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Dives for Swingin' Lovers

American Swing (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman have chosen a fertile subject for a documentary in Plato’s Retreat, the famed late 1970s New York swingers' club that emerged towards the end of the era of sexual innocence and couldn’t survive its downfall. More than a haven for the erotically minded, Plato’s captured the zeitgeist in no uncertain terms. It translated the downtrodden distrust rampant in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period into a hopeful vision of a sort of communal utopia.

Yet the filmmakers never adequately confront the complex nature of the iconic locale. They’ve opted for a straightforward approach that includes surprisingly candid on-camera testimony from several of the principals and lots of archival footage, which makes for an intriguing experience but not necessarily an enlightening one. While the directors, undoubtedly aided by Mr. Hart’s background in journalism, get a wide range of figures to open up about their memories of Plato’s and its bombastic founder Larry Levenson, they don’t sufficiently expand on the themes raised by their subjects.

For example, a female interviewee directly addresses one of the more intriguing subtexts latent in the way the club functioned. She notes that Plato’s presented its women patrons with the only really opportunity they’d ever had to take control in a sexual relationship, to effectively play the part of the man seducing and perhaps even using a member of the opposite sex. This should theoretically open the door for a sociological study of the club’s significance in the larger picture of the transformative gender wars of the time, but the filmmakers largely gloss over it.

The film chronicles the litany of misfortunes that befell Plato’s as the 1980s began and the destruction of the spirit with which Levenson originally intended it. The movie contextualizes this within a broader look at the AIDS scare and other developments that brought the free love M.O. of the prior decade to a sudden halt. But Messrs. Hart and Kaufman never dwell on the significance of the downfall of this particular club as opposed to its counterparts, except to say that a lot of people were sad to see it go.

"American Swing" is grounded in poignant personal reflections that help it project an insular fascination that suits the subject, but only to a point. The filmmakers are more interested in comprehensively exploring the dirty details of what went on inside Plato’s walls than in how those events specifically affected the cultural shift that simultaneously took place in New York City and the rest of the country. That approach results in a work both fascinating and shallow, a movie for people who want to know what exactly happened at Plato’s Retreat without any new lessons to be taken from it.


Opens on March 27 in Manhattan.

Directed by Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart; based on an article by Mr. Hart; director of photography, Christian Hoagland; edited by Keith Reamer; music by Jim Coleman; produced by Mr. Kaufman, Mr. Hart, Gretchen McGowan and Mr. Hoagland; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes. This film is not rated.


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