Go inside New York’s most happenin’ seventies sex club.
Dir. Jon Hart & Mathew Kaufman, 2009, 81 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
I never thought a movie all about socially unacceptable sex could be so boring, but American Swing proves it. Alright, that’s mean. The doc isn’t really a slog, it just feels oddly specific in its focus. It’s not about swinging, swinging in the seventies, or even swinging in the seventies in New York City. It’s all about a single club that operated during that time, and the experiences of those who operated and went to it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except the movie doesn’t really connect what went on there to the larger culture. With such an isolated perspective, what can it say about anything?
Plato’s Retreat was founded and run by Larry Levenson, a perfectly straight-laced, good citizen who one day decided that he was interested in partner-swapping, and that there should be a place for he and other swingers to have sex with wild abandon. The club was open from the late seventies through the mid-eighties, when the AIDS scare made the government shut it down. It was an incredibly popular place, as several formerly frequent patrons attest, including Ron Jeremy (!). People came to shed their inhibitions along with their clothes. It tapped into the spirit of the age (not that you’d really know it from the movie).
The doc in particular follow’s Larry’s journey, as he went from nobody to self-proclaimed sex god. He built his entire identity around being in a position to be with ten or more women a night, but he was really just Trimalchio in the Upper West Side (pretentious references for the win!). No one came to the club for him; they came because it was a happening trend that they wanted in on.
More than anything else, American Swing feels like a movie made for its subjects, and not for an audience. It gives these people a change to wax nostalgic about the days when they were pretty and able to screw merrily, before it all ended sadly. Things went especially sour for Larry, who went to prison for tax evasion and later became a cab driver before dying young. His story is a nicely arresting bit, but it’s wrapped up in repetitive anecdotes about just how crazy it all was for reals. Incredibly, even if old people are talking about their crazy sex stories, it’s still just old people telling their stories if you don’t do anything interesting with it.