If one were to run into Brian Fender’s Dick: The Documentary on a shelf, one would perhaps be inclined to dismiss it as something parodic. A slogan in the cover art claims it’s a film about “the most misunderstood member of our society”. It doesn’t take a degree in world history to know that men have simply always had it better than women; therefore, to call the penis “misunderstood” should be enough to send people clamoring for justice or to assume the film is of no value.
This is not the case, however. Instead, Dick is a thorough study of disassociation, and how throughout the ages men have been miseducated to believe their sexual organs are entities that should be dealt with different than, say, how they deal with their arms or eyes. Fender’s intention is then, to bring the dick down from this figurative shelf and to place it in the right context; it’s not that society has shunned men from talking about their members, it’s just that the conversations about them haven’t been that interesting to begin with.
In 2008, filmmaker Brian Fender posted an ad on Craigslist in which he invited people to participate in a documentary project. His subjects were to come into his apartment, take off their clothes against a red background and talk about their relationships with their penises. On the surface, the project sounds undeniably retrograde: Is it trying to mock The Vagina Monologues? Is it trying to point out how easy it is to find people willing to take their clothes off on Craigslist? Is it an ode to exhibitionism? Voyeurism, perhaps?
The truth is that the film goes beyond any of those. Once we’re past a first state of morbid curiosity, it becomes quite fascinating, and even moving. We see men, shot from the neck down, ranging from ages 21 to 80, from all walks of life. Spanning monks, graphic designers, soldiers, and transsexuals, the documentary shows each one in a very unique way. It seems that the gift of anonymity gave each of the subjects in the film the opportunity to be naked beyond the purely physical. As we hear their voices and watch them move, we detect how most of them grow comfortable in front of Fender’s lens. Some men touch their penises constantly. Others cross their arms, perhaps thinking that to touch it in the presence of a stranger can’t be anything but rude. Others talk with pride about their members. Some confess they wish it was different, but not a single one of them seems to be uninterested in their own penis.
Curiously, all the men featured in the film refer to their penis as something external to them, and this is perhaps where Fender’s documentary is most effective. One of the subjects tells a story of how he hooked up with a gorgeous woman in a social gathering, took her home, and then realized he’d had too much to drink and wouldn’t be able to perform. Instead of blaming himself for his own lack of self control when it came to drink he addresses his penis, “Why have you forsaken me, dick?” it’s a moment that lends itself to hilarity, but also shines a light on what can only be called the cult of the phallus. Why are all these men so in awe or afraid of something that, for better or for worse, is a part of them?
Fender might not have the answers to such questions, but in Dick he provides us with a wonderful conversation starter. It’s not necessarily that the penis has remained misunderstood by others, but rather that the very men who seem not to comprehend what to do with it. “My dick is 18, [but] I’m 35”, explains one of the subjects. The more the men talk about their penises, the clearer it becomes that Fender’s film has a purpose that goes beyond shock value or novelty.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Fender stays away from the confessional, perhaps letting us know that he too was perplexed by what he discovered and also failed to answer any of the questions that inspired him to even shoot this film to begin with. Fortunately enough, though, Dick is also a very entertaining piece of filmmaking. As Fender is able to almost anthropomorphize each disembodied member, he gives the inanimate penises life, as if they were part of an NC-17 rated Pixar movie. They all seem beautiful by the end—as imperfect, crooked, and strange as they may be.
Dick is presented in an almost bare bones DVD edition, with the only extra being a theatrical trailer and some unused footage.