- September 16, 2021
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Sandusky, Ohio: city population 24,829, metro population 77,000. Over 20 percent of residents live below the national poverty level; crime rates are, per capita, among the highest in the country. While nabbing the vote for “Best Coastal Small Town in America,” the Lake Erie city, like many struggling Rust Belt communities, is hardly what comes to mind when one thinks of LGBTQ representation and progress.
And yet, perhaps it should be?
Todd Stephens’s new dramedy Swan Song suggests as much, through a story as splashy and over-the-top as its Sandusky hero’s many costumes. In its first scene, set to a disco beat with rhythmic strobes, an elderly man (Udo Kier) parts velveteen curtains and steps onto an empty stage. “Good eve-a-ning,” he declares to the cheers of an invisible crowd, decked out in a white fur coat, pink paisley top, and dark fedora. “I’m Mr. Pat. And I’m … back.” As he flashes two knuckles of topaz, sapphire, and amethyst, the audience roars. His black-lined eyes glitter in the spotlight.
A sequin-strewn homage to Stephens’s hometown, and the final installment of the director’s Ohio trilogy, Swan Song chronicles the three-day quest of septuagenarian Pat Pitsenbarger, an unlikely, and ergo very necessary, queer movie hero. A retired hairstylist who, at the beginning of the film, devotes most of his time to compulsively folding the table napkins distributed in his nursing home cafeteria, Pat is recovering from a stroke, sneaking drags of his skinny 120s whenever he has the chance. When a lawyer suddenly turns up with news that local socialite Rita Parker-Sloan (Linda Evans) has died, a most unusual opportunity arises: per his former client’s will, Pat is asked to arrange her hair and makeup for the funeral. “Perhaps you could recreate the same hairstyle?” the attorney asks, gesturing to a headshot from a year earlier. “Split ends and all?” is the snappy retort.
Pat’s initial refusal to take the job is one of several clues that his outwardly diva affect conceals a frizzy past, and among the movie’s achievements is its gradual reveal of how his friendship with Rita fell apart — for reasons much more fraught, and historically relevant, than an uneven bob or droopy perm. In a recent interview with NPR, Stephens explained how the character was based on a Sandusky resident he’d grown up with in the 1970s. “The real Mr. Pat was this really flamboyant, loud and proud man that I would see even as a little boy walking around downtown …. I didn’t know that I was queer at the time, but he resonated with me, and I had a fascination with Pat … he was kind of genderfluid, long before that was a term.”
As Pat, Kier elevates every frame of a film that can at times veer toward schmaltzy (think filmmaker Alexander Payne meets The Full Monty at a Pride fest). Born into rubble in Cologne during World War II (a photo in the film makes visual reference to the bombed-out hospital, merging Pat’s backstory with the veteran actor), the queer arthouse legend has long been heralded as a character actor, known for recurring roles in the films of Dario Argento, Gus van Sant, and Lars Von Trier (along with a hilarious cameo in a Madonna video). In Swan Song, Kier’s German accent and lacerating blue eyes complement Pat’s laconic delivery and dramatic sartorial flourishes. “Bury her with bad hair,” he simmers at Rita’s attorney, sinking into a state-issued Lazy-Boy. “I’m going shopping,” he tells a jacked farm boy who gives him directions into town after his rest home jailbreak. Pat’s hunt for Vivante and other discontinued brands makes for easy laughs, but also honors, often tenderly, the pain of outliving one’s own heyday, of realizing what one once cherished is now very obsolete.
On one level, Swan Song is about an artist’s ability to leave an impact; that a hairdresser is an artist is never under dispute, and part of the sensory delight onscreen is witnessing how scrappily Pat pulls off certain styling feats (cigarette ash and Crown Royale whipped into makeshift pomade?). On another level, the film is about the trials of aging and, with it, the failing body — especially a body once valorized as beautiful and glamorous. As a once-fab fixture in his small town’s scene, Pat struts his Velcro orthopedics miles at a time. As chemo-ravaged Rita, Evans is expertly cast as a WASP-y perfectionist whose uncompromising taste (and superiority complex) anchors a longstanding bond with her hairstylist, despite vast gulfs in social and political standing.
Swan Song is also, and quite grippingly, an AIDS movie — one that reveals the ongoing suffering at the loss of those who were killed by the virus in a pre-PrEP, deeply homophobic world. That Pat’s glory days as a high society stylist overlapped with the AIDS pandemic serves to expose the hypocrisy of so many in power at the time, of which Rita serves as small-town metonym.
At times, Stephens’s portrait of the town’s inhabitants leans a bit Edgar Lee Masterson in its adherence to reductive, or sentimental, archetypes (especially in predictably sassy Black female characters; the queer Black male and nonbinary characters feel more developed). More than one of Pat’s exchanges with Sandusky folks ring a bit too uplifting, as though, in avoiding negative stereotypes about small-town rubes, the script strayed too far in the other direction. But overall, the earnest, and quite diverse, array of characters Pat meets across town suggests changing attitudes toward the LGBTQ community that are easy to overlook in a country ever more divided into red and blue states. Throughout the film, American flags flap or hang in the back of the frame, less as a patriotic gesture than as a reflection of a lost — or never accessible — dream.
But at times, some dreams seem very alive — from gay dads playing catch with their kids to the pan-generational joy of the Sandusky queers getting down to Robyn on the closing night of the only gay bar in town. “I’ve missed this!” Pat shares on the dance floor to Miss Velma, a young Black drag queen, whose wig he hurriedly style prior to her performance. “Dancing?” she asks. “My people!” he cries.
As sociologist Claire Forstie pointed out in 2020, “very little attention has been paid to where most urban LGBTQ people live: small cities.” Perhaps more than anything, Swan Song is a celebration of willful, collective flamboyance that flourishes within such places — as a form of resistance against staid gender norms and a means of flouting mortality itself. Positing the right to glamour as itself soul-saving and substantive, the film pays tribute to anyone who has ever risen from the ashes of despair and celebrated their survival as spectacularly as possible.
Whether in the form of fingers bedazzled in cubic zirconia or More cigarettes hoarded by the carton, Pat’s decadence is ultimately more dignifying than comedic. “Every one of these rings tells a story,” he shares with the colorful figures he encounters along his odyssey. “I just don’t remember them anymore.” In the end, death will take us all, Swan Song seems to say. But with enough forgiveness, leisure suits, and festooned fedoras, perhaps passing from one life into the next can be less a lonely farewell than a grand curtain call.
Swan Song is currently in theaters and available to stream.
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Eileen G’Sell is a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. More by Eileen G’Sell
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