When I first got to Miami – gosh, 21 years ago – and to Miami Beach, in fact and particular, it was all about Todd Stephens and Todd Stephens’ Edge of Seventeen. Because that heartfelt time capsule of a gay indie had come out in 1998, and it had legs, and I was running around that generation of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival that wanted to feature more of that…that lived-in idiosyncrasy. Edge of Seventeen had it all (cute boys and all), so when it came to helping to program the festival a few years later, that coming-of-age always came up as a baseline.
I missed it. Caught Get Real instead.
Good times, though.
Cut to 2021, and Stephens is back in the circuit, at these our most pandemical of times, with his Swan Song.
Well, not his swan song, but Udo Kier’s. Well, no…not his, either. Swan Song is the title of the writer-director’s latest, the capper of his Sandusky Trilogy. (Gyspy 83 is the middle entry.) And Swan Song is a great entry point into his oeuvre, for Kier is a kind of timeless, so he was pretty perfect for the part of Pat Pitsenbarger, a retired hairdresser of a flamboyant era gone by, who escapes the regulation-Velcro confines of his small-town nursing home as soon as he learns that a fabulous former client’s (Linda Evans) dying wish was for him to style her final ’do. Sure, she was a bitch in the end, but this might be his end, so he’ll do it. Or will he?
Pat is based on a real-life gay man from Stephens’ own growinguptimes in Sandusky, Ohio, and Kier’s naturalistic performance captures the essence of a man, of a style, of a power not much seen today, without the artifice of plot-by-smartphone or too much going on. Stephens was wise to go intimate-big on the dreamlike set pieces that allow for further insight into the man/friend/partner/queen Pat once was. This is an elegy on the road, taken by foot as Pat basically goes down a long and winding memory lane on his way to one final come-to-Jesus with his own past.
We free queer folk stand on the shoulders of giants, most of whom were ordinary peeps simply trying to survive, like Pat. They got the shit kicked out of them and quite too few thank yous.
Swan Song celebrates the Pats of the world by taking us out for one last dance, spinning us around with Kier & Co. (Jennifer Coolidge pops up a former mentee-turned-rival of Pat’s, while Michael Urie shows up to offer him a bit of contextual grace and acknowledgement), and ultimately ringing out the undeniable truth that in the end, it’s best to be right with oneself. Everything comes together when we reach the end, and something about Pat tells me peace comes from glimpsing at all that we have let go with joy and knowing we were good.
How awesome that Todd Stephens is still making movies, and that he got to say a thank you with this story. Pat did good, more than he probably knew, and it is worth noting, alright.