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Anyone who ventures into "American Swing" expecting to see a
documentary on Benny Goodman is in for one hell of a rude awakening -
and that's putting it mildly. For the "swing," in this case, actually
refers to the "wife-swapping" phenomenon that swept through
middle-class suburbia in the 1970s. And no figure did more to
popularize that trend than Larry Levenson - the "King of Swing" as he
came to be called - whose "live sex club," Plato's Retreat, located in
Manhattan's Upper West Side, served as the epicenter for so much of the
Let it be stated right up front that this eye-opening documentary is not for the prudish or the easily offended, for its footage is graphic and its language raw, often akin in its look to crude 1970's porn. It takes us straight into the heart of a scene that became famous for its flagrant nudity, its unbridled group sex, and - if the eyewitness accounts are to be believed - its really bad food (apparently, the smorgasbord that kept bringing the people in was of quite a different kind!). Directed by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the film features interviews with many of the now-aging club regulars who happily regale us with tales of their personal escapades there. A number of celebrities who frequented the club, as well as certain reporters and broadcasters who covered the beat at the time are also interviewed.
"American Swing" is most interesting as a social document, showing how the "free love" ethos espoused by the hippies in the 1960's expanded into the mainstream a decade later. Suddenly, ordinary businessmen and housewives, truck drivers and longshoremen could partake in the life of the sexually liberated. In his own mind, Levenson sincerely believed that he was serving a salutary purpose with his club, providing couples who didn't want to be stuck in a monogamous relationship with a more honest alternative to "cheating."
It is not the intention of Kaufman and Hart to judge the people who took part in what Plato's Retreat had to offer, but neither is it their intention to shy away from some of the less savory consequences that eventually overtook many of them: principally, the diminution of romance, rampant drug abuse, and the spread of disease. In fact, it was the sudden appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s that brought the decade-long love-train to a screeching halt. That, along with Levenson's own troubles with the IRS (including time spent in prison for tax evasion) and possible dealings with the mob, is what eventually brought an end to the place - and to the era of licentiousness that helped to spawn it.
So, was Levenson a trailblazing sexual revolutionary who made it possible for otherwise ordinary middle-class people to live out their wildest fantasies? Or was he an emotionally stunted individual who cast away the mores of society in a bid to fulfill his own kinky desires and make a kingdom and a name for himself in the process? To their credit, Kaufman and Hart provide no easy answer to those questions, neither for the prigs in the audience nor for the libertines.
All same for the movie itself - for even though Levenson's life ends sadly, "American Swing" does not play out like the typical cautionary tale. For, in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions as to whether Plato's Retreat was in reality a hedonistic paradise or merely a moral cesspool - or, indeed perhaps, a little of both.
The only thing you can really do is check out "American Swing" and make that determination for yourself.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This rather superficial documentary relates the meteoric rise and
nearly as quick demise of Plato's Retreat, a New York City swingers
club, and its founder Larry Levenson. If you've never heard of the
club, swinging or Levenson, this movie isn't a bad primer on all three.
It's also got a lot of photos and film shot inside Plato's Retreat that
features several square acres of nudity and sex acts. But while you
might come away from American Swing with some basic knowledge and
prurient delight, you won't have any greater understanding.
Swinging is where people in a relationship openly have sex with others, usually a couple bringing another person into the bed or two couples swapping partners. Plato's Retreat was a place where mass quantities of swingers and voyeurs gathered to engage in everything from orgies on down, only taking time out for disco dancing and bad buffet food. The film is a collection of interviews with clubgoers, famous and not, about their experiences at and impressions of the club and snippets of TV talk shows featuring club founder Larry Levenson.
The story of Plato's Retreat is fairly predictable. It starts out in the late 70s as the last naïve gasp of sexual liberation, starts to get a little seedy after a few years and is then wiped out the threat of AIDS in the mid 80s. The interviews are almost universally about how much people enjoyed their time at the club, though a few references to more unpleasant realities seep in. The footage of Levenson make him look like a low-rent hustler caught up in the idea of himself as an agent of personal and sexual freedom.
American Swing isn't bad as documentaries go, but you're always waiting for the filmmakers to go deeper into their subject and I don't mean that as a double entendre. The movie never examines of questions any of the things said about Plato's Retreat or its founder and never draws any connections. For example, the film ends with a string of testimonies from people who talk about Plato's Retreat as though it were the best time of their lives, but that comes right after the end of Levenson's life is sadly detailed. He wound up a cab driver so hard up for money he lived in his own basement so he could rent out his home, feeling forgotten and ignored by all the people he thought were his friends. American Swing never really draws the connection, though, between those people talking about their selfish satisfaction and their selfish disregard for the man who made that satisfaction possible.
This documentary is about as sharp and penetrating (again, not a double entendre) as one of those celebrity profiles in the back of Parade magazine. It's not a bad distraction. There's just not much you can learn from it.
Typical of "documentaries" (I hate that categorization -most such films
are as fictional/non-objective as any acted-out feature) by untalented
amateurs, this peek at the creator of '70s iconic club "Plato's
Retreat" is a worthless, probably intentionally misleading bit of
history/myth-making. Clearly made to cash-in on the prurient aspects of
its subject matter (porn for people afraid to watch real porn) it has
no guts and proves to be laughably sentimental, when a cold,
steely-eyed look was necessary to elevate this minor material to
something worth watching.
Even the interviewees are given euphemistic identifiers on screen, as wimpy an approach as one could take. The great and enduring porn actress Annie Sprinkle is called "Artist" and even the inevitable (and unhelpful in his gibberish comments) Ron Jeremy is called an artist for some reason, perhaps "artiste"?? -not. Fred Lincoln, a favorite porn director of mine, is merely identified as the manager of the club (hardly his epitaph) and gets the last word in the show which merely paints him as an ignorant idiot. For all the sentimental slop slathered on the subject of this picture, Larry Levenson, poor Fred is treated like dirt.
As a reporter for Variety throughout the '80s I knew a fair number of these interviewees and could easily have asked them more useful questions than are on display here. Perhaps the closest to the truth comes from the admittedly exaggeration-prone mouth of Screw mag founder Al Goldstein, who basically takes the contrarian view in deflating over and over Larry's self-importance. I agree with Al whole-heartedly - the creation of a locally popular club for swingers, which got tons of publicity (we see the Voice reporter repeatedly who inadvertently acted as a shill to give the project notoriety) making it a tourist mecca (including bridge & tunnel locals technically as tourists traveling to Manhattan).
But swinging existed before and continues today, recently well- documented in Adult Cinema with a slew of features such as those produced for self-promotion by kink.com. Is the British major domo of kink.com with his famous Frisco armory home base the 21st Century version of Levenson? Perhaps, but IMHO, who cares?
Levenson's need for self-glorification (and constant sex) created this transitory phenomenon of Plato's Retreat, which Annie Sprinkle very accurately sums up, in referring to its decade-long rise and fall, as merely another trendy club which would have died of its own aging as all "hot spots" due, as the trendsters and club kids move on to the next and newer one. When I was covering restaurants for Zagat I remember the meteoric rise of the West Village's trendy Moomba, where Leo DiCaprio and his gang hung out for awhile, even earning praise for its menu by the Times' then-critic Ruth Reichl. But the moving finger wrote and moved on, and within a couple of years Moomba went from world-wide symbol of hip to an early grave, now housing an Irish pub in the 7th Ave. South space.
So did Plato's, the sexual equivalent of a dive bar, or to be charitable one of those Vegas-imitating Brooklyn Russian supper club/restaurants that overcharge their loyal Russian clientele for vodka and the illusion of sexy glamour. The nostalgia interviews with both famous (Buck Henry, so talented and so in love with slumming) and nonentities (a portly lady who heaps oodles of self-praise on herself for having gone from shy wallflower to swinger in one easy Plato's lesson) reduce this would-be documentary to a collection of anecdotes, 95% of which should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Levenson's decline from the "king of swing" (self-described) to working as a cabby is one big yawn. He kills off any sympathy one might have for him with video footage of his idiotic and dangerous remarks about AIDS when he was fighting to keep his unsafe-sex venue open during the '80s crackdown on sex clubs like his, though the filmmakers here mangle the issue of Gay vs. Straight in their focus on Levenson to the exclusion of all else.
As that great show used to say, there are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them, but unfortunately one that didn't need telling, so trivial is its content and import. If one wishes information on the sexual revolution in America, so dramatic in the '60s and '70s, one should focus on Hugh Hefner, Betty Friedan, Gerard Damiano or other giants. My reaction to Levenson is similar to what I felt after watching the horrendous British biopic of local smutmeister Paul Raymond (as played by Steve Coogan) -yuck! I'm sure another overrated sleaze merchant Bob Guccione will receive the sentimental documentary treatment next, but count me out on that one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Plato's Retreat was a legendary sex club in New York City that was for several years the go to place for libidinous adults to get down and party hearty after it opened in 1977. This appropriately seamy and somewhat rough around the edges documentary offers a wealth of enjoyable and illuminating interviews with various individuals who either knew founder Larry Levenson or frequented the joint back in the day: Levenson's sons, various Plato's Retreat regulars (who come across as disarmingly candid and unashamed everyday schmo types), comedian Professor Irwin Corey, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, the ever-outspoken Al Goldstein (who openly admits that Levenson was a shallow bore due to the fact that he was just all about sex), writer Buck Henry, former mayor Ed Koch, and porn stars Fred Lincoln, Ron Jeremy, Annie Sprinkle, and Jamie Gillis. Among the topics discussed are Levenson's amiable happy go lucky persona, the wild anything goes "if it feels good, do it" hedonism of the 1970's, how the rampant nudity and open unabashed sexuality that was pervasive in Plato's Retreat enabled everyone to shed their inhibitions, prostitution in the club, the fact that Plato's Retreat offered a comfortable and nonjudgmental atmosphere where everyone was accepted, the incredibly disgusting buffet table, Levenson's problems with the IRS and subsequent downfall (he wound up working as a cab driver towards the end of his life), and the dreaded AIDS epidemic putting a kibosh on everyone's fun. The key thing that makes this documentary so effective and provocative is its admirable refusal to either glorify or vilify Levenson and the sexual freedom his club represented; instead both are presented warts'n'all without apology and it's up to the viewers to make up their own minds what to think about all of this. Set to a funky-throbbing soundtrack and loaded with plenty of incredible raw newsreel footage of Plato's Retreat in its swinging heyday (the TV ads in particular are simply amazing!), this one is well worth seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The infamous Plato's Retreat, where everything sexual took place, had a
tragic death as the AIDS epidemic swept New York. It was a victim of
its own success. Plato's was, after all, where couples willing to swing
went to fulfill their dreams of having intercourse with different
partners. The founder, Larry Levenson, boasted his joint gave him the
opportunity to have sex with about ten different women each night. Soon
after the initial success, as the club attracted a different type of
crowd, prostitutes and other element invaded the premises.
As anything trendy in Manhattan, Plato's Retreat had a quiet beginning, but after word got out that orgies could be had for a relatively small amount, there was standing room only. In interviews with some of the people who participated in the activities inside, we are told what the place meant for different swingers. In retrospect, how much of the accounts that come out in the documentary are real and what are not.
Directors Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman try to concentrate on the life of Larry Levenson, the founder of Plato's. When all is said and done, Mr. Levenson was a victim of the club's own success. He had a high price to pay serving time in jail for tax evasion, something that usually get a lot of promoters in high waters. Mr. Levenson came from a modest household in Queens. After the club opened, he became the big shot he probably was looking to be most of his life.
Plato's Retreat was a good way to lose one's own inhibitions, after all, everyone that went to have a good time was no different from everyone else. It is pointed out how ordinary people felt great because they went only for the sex, not beauty, something that is not the case in most other venues in the city where beauty and style is the dominating reason of being seen at those places. Plato's Retreat only lasted a few years at the Ansonia, then it relocated to a 34th Street location, but by then all the hype and the fear of contracting AIDS took a heavy toll on the people that went there for the anonymous sex that could be found there.
"American Swing" is not about Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, or even Derek Jeter. However, it is about another New York basher who had one hell of a swing, but no baseballs needed here. He would be Larry Levenson, the impresario of the famed New York heterosexual Swingers club "Plato's Retreat". "American Swing" orgies its way dickimentary, I mean documentary style, in its telling of Levenson's New York sexual staple which ran from 1979-1985 and also on his obsession on being the "King of Swing". Directors Jon Hart & Matthew Kaufman do a credible job in presenting the zaniness of the Plato period by interviewing many Plato players including: managers, patrons, employees, and even celebrities that would take a swing at Plato from time to time. Their Plato philosophies & storytelling is the rouser of "American Swing"! On the negative swing of things, the doc also presents the downfall of Levenson and "Plato's Retreat". "Plato's Retreat" will never be a historic landmark but it laid (had to use "laid" sooner or later) the foundation of the Swingers Heterosexual Sex Club Enterprise which, whether you like it or not, have been erecting from year to year in our country and are here to stay. It might not be for everyone in the household, but I say "take a swing" at the entertaining documentary "American Swing". **** Good
It was a very grounded movie of course built in the concrete slabs of
New York's Bad Side. The very notion of swinging poses a threat to
individuals sturdy in there long term relationship. However that's how
it began a complacent experimentation with couples into a daring
position of new romance. To me it showed the germlike possesiveness
that spread into heavier waves throughout the time-span of wreckage and
renewal. All planned by one destroyed businessman - yet love is diverse
in it's care and steams of fanatiscism do carry the broken to a
position of identity.
Conservatives will know this as a beautiful ephemeral trash building of eternal reclamation.
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