Monday, April 6, 2009

American Swing

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Cautionary Documentary Revisits Rise and Fall of Plato’s Retreat

The sexual freedom of the late Sixties enabled the rise of a nightclub in New York City where swinging couples could come and engage in wife-swapping, threesomes, foursomes or whatever other prurient permutations they might imagine. Opened in 1977 in a refurbished, Manhattan gay bathhouse by the late Larry Levenson, Plato’s Retreat was a hedonistic escape which flourished by catering to a clientele comprised of the curious and kinky.
At the height of its fame, there would be lines of the libidinously-inclined winding around the block, while inside, in the infamous Mattress Room, it was not uncommon to find 200 naked bodies writhing in pleasure on the floor. The downside to all this carnal abandon arrived in the early Eighties with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. And by 1985 Plato’s was closed down by the Board of Health, in spite of Larry’s very vocal campaign over the airwaves designed to allay public fears.
Larry claimed that the HIV virus didn’t stand a chance against the chlorine he was using in his hot spot’s hot tub and shower room. And the homophobic Mr. Levenson even went so far as to run ads claiming that the disease couldn’t be transmitted heterosexually.
Obviously, that tactic didn’t work, and a form of recreation most had seen as a safe source of pleasure quickly turned into a terrifyingly-lethal nightly adventure. So, by the time the city finally padlocked Plato’s doors, the sane patrons had already stopped coming, only to leave behind a compulsively hard-core, self-destructive set along with plenty of prostitutes who started drifting in and charged for their services.
All of the above and more is chronicled in American Swing, a jaw-dropping documentary which mixes archival film footage and photos shot inside Plato’s with frank reminiscences from some of the regulars, like Danny the Pony Ride (use your imagination), and Larry’s jealous girlfriend, Mary, who had admits to being institutionalized after suffering a nervous breakdown.
As for founder Larry Levenson, he soon fell on hard times and wound up hooked on crack and driving a cab back in his old Brooklyn neighborhood until he died of a heart attack, never quite achieving his personal goal of sleeping with every woman in New York. But nobody can say he didn’t pursue his perverse variation of the American Dream.
A scary reminder of the potential physical and emotional consequences of indiscriminate mating.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
Rated R for nudity, sexuality and profanity.
Running time: 81 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

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