Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) is a former barber and current resident of a Sandusky, Ohio nursing home who spends his Social Security checks on illicit cigarettes and his days folding up precisely the towels he steals from the room to eat. It’s a dreary existence, but it’s hers, and when a lawyer pulls up on behalf of the estate of Rita Parker-Sloan, a local socialite who was once Pat’s most important client, with an offer of $ 25,000 for one last posthumous refreshment, Pat says no. Specifically, he hisses that they should “bury him with bad hair”, while slowly lying down in his chair. Pat hasn’t had the power to flex in a long time, and he’s making the most of the opportunity. Later that night, feeling sentimental and lonely, he changes his mind, and the next morning he wraps up the little money he has, and the set of rings he wore on each finger, and puts on in scene a totally useless escape. As another resident points out, as Pat prepares to cross town, the door to leave is not locked.
Swan song was written and directed by Todd Stephens, whose previous films include Another gay movie and Another gay sequel: gays gone mad! – credits that, alongside Kier’s prospect of a flamboyant senior leading the way through a quiet Midwestern town, portends something larger and dumber than the movie that actually unfolds. Swan song is an extremely tender love letter to someone who has survived so many slings and arrows that came with being an openly gay man in a small, conservative region. Having reached old age, where he endures indignities like velcro sneakers, Pat finds himself without the disapproval he used to endure but also without the community he adored so much and which was formed in spite of herself. . Pat’s picaresque journey through Sandusky is not the result of a plot – as soon as he leaves the nursing home, he meets a handsome young man, into whose arms he strives to briefly fall, and sits down. sees offer a tour for the funeral home which he refuses. Pat needs to pick up supplies and make a shopping list that he uses as an excuse to return to all of his old haunts, like the ghost of so many drag nights.
Everyone responds with kindness, or at least calmly, to Pat’s somewhat irrelevant outrage. A woman with “Jesus Is My Copilot” on her air freshener listens to her confused life story as she takes her to the cemetery and shakes her hand before heading for her path. A couple who moved into the land Pat once shared with her partner, David, who died of AIDS, donate the only remaining artifact from the old house, which was demolished. A woman who once came to her store to have her hair dyed blonde dresses Pat in clothes from her store. Swan song isn’t flawless – the start is chaotic, and it’s worth considering that all of the black characters in the film have the exact same sassy flavor. But he eschews sentimentality in favor of unapologetic bittersweetness. Only now, after everyone Pat loved is gone and he lost his business to homophobia and his home to the laws that have since been changed, everyone in town is ready to say hello to Pat as a legend. It turns out that Pat loved Rita too, despite being a tough and demanding Republican socialite – after all, Pat is a tough and demanding socialite himself. How the painful arc of their relationship is revealed through encounters with Rita’s nephew Dustin (Michael Urie) and Pat’s former assistant Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) is beautifully done.
It’s the formidable performance of 76-year-old Kier that is at the center of the film (the character was inspired by a real Pat Pitsenbarger that Stephens knew when he was growing up in Sandusky). It is Kier who makes incidental the unresolved question of how this German ended up in Sandusky in the first place. A young beauty who appeared in Frankenstein by Andy Warhol and worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Dario Argento, went on to establish a career for himself as a professional eccentric in American films, to the point where it may have eclipsed the occasional awareness of his identity as queer artist. But in Swan song, he connects the two with enlightening precision, playing the oversized character of Pat as a continuous performance, serving as armor and challenge to anyone he meets. Kier also shows how Pat is no longer used to it, letting his vulnerabilities and his stomach show, only to find that no one around is inclined to attack. Pat doesn’t need to fight anymore, although that fight was what led him and his friends to build the little gay bar in town, which Pat used to perform in and which is about to close. It was born out of a need for a safe place, and Swan song manages to mourn the loss while acknowledging the progress that made it possible – ultimately serving as an elegy not only for one character, but for the community of which he was a part.