and his friends wear bow ties crafted out of whale penis, like rings in a secret society. The director sees his protagonist as a social scientist. "He's a witness to people coming into his museum giggling," Math says. "For him, the central question was, why is something that's so intrinsic to human life such a taboo?"
Would a woman ever make this film? Probably not, Math says: "There's just a different societal relationship." Even so, he observed that women wandering around the Icelandic phallic temple seemed to be more at ease, approaching it simply as a natural history museum.
As for the film, he adds: "I've heard feedback that, oddly, it's kind of an interesting date movie."
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