Swan Song: Edge of 75, by David Bax
Film schools ought to start forbidding aspiring directors, as early as possible, from introducing protagonists via wordless montages of their morning routine (I fully admit to having committed this sin in college myself). It’s not that we don’t get an idea of who Patrick (Udo Kier) is while watching him get ready for his day in the earliest moments of Swan Song. It’s that director Todd Stephens relays this information via a worn out technique that hangs an unnecessary lantern on the good work already being done by Kier, the wardrobe department (the contrast between Patrick’s elegant physicality and his baggy sweats and Velcro shoes says plenty) and the supporting cast, like the fellow nursing home residents whom he tries to ignore and the nurse who walks the line between finding his stubbornness funny and frustrating. Such shortcuts abound in the film, like when we learn about the oldest gay bar in town, Patrick’s long history with it and ties to its founding and the fact that it’s closing and the farewell bash is going down that night all in one labored information dump of a scene. These phoned-in elements ultimately undo the good work Stephens and Kier are achieving here in distinguishing Patrick and the town he lives in, a town for which he feels affection even though it rejected him.
It doesn’t help matters that Swan Song is so often unpleasant to look at. The lighting is flat and high key and the camerawork is distracting; on occasion, conversations take place without the familiar but reliable over-the-shoulder shots but with the camera instead taking turns framing each person head-on when it’s their time to speak. It’s distracting and off-putting and, when placed alongside the occasional bit of slow motion that looks like it was done with a free effect on a consumer grade editing software, the result is garish.
With complaints out of the way (for now, at least), there are a number of worthwhile things about Swan Song. One of these is Stephens’ love for the city of Sandusky, Ohio, which plays itself here just as it did in his 2001 film Gypsy 83 and in 1998’s Edge of Seventeen, for which he provided the screenplay. Stephens’ dedication to Sandusky is admirable, especially since all three films in this loose trilogy are about mostly queer oddballs and outsiders who lack a community and support structure on the scale of what they’d find in a larger city but whose bonds become all the more strong and thus all the more entangled as a result.
Kier may seem like an odd choice for such a setting–his German accent goes unremarked upon throughout Patrick’s daylong journey through his old haunts–but he takes to the role like the exceptional talent that he is. As the down-on-his-luck former hairdresser to Sandusky’s wealthiest socialites, he maintains a flair for drama, smoking his thin cigarettes like each puff is a performance. It’s both fun and funny but it’s also the demeanor of a proud man refusing to let go of any more dignity than he’s already had to sacrifice.
On too many occasions, though, Patrick’s interactions with the local are riffs on familiar crotchety-but-sweet old man antics. He skips rope with kids; he trades barbs with the new owners of his old beauty supply shop; he sweet talks his way into a free vintage suit at the local thrift store. At these times, Swan Song plays like the pilot for a sitcom you wouldn’t want to watch.
Admittedly, it feels a bit mean-spirited to be so critical of Swan Song given that its inherent sweetness is undeniable. When Patrick warmly refers to the other patrons of the gay bar as “our people” despite not knowing any who goes there anymore, it’s touching. It’s just that the autopilot mode that takes us from each of these small moments to the next ends up overtaking the whole film.