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Long ago, on an ordinary island, atop an ordinary television set sat a most mystical object; a push button cable box that on its face was printed a letter “J.”  For children brave enough to risk certain parental punishment, clicking on Manhattan Cable-hosted Channel J during specific late nights of the week ensured transportation to a bacchanal of strange sights and raging hormones called Midnight Blue.  One of the sponsors of this predecessor of all the filth shown on pay-per-view in today’s digital world was a social club of sorts that catered to a very specific clientele.

Co-directed by Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman, American Swing captures the rise and fall of the notorious Manhattan sex club, Plato’s Retreat, and its outrageous owner Larry Levenson.  Levenson, a butcher’s son from the outer boroughs, was a married father of two children when he took an interest in swinging; getting together with consenting adult couples to have sex.  One divorce later and after one big shift in morality thanks to the permissive, sleazy nature of New York City in the 1970’s, Levenson decided to create a private members-only club where the like-minded could meet and indulge in deep-thinking conversation.  As Manhattan is actually quite a small island, word got around quickly, and suddenly Plato’s Retreat was a sexual adventurer’s Studio 54.  As Plato’s dubious fame grew, Levenson, caught up in the hype of the world he created, made mistakes:  He trusted the wrong people, forgot a little matter called taxes, couldn’t tell the difference between his club and a brothel and finally an awful little bug arrived uninvited to the scene and suddenly the party was over.  The man who was once revered and notorious as “The King of Swing,” ended his life as a New York City cabdriver. 

Promising all sorts of lurid thrills, American Swing does make good to an extent.  The treasure trove of pornographic archival footage filmed inside the club is more likely to nauseate than titillate, depending on where you sit; particularly the squirming rug of wall-to-wall bodies in Plato’s infamous Orgy room.  It’s a sexual snapshot of the times, pre-AIDS, pre- progressive grooming habits, with the scent of est in the air.  In one of many truly funny anecdotes during the film’s interviews, actor and writer of The Graduate, Buck Henry, relates how tiresome it became to visit the club night after night at the behest of out-of-town friends who just wanted to gawp.  Ironically, part of the decline of Plato’s came about because of its own fame and the constant invasion by tourists who just wanted look around and say they’d been to Plato’s.

Interviews with some of the club’s regulars reveal a group of middle aged or elderly swingers who for the most part, don’t regret their time in Plato’s Retreat.  One patron describes the confidence she found as a large woman with an imperfect body who achieved acceptance in the club she had nowhere else in life, being sought after by both men and women.  There is a nagging sense of disparity when you view the Plato’s footage and realise however free some of these women may have felt in their adventures, Plato’s was an ardently chauvinistic kingdom; in this haven of “free” love, lesbianism was just ducky, but even in these years before the AIDS epidemic, man-on-man love was strictly prohibited.  There is balance missing to the piece and that is the lack of report by those whose lives weren’t enriched by the experience.  I suppose the heavier slant on the positive was inevitable because if anyone did have a bad time because they joined a sex club, would they really want to discuss it 30 years later?  The only person who is seen as having lost anything emotionally for their involvement with the enterprise is Larry Levenson’s girlfriend and business partner, Mary, who cracks under the pressure of watching the man she loves fornicate with dozens of random women every night.  The vivacious Levenson is upbeat about his future and stumps for his club even in jailhouse interviews after he’s convicted for tax evasion and even seems to have accepted his fall from the throne as King of the Swingers to common New York cab driver with incomprehensible Zen-like grace.

While the first and second acts of American Swing are full of ribald fun and nicely paced, the last act becomes a bit smoggier as it’s not really clear what exactly happened to end Plato’s run.  We’re not sure what exactly was the fate of “Queen” Mary, who is introduced as such a significant part of Larry’s life and instrumental to the success of Plato’s.  Plato’s experienced more legal troubles as prostitution entered the club around the same time that the AIDS threat saw closings of New York City gay bathhouses and any club proven to house unsafe sexual practices.  The muddling of those dual factors, along with the explanation that the club had become a tourist trap, make it unclear what really caused the death of Plato’s Retreat.

I asked co-director Jon Hart if during his research, he discovered any type of common bond amongst Plato’s Retreat club members besides access to the swinger lifestyle.  Hart responded, “I think they wanted to make a connection.”  I wish I had seen more of that thoughtfulness in the documentary with regard to the psychology of the swingers or even of Larry Levenson himself.  I felt like I had more questions about what made these people tick after watching the film than before.  Kaufman and Hart are skilful enough directors to have paced their film with enough laughs and eyebrow-raising footage so one doesn’t ponder those questions too long.

Despite its small flaws, American Swing is a worthy, entertaining, oddly affectionate portrait of Larry Levenson, and a brash, grainy warts–and-all Polaroid of an era of sexual history.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 26th, 2009



PS:  American Swing opens in New York City on March 27th at the Quad Cinema.  Then film opens in LA on April 3rd at the Sunset 5.




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