Monday, March 23, 2009

Kaufman and Hart's AMERICAN SWING -- and an interview with the filmmakers

A funny, naughty, sleazy, sad time-capsule of a movie, AMERICAN SWING whisks us back to more than 30 years to an era when some American citizens were experimenting with what was euphemistically referred to as "alternative life styles" -- or, as the most prominent of these came to be known: swinging. I worked for a college level textbook publisher at the time and can vouch for the fact that we published a reader titled Intimate Life Styles which was used in sociology courses across the country and covered, among other things, just the sort of goings-on pictured in this film. Goodness: studying "swinging" in college courses? Little wonder, around the time this "exploratory" decade ended, the pendulum swung (no double-entendre intended) rightward again toward the fundamentalism of one man and one woman procreating in the missionary position.

Filmmakers Kaufman & Hart (that's Mathew and Jon, rather than playwrights George S. and Moss), center their documentary around a single venue that, more than any other, came to represent the swinging 70s -- Plato's Retreat -- and the man who would be "king of swing," Larry Levenson. What differentiated Plato's from what had come before (and after) was its very public nature. It made the cover of New York Magazine in its day and was a topic of conversation for nearly a decade. American Swing lets us see Larry (below left) prior to Plato's and what happened to him and his "queen" Mary (below, right; his earlier wife was soon a thing of the past) during and after the club's primetime, as the public-swinging wave crested and then crashed.

That sex remains a hot topic on which to hang a documentary will shock no one. The surprise here is how well the filmmakers integrate it into their story (which is mostly made up of interviews and archival footage), while offering a wonderfully rounded view of the time, place and people involved. Because Kaufman and Hart worked tirelessly to find actual participants from Plato's heyday and then managed to get them to open up with charm, spirit and -- yes -- dignity, for all the celebrity interviews involved (Helen Gurley Brown to Al Goldstein, Buck Henry to Ed Koch, Melvin Van Peebles to Annie Sprinkle), it's the just-plain-folk who steal the show. They reminisce about everything from the sex to the food served at Plato's buffet, and their reviews range from really tasty to dreadful (for the food, that is; the sex, with a couple of odd exceptions, seems to have been pretty pleasurable).

One very interesting looking woman (I believe her name is Nina: only first names are used for the non-celebs) whom we see in her younger years at the club and now, as she approaches senior citizen status, talks about Plato's with genuine fondness: How it welcomed, for a time, all who arrived, no matter how they looked, so long as they were willing to abide by the rules. The club gave Nina something special: friends and a sense of her own worth and beauty (to be fair, it also gave some members crabs and VD). The sadness at the core of this fine film comes from the sense it conveys of yet another failed attempt at reaching Utopia, this time via sex. The club itself fails, too, along with Larry and Mary and a number of their employees. Why and how I'll leave you to discover via the fascinating details provided in American Swing, which opens Friday, March 27, in New York City at the Quad Cinemas, and the following Friday, April 3, in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. We'll have news of its DVD release when that occurs. (It has, my friends; click on the link in the sentence just previous to find it at Netflix, or check with your local video store.)

Filmmakers Jon Hart, left, and Mathew Kaufman

Last week five of us journalists -- Brad Balfour,; Nobu Hosoki,; Robert Levin, amNew York; Diva Velez,; and yours truly -- spent a late morning with filmmakers Kaufman and Hart in the NYC conference room of Magnolia Pictures, American Swing's distributor and one of our most energetic and seemingly everywhere-at-once channels for independent film.

Below are excerpts from the give-and-take. Check out the other attendees' web site and/or media for a further, and perhaps more precise, view....

Trust Movies: Your movie begins with a lot of humor, which then morphs into naughtiness, which changes to sleaze and finally into a kind of deep sadness accompanied by the sense that yet another search for utopia -- this time a sexual utopia -- has gone wrong. My questions to you guys: Did you plan for this? Did you even realize all this was there? Or do you even see the movie in the same way that I am describing it?

Mathew Kaufman: Definitely. We knew the humor was there. People went to Plato's Retreat to laugh and dance and have fun, and the fun was there. They were also vulnerable -- because, well, they were naked. So there's humor there that is very apparent. There were sexual relations going on there, too, so that had to be portrayed. That era is now over -- but it was there.

Jon Hart: That interview where Larry Levenson says, "I was the king. I thought I was the king. But it was just me." That era is over, but it had to be reported, and yes, it's sad. The laughter was there, and it's intentionally in our movie, but so is the sadness, and that has to be there as well.

TM: How old are you guys?

Mathew Kaufman: We’re both 39

Hart: We lived all this through as kids via Public Access television -- like Midnight Blue -- when our parents were asleep.

Kaufman: There's a lot of titillation in our movie, but it also had to be there. Because it's so much a part of that whole story, of the time and place and people. At the beginning there all this innocence and that fun, club-like atmosphere. And then, after it ended, after the "up"….

Hart: I knew Larry for a number of years, and I was always trying to understand him. And believe him. When he first told me the story, it was hard to believe him, and I wanted corroboration. But I genuinely liked Larry, and this made me ever more curious, wanting to put the pieces together. Larry lived in the moment. He did want people to be his friends. At some point, yes, it was innocent at the beginning, it was a great, alternative lifestyle and it was fun, but then you get corrupted by commerce--

TM: Or the Mafia.

Hart: Exactly. The wise guys come in. Years go by. The club was open at the Ansonia for eight years. It becomes a grind. Time passes. When Mary and Larry break up, that's the end of the innocence.

TM: Is Larry's first wife still living?

Hart: Yes. She's in the movie

T.M: Right, but you sort of lose her along the way

Kaufman: She lives in Florida now, and she talked to Larry right until the end.

Hart: When Plato's moved from the Ansonia to 34th St, they had an idea that this was the beginning of something great. It becomes almost humorous. They thought this same kind of club could take off in every city around the country. So it becomes too much about commerce and less about having fun. On 34th St, it becomes. basically, a tourist trap. I’m not sure what the analogy would be: Maybe -- you have this small but popular restaurant that suddenly wants to becomes a chain…

A question is raised about the interviews with the different characters
in the film --
how they happened and how they took shape.

Kaufman: Jon had some original contacts, of course, and when those ran out, we put ads in the paper all up and down the east coast and in California, where we thought that transplanted New Yorkers of a certain age might reside. And we really did get a lot of response - - people calling from all over. We followed it all up -- "You call this guy, I'll call that guy" -- trying to weed it out and find the people who were real. It was frustrating, because you sometimes would follow these people for a good long time, and then suddenly, "Oh, my husband will not let me a part of this." Or, "Oh-- I couldn't let you put me on film." And that, after we'd spent hours and hours on this with this person! Ultimately, we did get a lot of people. And we wanted to make this an honest film where people really appeared in it, rather than having their faces obscured.

Regarding the archival interviews,
the filmmakers had to do a lot of research....

Kaufman: We were really lucky that Bill Lustig owned the whole Midnight Blue collection. We had to go through boxes and boxes and boxes of all the old tapes from this collection, in every imaginable configuration. It took weeks and weeks to go through everything -- any scrap we could get, from anywhere. All the tapes had to be pulled and cleaned and transferred and --- it was a technological nightmare because there were so many formats: ¾, ½ - inch, even some were on the old Beta format.

T.M: How long in total have you worked on this film?

Kaufman: Since late 2003.

Hart: I met Larry in 1994. When I first wanted to do this project, I met with much resistance from his family. Then Larry told me about Howard Smith, who had written about him in The Village Voice. So I basically hung around Howard, who had carried the baton before me…. I think time helped a lot. Larry and some of the family members still had some open wounds, and it took time for these to heal. Now, the family definitely appreciates Larry much more. What I've heard from them is that they feel very protective of Larry. When they see him on the screen they want to reach out and protect him.

Kaufman: Rather than portraying him as some sort of sexual deviant, you can see that in someway he was just a regular guy. When you see the film, you can make your own choice about the man. Some people walk away from the film liking Larry, and some don't.

T.M: I think you can like him -- and still feel that he was full of shit.

Kaufman: Of course!

Hart: Hard as this might be to believe, I think that Larry genuinely believed in what he was saying.

A question is raised about what the people who frequented
Plato's Retreat might have had in common.

Hart: Basically, I think it was about connection -- wanting to make a connection.

Another question comes up about the questionable "non-profit" status
of Plato's Retreat. The filmmakers posit that the government
might have wanted to make an example -- tax-wise -- of this venue.

Hart: When I first heard that it was supposedly non-profit, it boggled my mind.

T.M. Ours, too!

Hart: In some ways, Larry really was an innocent. I think he actually believed in the club's non-profit status because that's what he had been told.

T.M. Well, denial is a very powerful human characteristic.

Kaufman: He must have known!

Hart: Re the whole IRS thing, Larry was willing to be the martyr. He knew, but he did not know. At the trial, he was the only one who... He was really just living in the moment!

Final question: If you'd been around during the heyday
of Plato's Retreat,
would you have gone there yourselves?

Kaufman: I definitely would have gone there. I don't know what exactly I might have done there, but I would have wanted to go take a look at it.

Hart: I am not really a club person at heart. I'm more of a dive-bar kind of guy. Or maybe something G-rated.

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