Thursday, May 21, 2009

DOXA Preview: American Swing, a Requiem for a Far Hornier Time

The mattress room by Dr. Annie M. Sprinkle. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There are some subjects that it would be nearly impossible to make a bad documentary about; American Swing - a sheer delight and, I suspect, a great date movie - is one of them. It chronicles the rise and fall of Plato's Retreat, a 1970's New York swing club (a "poor man's Playboy mansion," one former attendee says, and the straight equivalent of the gay clubs of the time) where, for a $25 fee at the door, couples could enter a room with a pool, a buffet, a DJ and dancefloor, and - the highlight - hundreds of like-minded people who had also come to fuck and suck and kiss and lick (and many other things beside) with a variety of partners, many previously unknown to them. The film is formally indistinguishable from thousands of other documentaries - the usual stream of talking heads, archival footage, amusing songs, and TV clips (including a moralizing interview on Donahue with Plato's Retreat founder Larry Levenson, and a charmingly hokey TV spot he and his partner Mary made for the club); while some of the archival footage is fascinating - somewhat deteriorated, pink-hued reels that occasionally appear to be clips from disco-themed pornos (which sometimes they are, since porn films were shot there) - it's really the subject matter itself that makes the film as enjoyable as it is. Watching talking heads talk in a run-of-the-mill documentary can be a bit dull, but when they belong to a couple in their 70's quibbling about whether this night or that was the wife's first girl-on-girl experience (or whether the buffet featured spaghetti or lasagna - a topic somewhat less unsettling to hear seniors argue about), there's a taboo-breaking humour and joyful openness that obviates any need for formal inventiveness. The tales people tell about their experiences of the club are that good.
And American Swing has many tales indeed. One of the filmmakers, Mathew Kaufman, explains that he "spent countless hours on phone interviews, taking jaw-dropping notes from Plato’s patrons, only to be turned down when I asked if they would appear on camera. Early on we decided that this film was not going to have black bars on peoples’ faces, or voices distorted by electronic devices – this was going to be the real story, told face-to-face, by the people who lived it."
Some who do appear are still somewhat protective of their privacy - Buck Henry manages to relate several amusing anecdotes without implicating himself in a single sexual transaction (perhaps he just likes to watch). Other "witnesses" include the ever-delightful Annie Sprinkle, Jamie Gillis, Ron Jeremy, Danny the Wonder Pony (!), and Melvin van Peebles, as well as many of Larry Levenson's friends and family.
Interestingly, it's the club's non-celebrity habitues, male and female, who talk most openly and fondly of Plato's Retreat and of the feeling of sexual liberation that predominated in the late 1970's, when, briefly, the club and others like it were quite popular, attracting hundreds of sophisticated New Yorkers on a good night. My favourite story in the film comes from a woman identified only as Betsy; she now appears to be in her 50's or 60's (tho' she's still very sexy!), and describes herself as a somewhat conservative and shy young woman who attended Plato's Retreat with a minister as a date - a rather liberal minister, we gather. He disappeared into the crowd soon after they arrived, and Betsy - who recounts the evening with a look of worry and ill conscience, her brow furrowed and her eyes downcast - presently found herself in the company of a construction worker from Connecticut. As she says this, she suddenly looks up and gives an enormous smile, innocent and proud and happy, all worry dissolved; it's touching and sweet and speaks volumes of the attitude of attendees of the club, where having sex with multiple partners in a night - perhaps in the "mattress room," where dozens of people could be going at it at the same time - was normal, desirable, and relatively risk-free.

Larry Levenson and his partner, Mary, photographed by Donna Ferrato. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mathew's co-director on American Swing, Jon Hart, actually got to meet Plato's Retreat founder Larry Levenson. "I was in grade school when I was first introduced to Plato’s Retreat," he says in the press release for the film. "I was having a sleepover party with a few of my classmates and we were surreptitiously watching public access television, Channel J as I recall. Unforgettably, a commercial came on that showed a scantily clad couple frolicking in an enormous swimming pool. It seemed hard to believe that such an establishment was mere blocks from where I lived with my family.

"Years later, I was working as a reporter when I got a lead that the former owner of Plato’s Retreat, Larry Levenson, was driving a New York City taxi. Immediately, a light bulb went on, bringing me back to that commercial: What was the Plato’s story? What had happened to this disbanded Plato’s tribe?

"I tracked Larry down and we met in the West Village on a cloudy, frigid afternoon right before Christmas. I sat in the passenger seat - and turned on the recorder. He was overweight and solemn. But when I asked him about his former glory, he glowed as he drove. 'We were degenerates,' Larry laughed. 'But we were good people.' In his gravelly voice, Larry regaled me with tales of his infamous club and told me that he was once a legend known as 'The King of Swing.' Later, as we drove through Central Park up the East Side, Larry became teary eyed as he discussed his estrangement from his sons. I was fascinated and I wanted to know, well…everything. I interviewed him for hours and compiled hundreds of hours of tapes. For the next four years - right up until Larry passed away following quadruple bypass heart surgery - not a day went by that we did not speak. Larry Levenson was a friend first, a subject second."

I rather envy the attendees of Plato's Retreat. I realize there are swingers and swinger's clubs still - even in Vancouver - and internet dating sites all have their share of people seeking threesomes and "swap" situations - but we seem, by and large, to live in a far more inhibited, repressed, sexually uptight time, where such behaviour is accepted (or "tolerated"), but marginalized, feared, and not really talked about. I don't know if AIDS was, as the conspiracy theory goes, engineered by the Christian right in America, but it was certainly a Godsend to them, in terms of reversing the tide of sexual liberation. Like Jon Hart, I'm old enough to remember reading - as a sexually curious teen with a fair stack of men's magazines under his bed - about Plato's Retreat back when it was still open, but I now take a fear of disease so for granted that there's something bizarrely foreign and exotic and taboo about the world of Plato's; the film at times feels like an ethnographic documentary on a people far removed from my own, whose ways could never be mine, however sweet and otherwise "normal" they might seem. It's sad, because listening to these stories, I, at least, can't but imagine myself having a good time indeed in the "mattress room," and how liberating it would be; too bad that Larry Levenson's wish - that swing clubs would be a mainstream institution by the 21st century - never came to fruition.

It's probably too much to hope for, that couples in attendance at DOXA should mix-and-match partners or organize a group grope after the screening (and I'm sure DOXA organizers wouldn't want me to encourage such irresponsible behaviour), but the idea is probably going to occur to a few people watching the film. Here's hoping some of them get up the nerve to follow through on it, and that everyone has the results of their last round of STD tests handy. Sexually speaking, American Swing seems like good medicine - a taste of a time, briefly, where people really weren't so hung up about sex...

American Swing will play DOXA on May 28th, at the Vancity Theatre.

American Swing poster, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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