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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.
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.
*** 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
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