The final performance/work of an artist is what we call ‘a swan song’. Based on a real-life person named Pat Pitsenbarger, writer-director Todd Stephens takes us onto a journey with an old gay man who must come to terms with his own mortality and the stranger world that he is living in when he is called in to style his former client’s hair for her funeral.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
‘Swan Song’ Plot Summary
The film begins in an empty theatre with a lit stage. A gay man dressed flamboyantly steps out and introduces himself with pride and sass, as though he is performing for us. This is Pat Pitsenbarger. An alarm rings and Pat wakes up to his sad reality. He’s living in a nursing home, surrounded by aging women and gay men. Pat hides cigarettes and sneakily smokes along with a quadriplegic friend of his. He folds paper napkins to perfection. In short, Pat does everything with a flair. He’s a retired stylist who used to serve the crème-de-la-crème of Sandusky in his glory days.
Things take a turn when a lawyer visits him. Pat’s former client, Rita Parker Sloan, has passed away and has willed Pat to do her hair one last time for her funeral. Unfortunately, Pat and Rita had a falling out years ago whose wounds still remain fresh for Pat. He refuses despite the generous $25,000 offer. However, the very next scene has him unable to sleep. The death of his former client has made evident the mortality that looms in the nursing home.
After some contemplation, Pat escapes the facility and begins a journey of self-reflection, encountering old friends and foes along the way as well as coming to terms with his nearing mortality.
Mortality Always Comes With Change
Pat is a vivid character. He’s a unique, well-fleshed-out character who you’re going to love immediately. Several layers to him slowly unfurl throughout this film, and the filmmaker has done a fabulous job at it.
However, what’s indeed striking about this film is its handling of mortality and change. Pat is a yesteryear gay man, a time when the LGBTQ+ conversation wasn’t as vocal or accepted. That probably explains why he comes off as a stereotypical gay hairdresser at the beginning of the film. However, there’s a lot more to him than just that sass. He has pride, having once been the ‘Liberace of Sandusky.’ He used to be a drag performer, reminiscing his dances in that same bar which no longer even remembers those days.
There is a particular scene near the end of the film where Pat and his friend Eunice sit at a bench and reminisce about the old days. Before them is a gay couple with two kids; one plays catch with the kid while the other is cradling a baby. There is something magical in this scene, which is both vocalized and explored through Pat and Eunice’s exchange. Pat’s lover David died of AIDS years ago, and without a will, all of David’s money has gone to his nephew, leaving Pat nothing. Pat survives off Government stimulus cheques. He’s lost his home (which is revealed to have been torn down), his old drag bar is being renovated into a microbrewery and gastro-pub. People barely remember Pat anymore. On the other hand is this unnamed gay couple, who’s living a much clearer semblance of ‘everyday life.
And looking at them, Pat says, ‘I’m happy for them.’
The world Pat has entered into no longer resembles the one he lived in before. Nothing is as it was. All his loved ones, rivals are either dead or have moved on with their lives. This makes you wonder – What could possibly be a more vigorous reaffirmation of mortality than complete change?
This is perhaps the best way to encapsulate what the movie is all about.
Swan Song is a flamboyant film. At the same time, it is like a celebration-cum-eulogy to the LGBTQ+ community of yesteryear. It is a film with many layers, and the film’s protagonist Pat is undoubtedly one who’ll take you through a wild journey.
Definitely catch this one, if only for Udo Kier’s fantastic portrayal of Pat Pitsenbarger.
Swan Song is a 2021 Drama Film written and directed by Todd Stephens.