Just when you think you have a handle on how bananas 1970s New York City was (Studio 54! CBGB! Mustaches as far as the eye can see!), along comes a documentary like American Swing to further blow your mind. Directed by Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman, the film examines the infamous heterosexual swinger sex club Plato’s Retreat. Started in 1977 by Larry Levenson, the club, which initially thrived in the basement of the Ansonia building on the Upper West Side, brought couples together to check their clothes and inhibitions at the door. Plato’s Retreat managed to shake even the most staid suburbanites into couple swapping and orgies, and the film has some hilarious footage of former clients (now well past middle age, making it all the more disconcerting to hear about their sordid sexual escapades) and archival footage of the club itself—a time capsule into the fashions and grooming habits (no wax!) of the time. For a while, the club was a Mecca for those looking to explore their sexuality in a warm accepting place regardless of looks (judging by footage of certain members), but like most good things in New York City, Plato’s Retreat had a shelf life: Levenson was sent to prison for tax evasion in the early ’80s, and by the time he was released, the club had moved to West 34th Street and the world had moved on. AIDS and the resulting public panic led to a citywide crackdown, and considering what went on in the pool and “mattress room” alone, it’s not surprising Plato’s racked up some serious health violations. One warning: After viewing American Swing, your 2009 puritanical self might want to take a shower.
American Swing opens March 27 at the Quad Cinema.