Studio 54 may stand as the symbol of glamorous materialism in the late 70s, but Plato’s Retreat is the dive-bar-friendly, non-exclusive sexual institution in a basement. Shallow celebrities at Studio 54 indulged in empty hedonism of the “me” generation, while Plato’s Retreat — with its ramshackle ping-pong table, indoor pool and sloppy food buffet — established itself through character and community. A club for couples who wanted to get their swing on, Plato’s Retreat was a reliable club (in the truest sense of the word) for couples searching for anonymous fornication. Or, at least, that’s what filmmakers Jon Hart and Mathew Kaufman, and the denizens of the sticky lair (now all very aged but still free-spirited), would have you believe. Although American Swing derives most of its unfettered ebullience from its heavily documented nudity-as-liberation symbolism, the co-directors don’t trace a narrative arc strong enough to transcend their obvious fascination with the subject.
Hart and Kaufman are sharp documentarians, but filmmaking is not exactly their forte, as witnessed in one incongruent scene that augments the heart-pounding and ball-slapping sounds of the intense “mattress room.” It’s not surprising that American Swing works best when crosscutting between archival footage, retro TV talk shows, and nostalgic current day interviews, since the result is a triumph in research over presentation. Hart wrote about Plato’s Retreat and its “King of Swing” ringmaster, Larry Levenson for the New York Times and the Village Voice. For a documentary based on analytic pieces, however, there’s not much investigation. Even in the moments where decadence transforms from joyful extravagance to actual decay, Hart and Kaufman go easy on the topical issues.
The amount of care and meticulous devotion to the source is very apparent and should not be underestimated; the film is a joy to experience, but there’s not enough sociological depth to make the material resonate. Hart and Kaufman adopt Levenson’s outlook on his labor of (much anonymous) love: pleasure without consequence. Similar to the wonderful memories recounted by many of the interviewed baby boomers, American Swing turns insightful nostalgia into historical delusion.