Being gay is one of the biggest gifts life has granted me, and the fact I’m able to sit here and say that shows just how far we’ve come as a society to where I, and so many other people, can not only feel comfortable in who we are, but actively celebrate it. However, with this newfound understanding of queerness comes a level of normalcy and assimilation that becomes a double-edged sword in some respects. Traditionally queer meeting spaces made to escape the harsh reality of the outside world are becoming more and more scarce as fewer queer people feel the need to hide themselves in a bar or an LGBTQA+ center just to feel a base level of respect. This can feel liberating as a whole, as the fight that those who have come before us is finally bearing fruit, but in this fight, perhaps we have lost the identity of who we are as a very specific group of people with a very storied history that’s worth carrying on. Swan Song is a film that seeks to discover what remains of queer culture in a place where little queer culture ever existed before. It’s both a look at where queer cinema came from, and what it’s becoming, and it’s a lovingly crafted tribute to a bygone era, even in its stumbles.
Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) is an aging gay man and a former hairstylist living in Sandusky, Ohio, confined to a nursing home after a stroke. Having been kept away from the outside world for many years, Pat receives word that a former client of his (Linda Evans) has died and requested he do her hair and makeup for her funeral, offering $25,000 for services rendered. Breaking free from his facility, Pat finds himself needing to get across town to do the job asked of him, and soon finds a host of eclectic characters in a world he hardly recognizes anymore.
Simply put, Kier is a revelation in Swan Song. Known primarily in recent years for villainous roles in campy thrillers, Kier gets to be both intensely tragic and blithely effervescent, creating a truly fascinating and sympathetic performance at the center. True to its roots, the film is still campy, as many queer films of the past have been, but with the message of using your past to help you guide you through an uncertain future, it retains both the devastation and levity that the queer experience of generations prior had to embody, sometimes simultaneously.
Swan Song almost has a Napoleon Dynamite energy in how it portrays mundane absurdism within suburban America, made clear from the very first to very last frame of the film. This doesn’t mean that every moment of humor sticks the way it intends to, though. For every two moments that Swan Song makes salient points about the importance of queer spaces, there is a moment of drollness that doesn’t always hit perfectly. There is a disconnect with a fair amount of the humor in the film that doesn’t find itself organic nor absurd enough to really fit in within the rest of the film. It’s unfortunate at some points, but there’s also an enigmatic energy that Kier serves in his mannerisms that almost make it work. It’s difficult to explain in anything other than vague terms, but it’s almost charming in its misses sometimes. It’s a hard film to dislike, even in moments that don’t work.
There is a tendency in us “new gays” (I’ve been out for almost 11 years, but I still have a lot to learn) to forget that not only was life difficult for us due to discrimination, but it was also often a death sentence with the world opting to turn a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that eviscerated so much of our community. While Swan Song doesn’t explicitly discuss these topics firsthand, there’s a distillation between older gays and younger gays that, while admittedly exaggerated for effect, does ring true in the younger generation often being suppressed of the history of our people that is so pertinent to know as young queer people.
I believe every queer child has that one out person that we look at while suppressing out true selves and think “I’m going to be that someday,” and Swan Song is a film about a world where we have forgotten about those people, and how important they once were to all of us. It’s easy for outside viewers to see Swan Song as a campy, strange, indie comedy that treads on familiar ground at many points, and while I can’t deny that on a semi-objective level, there’s a lovingness that comes in Todd Stephen’s screenplay and direction, as well as Kier’s absolutely charming, and often heartbreaking lead performance. It’s a film that, despite being particularly rough around the edges, has a heart made of gold and a story to tell, damnit.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 18th, 2021.
Final score: 3 out of 5.