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In ‘Swan Song,’ Todd Stephens gives a fabulous queer elder his due

Cult film icon Udo Kier delivers stellar performance in new film

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Udo Kier is reborn in ‘Swan Song.’ (Photo courtesy Magnolia)

LOS ANGELES – Not many of us would have expected 2021 to be the year that Udo Kier made a comeback – but thanks to Todd Stephens, that’s the world we live in. And we are all the better for it.

The German actor, now 76, became part of the art house cinema scene when he starred in “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (1973). A prolific career in campy horror movies made him a cult film icon, and his fame and stature rose through associations with directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant, and Lars Von Trier. He’s even established himself in the mainstream with roles in movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Armageddon.” A career to be proud of to be sure – and even if he never really became a household name, Stephens’ latest film “Swan Song” might just be the movie that changes that.

Now in limited theatrical release and launching on VOD platforms Aug. 13, it stars Kier as Mr. Pat, an elderly man who once owned the most fabulous hair salon in his small Midwestern town. Now in a nursing home with his glory days long behind him, his routine consists of sullenly defying his caretakers and sneaking smokes in the stairwell – until he receives word that one of his former clients has died with a stipulation in her will that only he can do her hair and makeup for her funeral. Boldly escaping from the rest home, he sets out on an odyssey across the town where he was once a legend, revisiting the geography of his life as he makes his way to keep one final appointment.

The film is an unexpected delight, and Kier gives a jaw-dropping performance. His Mr. Pat feels instantly iconic, a master class in the art of subtlety and shade, and his journey – in which he confronts a personal history of love and loss that will be all too familiar for many older queer viewers – feels like the kind of authentic representation an entire generation is hungry for. 

Yet while Kier may be the shining star, his work is all in support of the film itself, which strikes just the right blend of irony, compassion, and laugh-out-loud humor to keep us watching with an irresistible smile on our face – even as it confronts the uncomfortable topics that give it weight.

Anyone familiar with Todd Stephens should not be surprised. He’s the director behind 2006’s “Another Gay Movie” and its sequel, which hilariously claimed queer space in the teen sex movie genre – but before that, he wrote (with director David Moreton) the screenplay for 1998’s “Edge of Seventeen.” Part of a fresh wave of queer cinema empowered by the indie film movement, it was a nostalgic coming-of-age tale that became a touchstone for audiences who, like Stephens, came of age in the ‘80s. 

Now, with “Swan Song,” he returns to the small-town world of “Seventeen” (which, like the current film, is set in Stephens’ own hometown of Sandusky, Ohio) to create another touchstone for his generation – one inspired by an unsung hero from his childhood.

Stephens spoke with the Blade ahead of the film’s premiere, and before talking about anything else, he wanted to talk about the REAL Mr. Pat.

TODD STEPHENS: The real Pat was this fabulous creature, and he was this guy that I would see walking around downtown. I was a little gay boy, I didn’t know it then, but I would be fascinated when I would spot Pat, because he looked so proud and glamorous and fabulous. And then years later when I got up the nerve to go to our small-town gay bar, I walked in and there, glittering on the dance floor, was this man that I had seen all my life growing up, and I just felt like I was home. I always had a fascination with him because he was so different from everyone – not just gay, but queer, and that was how I felt. I never really knew him very well, but I always wanted to make a movie about him.

BLADE: How much is he mythologized for the film?

STEPHENS: A lot of things are straight from his life. I used a lot of the stories I heard from his family and all his friends – the ones who didn’t die of AIDS and are still around, which isn’t many. Things like the folding of the napkins – that was real. When Pat died there were boxes and suitcases full of neatly folded napkins. He smoked that exact cigarette, he wore a ring on every finger, he dressed in brightly colored pantsuits – so a lot of it is him. But the part where he breaks out of the nursing home and goes on this journey to style a dead woman’s hair – I made that up.

BLADE: The film is different from a lot of contemporary queer stories because of the setting. You don’t see many movies about small-town gay men, especially older ones.

STEPHENS: Part of what inspired the plot is that Sandusky is this rust-belt factory town in the Midwest, where all the Ford and GM plants are now gone and was kind of like this forgotten town. But it’s having a rebirth now, and a lot of people that grew up there have come back home and rebuilt the town. So, seeing my hometown come back to life helped inspire my story about this man who is basically dead inside at the beginning of the movie, and then gets his groove back. And I wanted to make my hometown into a real character in the film, so as Pat comes back to life so does the town, and the color palette and all that.

BLADE: It’s not just the town that’s changed. The whole world is different since Mr. Pat was participating in it, and that’s part of the story, too.

STEPHENS: For Pat’s generation coming out back then – and this is true with myself to a certain extent –you were used to being different, to being “other,” and that was part of your identity. Now it’s become more mainstream to be gay, it’s like you almost don’t know how to wrap your head around it. So, seeing an apple pie moment like the one in the film of two guys teaching their child to play catch – something like that is so foreign to our upbringing that it’s almost strange. It’s beautiful, but it’s bittersweet, because the elders like Pat will never have that. Yet they were the ones that blazed the trail for that – but also, who even knows that, or remembers?

BLADE: There’s another moment where Mr. Pat finds out the local gay bar is closing and he asks, “But where will we dance?”  That really resonates for a lot of us today.

STEPHENS: I tried to really pose that question, to invite a dialogue. Is it OK that queer spaces are vanishing? Do we need a place to dance? What does it mean to not have one? I’ll leave that to future generations to figure out, to some extent.

But it is an interesting question. You know?

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‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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A conversation with Bruce LaBruce

Filmmaker still pushing boundaries after 30 years

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Bruce LaBruce (Photo by George Nebieridze)

Bruce LaBruce, one of the few filmmakers that has been able to build a career moving back and forth between directing porn and independent cinema, is still interested in shocking his audiences.

Once known for incorporating explicit scenes of gay and fetish sex into his movies, he’s produced a body of work over the past three decades that deliberately pushes the boundaries of our taboos and pulls the rug out from under our most solid assumptions about sex and sexuality. His movies subvert familiar Hollywood tropes in narratives that blend a campy, melodramatic style with depictions of hardcore, frequently unconventional sex, and even if he’s taken a slightly tamer approach in some of his more recent work – including his latest, “Saint-Narcisse,” which was released earlier this month and features a complicated story about twin brothers separated at birth who fall in love with each other when they reunite as adults – it doesn’t mean his films are any less transgressive. 

When the notorious Canadian iconoclast sat down to speak with the Blade last week, we talked with him about the challenge of staying on that edge.

BLADE: In your earlier films, audiences were shocked by the sexual depictions you included. Does it surprise you that nowadays the same things can be seen on Netflix or HBO? 

BRUCE LABRUCE: It’s true that when you see erect penises on “Euphoria,” or what have you, it’s taking TV to a level that nobody perhaps could have anticipated – or maybe it was inevitable, really. But even though there’s a certain amount of extreme and explicit content allowed, when you shift to the bigger context it’s still not seen as OK. Society has this weird schizophrenia where that kind of explicitness, even the idea of porn, is accepted, to a degree – but in cinema, at least in mainstream theatrical films, there’s almost a de-sexualization. Certainly, all those superheroes are shockingly asexual. I think it’s partly because the audience for a lot of that stuff is kids – and the culture in general is a bit infantile in this era. 

BLADE: How has that changed your approach to filmmaking?

LABRUCE: For one thing, I’m deliberately making more mainstream films, like “Saint-Narcisse,” that are kind of like wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the surface they reference popular genres, like mystery and romantic comedy, and they pay homage to ‘70s cinema – and there’s a certain, maybe not “light-heartedness” but a camp element to the style as well.

And the explicitness is not as important as the implications of what the film is about. Like in “Saint-Narcisse,” the plot about this attraction between twin brothers opens up into Freud’s idea of “family romance,” and how these sexual tensions that he talks about within the nuclear family lead people to so much guilt and self-loathing, because they think there’s something morally wrong about them for having these sexual impulses, which are really just natural. Obviously, there are taboos in place, as there should be, but whether there needs to be so much guilt and self-torture about having those kinds of impulses is another question.

BLADE: Your movies have always centered on these taboo expressions of sexuality.

LABRUCE: The idea of trying to humanize taboo sexuality and fetishes runs through all my work. You’re not sick or morally corrupt because you have a fetish, you’re just a living, breathing human that happens to have this extreme impulse. It’s actually quite often a real worship, a devout kind of respect and appreciation, even a spiritual appreciation of the object of desire.

And there are so many ideological gay-themed films that insist on presenting only “positive” representations of homosexuality. I’ve always been against that, against any kind of prior censorship or pressure to conform to ideals of representation – I mean, who determines what is a “good” gay? 

I prefer making something that really isn’t even classified as a “gay” film, more a film that talks about the ambivalence of sex and the ambiguities of sexual representation. I’ve always depicted characters that don’t have a fixed sexual identity, they’re somewhat fluid, and it’s more about human sexuality in general, rather than being a “gay” film – or a film that presents gay characters that are reassuring and fixed in their gay identity. You know, assimilated, or at least well-behaved and domesticated.

BLADE: Your films certainly challenge those kinds of politically correct notions of queer behavior.

LABRUCE: There is a fear anymore of representing things because of political correctness, of being called out or “cancelled” or whatever, which I really do think is the enemy of art and cinema. The artist should be able to express themselves without second-guessing everything they do, and without censoring themselves. It’s always been that if you disagree with someone or if you think their film is offensive, then you have many ways of expressing that to them – you can walk out of their film, you can confront them at a Q&A, you can have a dialogue on the internet – but more and more it’s become a black-and-white conversation where you’re either on the right side or the wrong side. That’s extremely challenging for a filmmaker nowadays.

BLADE: Your work has always stirred up controversy, though. And yet, you’ve managed to weather all that and become a respected cinema artist. How did you pull that off?

LABRUCE: There’s a kind of irony in my movies – I see it more as ambiguity, really, or a camp sensibility that I have – that allows for a lot of interpretation, and you don’t always know where a film stands or what the intention is behind it. It’s ambiguous – even to me, you know? I think that’s a much more productive way of approaching cinema, because then it’s a dialogue with the audience – you’re not telling them “this is the way it needs to be” because of social pressures. It’s something that is open to interpretation.

BLADE: There’s also a kind of absurdity in your films, where things sometimes go to extreme levels that make us see how ridiculous a lot of these moral strictures can be when we look at them from a different perspective. Is that something you try to do?

LABRUCE: It’s setting up a kind of politically correct scenario and then taking the piss out of it. It’s the difference between fantasy and reality. Our sexual imagination can be very dark and complicated and disturbing sometimes, and instead of making people feel guilt-ridden or tortured by the fact that they have these thoughts, I want my films to be a kind of collective unconsciousness, where people can work these things out rather than acting on them in real life. 

That’s the function of porn, after all.

Bruce LaBruce’s latest film, ‘Saint Narcisse’ features twin brothers separated at birth who fall in love with each other when they reunite as adults. (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)
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Once upon a time in Los Angeles- film documentary looks at queer history

Gregorio Davila’s ’L.A. A Queer History’ through interviews, archival footage, and photographs weaves a tapestry of LGBTQ life in Los Angeles

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PALM SPRINGS – A new documentary film debuted at the Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival this weekend that chronicles the often overlooked important role that Los Angeles played in the early days of the LGBTQ movement for equality.

Director Gregorio Davila’s ’L.A. A Queer History’ through interviews, archival footage, and photographs weaves a tapestry of LGBTQ life in Los Angeles long before the fateful hot June evening in New York City’s West Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

Davila notes that his film is much more than just another ‘gay’ story telling Palm Springs Life magazine;

“We’ve contributed to the fabric of America and everything in it, just as much as anyone else has,” Davila says. “This is an American story just as much as any other American story as well. Hopefully people will realize and see that; maybe they will be more open-minded.”

Davila who grew up in Hemet, in the San Jacinto Valley in Riverside County told the Palm Springs Life he believes the film shines the spotlight on the West coast gay movement when more historical references tend to point to the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Viewers will have a one-time opportunity to see Davila’s director’s cut at 3 p.m. Sept. 18 during the festival’s first weekend of in-person films being shown at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. A second showing is slated for 7 p.m. Sept. 26. Davila will participate in a Q&A session after the Sept. 18 screening.

L.A. A Queer History (2021) Trailer from L.A. A Queer History on Vimeo.

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