Film review: American Swing

American Swing
HDNet Films

STARRING Larry Levenson
PRODUCED BY Christian Hoagland
DIRECTED BY Matthew Kaufman, Jon Hart

SHOT BY Christian Hoagland
EDITED BY Keith Reamer
MUSIC BY Jim Coleman
DISTRIBUTED BY Magnolia Pictures

Screened on 2009-04-05

In 1998 Jon Hart, writer for Village Voice, got a lead that Larry Levenson was driving a taxi in NYC and decided to profile him… 10+ yrs later, Hart’s article has become American Swing, with Hart producing/director alongside Mathew Kaufman. Who is Larry Levenson, ask those from my generation…? Imagine Jake LaMotta as a nympho hedonist and you’re halfway there. In 1977 Levenson opened Plato’s Retreat in NYC which earned considerable notoriety for being the premier hetereosexual swinger’s club in NYC, and by the same token America. For $35 (2009’s inflation makes that approx. three times as much) one could help oneself to the dance floor, cheap bar mitzvah buffet, the “mattress room” and a generous portion of rippling flesh and good company. Clothing optional, only rule that exists is to respect the word ‘no.’ Leisure Suit Larry was on top of the world for three years until the FBI crashed his party – Larry had not paid any taxes and had been skimming off the top. Larry laughed through the trial until the word ‘Guilty’ was uttered and he sobered up right quick. Four years later Larry saw the light of day and one year after that Mayor Ed Koch closed Plato’s Retreat, which had already been demoted among the circles of hell due to the Larry’s absent benevolent presence (not to mention the AIDS scare). Larry drops off the map for 13 years until he is rediscovered driving the NYC taxi, now overweight, estranged from his children and suffering heart problems which would take his life one year later after an attempted quadruple bypass surgery, 62 years old.

You know, there’s a story here, but it’s not the story that Kaufman and Hart would let us have. Taking about a million cues from successful big-time docu, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Kaufman & Hart split the 81 minutes into: 1) a through-the-modern-motions primer of the swinging lifestyle in late 70’s NYC, 2) the rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, 3) the rise and fall of Larry Levenson. Larry, who in his heyday was convinced he had stumbled upon ‘the future’ in free love, and was a genius for having done so, was basically a big loveable doofus who never wanted the party to end. Swing very much feels like that party, pumping sexy period music and flashy stock docu editing into about half of said 81 minutes and celebrating Larry’s bravura. There are interviews with sex therapists, actors, writers, and others who make it into a lifestyle – like many a documentary subject, this subculture peeps itself onto the surface once again and reminds us it has always been there. The first 20 minutes present old swingers waxing nostalgic about how great it was to fuck with impunity (i.e. ignorance), the middle 40 celebrate Larry with endless pop music transitions and eternally interchangeable dark-room-party-pics, last 20 seem to take just a bit less sympathy and merely detail the Retreat’s retracting drawbridge. Where was Larry from 1986-1998…? Swing appears inconsistent in its judgment of Levenson, showcasing his ambition for philandering but making no efforts to sympathize with his irresponsible life’s decisions… celebrating caprice as if it’s the path to enlightenment. It’s as if the filmmakers really got into Levenson, started having a great party with him, halfway through came to their senses, then made the documentary (it did take 3.5 years to complete), now and then poking fun at their subject. Love him or hate him, he’s dead. Swing toasts his 15 minutes.

“[Larry] passed on…? Jeez, he wasn’t even 50…”
“He was 62.”

written by David Ashley

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