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Friday, Oct. 16, 2009
The sultan of swing
Some days it feels like the world is really only divided into two types of people: those who have hang-ups about sex, and those who don't; those who resist the "sinful" urges of their bodies, and those who seek to indulge them every chance they get.
Larry Levenson was clearly one of the latter. This was a man who had a vision for a new generation of sexual freedom: a club, open to all, where "free-thinking, free-living adult couples" could hook up and trade partners freely over the course of an evening, where cunnilingus was a more common form of greeting than handshakes, and where the buffet had less variety on offer than the infamous "mattress room." Would it surprise you if I said this was a tale from the 1970s?
Welcome to "American Swing" (opening locally as "Swap Swap"), a documentary that tracks the rise and fall of Levenson and his legendary Manhattan swingers club, Plato's Retreat. Directors Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman track down a lot of the club's staff and clientele to reminisce about the good old lays, and unearth reams of old super-8 footage from behind closed doors to paint a vivid, often hilarious picture of one of New York City's seediest establishments.
Located in the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side (originally home to a gay bathhouse), Plato's Retreat was a place that made Studio 54 seem like a convent. Photographer Donna Ferrato describes the shock of the mattress room, where you'd see "200 bodies . . . writhing together like a bucket of worms," and a Jacuzzi with about the same level of bodily fluids as water.
The period footage of the club is rather remarkable, if not for the naff '70s fashion and soul-train disco dance floors, then for the Hieronymus Bosch-like tableaux of intertwined limbs, undulating breasts and heaving hips. It's rather incredible to imagine that so many people would allow themselves to be filmed at a sex club in the most compromising positions, but then again, this was a pre-YouTube era of a more anonymous existence.
Levenson, a genial Bronx Jew with a toothy grin, saw himself as the Ray Kroc of sex, and his innovation was to take swinging into the mainstream. (He even envisioned a franchise.) Unlike Studio 54, Plato's Retreat had no velvet cordon, and was decidedly populist in its demographic, welcoming New Jersey suburbanites with body flab and toupees as well as svelte uptown fashionistas. Entry was limited only to couples or women — no single men, thank you — and the only rule was "no"; sex was optional, but judging by the evidence here, it seems few people didn't exercise this option. As one interviewee puts it, Plato's "resuscitated the orgy for the man on the street."
Levenson hoped for a solution to straying, an open monogamy where both partners could practice "mutual infidelity" (as one swinger puts it) without jealousy or head trips. While Levenson had hundreds, perhaps thousands of shags at Plato's (his dream, as one friend recalls, was to sleep with every woman in New York), his relationship with long-term partner, Mary, frayed and then imploded, and many suspect the kidnapping and vicious beating of Levenson by professional thugs was requested by Mary's new lover. So much for no jealousy.
Like so many films about the '70s — "Boogie Nights," "Blow," "54" — "American Swing" shows that the party ended when the '80s arrived, with a massive comedown involving drugs, AIDS, busts and broken friendships. Indeed, when the film shows Larry — fresh out of jail on tax-evasion charges — gushing about the scene at Plato's, saying "our club is so much more than a sexual haven; we have the closest thing to a family here," he sounds exactly like Jack Horner, Burt Reynolds' equally deluded porno director in "Boogie Nights." As Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein comments tartly, "Larry started to believe his own bulls**t."
The film leaves us with the downfall of Plato's as the end of an era, with its participants looking back fondly on bygone days. Obviously, anyone who reads the classifieds knows better, that the swing scene is alive and well, albeit rather more discreet.
It's easy to view the '70s as an era of unsurpassed excess, and in its sheer let-it-all-hang-out gaucheness, it was. But substitute Viagra or Rohypnol for Quaaludes, filthy electro house for disco, and couple kissa (sex club) for Plato's retreat, and it seems like the decadent decade never went away.