Friday, March 27, 2009

American Swing interview

Originally published at SpoutBlog


As someone who has been to an untold number of swing parties in NYC, and often had a hilarious time, I’ve never found them the least bit sexy. Truth be told, average Joes engaging in group sex is rather boring to me. So I was hoping that through interviewing Jon Hart and Mathew Kaufman, co-directors of the Plato’s Retreat doc “American Swing,” they’d upend my POV, get to the essence of why the notorious 70s sex club was so alluring. I spoke with the filmmakers during their opening night screening at the Museum of Sex.

Lauren Wissot: Jon, since you’d already exhaustively researched Plato’s Retreat and written about its founder Larry Levenson for “The NY Times” and “The Village Voice,” what drove you to want to tell the story through film?

Jon Hart: He was a larger than life character. He just had a great story. It was moving and funny. And Larry was an actor, he was a ham – there were just so many elements. I always knew it was a film.

LW: And Mathew, what was your attraction to the subject?

Mathew Kaufman: Well, I produce documentaries so I’m always looking for a good story.

LW: Oh, I didn’t know that. What documentaries have you produced?

MK: I did a two-show special for “Nightline” in 2004, I worked on something with evangelical Christians – I like weird subject matter.

LW: You and Alexandra Pelosi have something in common. (laughs)

MK: A friend of mine introduced me to Jon. But I’d read his articles before we even met. It was such a fascinating story. No one had done a documentary on Plato’s Retreat. It would be a first so that excited me.

LW: And could you talk a little bit about the audience you hope to reach with your film?

JH: I don’t really think about that. It’s just such a great story, even without all the salacious elements.

MK: I just felt like “If you build it they will come,” the “Field of Dreams” bullshit – no, seriously. It’s just such a great story.

LW: I’m also wondering where did you get your “never-before-seen” archival materials? I mean, who was allowed to film at Plato’s Retreat?

MK: The archival footage was absolutely necessary, because without it it’s just a bunch of talking heads.

JH: On very special occasions they did allow cameras on the premises. On those nights people were informed that filming would occur.

MK: We also got the rights to a documentary that was made in the 80s called “Coupling,” and then some other TV shows. We just dug with absolute determination, trying to get every scrap of footage we could find.

LW: Getting back to the talking heads, in the film they range from Buck Henry to Melvin Van Peebles to Helen Gurley Brown, yet hardly any of the well-known names interviewed were famous at the time of Plato’s Retreat; they only became famous later on. This strikes me as quite different from Studio 54, which operated at the same time as Plato’s and also ran into trouble with the IRS, where all the celebrities wanted to be seen. Was this the case or were you just unable to interview any stars that frequented the club?

MK: (laughing) We tried. I must have called Richard Dreyfuss’ office at least every two weeks!

JH: He even wrote about Plato’s in an “Esquire” article at the time. Look, if you were at Plato’s you’re admitting that you enjoy a certain aspect of human sexuality, and people are a bit squeamish about that. Even so it was really the atmosphere that was the star more than any celebrity personalities.

LW: I also noticed you have Annie Sprinkle, who talks about Plato’s Retreat dying a “natural death.” In other words, even without the tax evasion charges that sent Levenson to prison, even without the AIDS epidemic that caused Mayor Koch to padlock Plato’s Retreat’s doors for good, the club had run its course, much like disco and Studio 54. Wasn’t Levenson’s biggest mistake in not realizing the 70s were over a decade before?

JH: Larry had no plan B. He didn’t even have a plan A. A clock exists for not just Plato’s, but for any club in NYC. They all eventually become passé.

MK: But if you equate that with Larry’s character, it kind of makes sense, you see the egotism and the hubris –

LW: Which is what allowed him to take a chance on a sex club in the first place.

MK: But New York is such a fast-moving city, and he refused to see that.

JH: Larry wasn’t a businessman. He liked the attention and the media hype, but after Plato’s had been open for a couple years it became a job.

LW: He also wasn’t an artist, but an entrepreneur who craved being around kinky creative types, which is usually the case with people in charge of sex businesses. I felt that this social connection to people beyond his suburban milieu might have superseded the actual screwing for him. I know Al Goldstein chides Levenson in the film for not realizing that sex is just “friction,” but I think Levenson’s optimistic hope for connection is what drove him to create Plato’s Retreat in the first place. Do you have any thoughts on this?

JH: Larry was a small businessman who didn’t look at Plato’s as a business.

MK: In the beginning maybe.

JH: But he did love the connection. He never stopped enjoying meeting with people. He became a cab driver after Plato’s closed.

LW: Which makes total sense.

JH: He loved being “he host” above all. That’s what he was meant to be.

LW: Which is kind of the opposite of what Al Goldstein was saying, that Larry was only there for the sex.

JH: Al Goldstein was on the dark side. He’s a very intelligent guy. But Larry believed in what he was doing. He drank the Kool-Aid. He truly believed.

MK: Look, I didn’t know Larry like Jon did but I have a different viewpoint. I really think that Larry had to have known at some point that the Kool-Aid he was drinking wasn’t working. We tried to show in the documentary that he had to have known.

JH: Had to have known what?

MK: That it was doomed to failure, that it was just commerce after a certain point.

JH: Sure, it became a job at some point – but this is all he knew. There was no plan B. I don’t know what he knew or what he didn’t know. Larry lived completely in the moment, not looking ahead.

LW: When I was watching the film I felt that Levenson wanted to bring the middle class swinging lifestyle to the masses, but the problem with doing this is he’s simultaneously trying to play it both ways – promoting the wholesomeness of the people involved while hyping the unwholesome titillating excitement. Levenson seemed pretty uncomfortable with what his dream in the end had become, evidenced by his ludicrous denial that prostitutes were working the club.

MK: He played a character. He played a role.

JH: Yes, that’s true, that’s true. But Plato’s was contrived to begin with. Swinging is an activity that’s supposed to be organic and Plato’s was forcing people, in a sense that people in that setting are pushed into the activity. Larry knew Plato’s was a business from the get-go. It blew his innocence from the moment the financial portion became involved.

LW: Which is the case with everything. (laughs)

JH: Yeah, it’s like a rock band. You start playing music in the garage and the next thing you know you’ve got silent partners to answer to.

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