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Through the Lens: "Swan Song"

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

“Swan Song,” a film written, produced and directed by Todd Stephens, centers on Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier), a retired gay hairdresser who was once small-town-famous in Sandusky, Ohio, but now resides in a lonely retirement home. The former beautician and drag performer lives an isolated existence where he swipes napkins from the facility to obsessively refold and sneakily smokes his forbidden “More” cigarettes. 

During a surprise visit from an attorney, Pat is informed that a former client with whom he had a falling out died. In her will, the client requested that Pat do her hair for her funeral. Pat turns the offer down and tells the attorney, “bury her with bad hair,” leading the audience to realize just how sour things must have gone between the two.

After some introspection about the grim reality of life at the retirement home, Pat decides to escape with only a few dollars to his name and the ornate rings gifted to him by his late partner, David. 

The rest of the film is a walking journey through different areas of the community and landmarks of his past. Pat grapples with grief and the ever-changing world around him but it is also apparent how much joy Pat brought to the community. 

For example, Pat encounters a shop owner who visited his salon once when she was young, and she tells him that she “never felt prettier” after “the Liberace of Sandusky” gave her a new, daring hairstyle. Through this, in addition to him helping a young drag queen with her wig, it becomes obvious how much comfort and reassurance he gives through his craft. 

His antics are comical, but Stephens ensures we never make Pat the butt of the joke. Though humor is embedded into the film’s tone, it always takes Pat seriously. He cannot and will not be belittled. “Swan Song” hits its most touching notes with its characterization of Pat. Rarely do films show such a tender and funny portrait of aging and defiance.

Stephens’s film is an ode to those queer seniors -- the ones who were flamboyant, visible and never apologetic. 

This is especially true of the real man from Stephens’s childhood that inspired Kier’s character. 

In an interview with NPR, Stephens said, “I really wanted to pay tribute to [Pat Pitsenbarger] and all the small-town florists and interior decorators and out, loud and proud folks in the '70s and '80s that had the courage to be themselves, who I really feel blazed the way.” 

“Swan Song” highlights the generational gap within the queer community, but it never lets this fracture the sense of family that distinctively queer spaces have fostered and continue to foster. 

In a joyous, reinvigorating dance scene to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” at the closing night of the gay bar he helped found, Pat exclaims how he forgot how much he missed “our people.”  

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But in all its celebration of community, it never forgets to remember how different the world looks for queer people now. People like Pat had to help create safe spaces where they could exist authentically, which can feel worlds apart with the fact that gay people can now “hold hands at Applebee’s,” as remarked by his friend, Eunice (Ira Hawkins).

Stephens’s film shows the sadness in the cruelty of aging in an ageist society, while also mourning the tragedy of those who were never given the chance to age. Pat’s grappling with grief from the death of his partner and his friend highlights the real and devastating loss of life during the AIDS epidemic. “Swan Song” remembers and mourns that lost generation of artists, creatives, friends and lovers. 

To be a gay elder in 2021 means you were undoubtedly impacted by the overwhelming loss in the LGBTQ+ community during the 80s and 90s. People like Pat saw their friends and loved ones fade before their eyes and were often disenfranchised or stigmatized during their grieving process. 

Stephens’s film holds space for this grief, but it also holds space for joy and rediscovery. It’s a film about queerness, aging, and grudges. “Swan Song,” a meditation on the fear of being forgotten, is sure to leave an indelible mark on its viewers.

“Swan Song” is available for purchase on YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video. 

Contact columnist Shannon McCammon at shannon.mccammon@richmond.edu.

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