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Pay Your Taxes (warning: plot spoiler)
on August 24, 2009
In recent years we've witnessed the emergence of a new movie sub-genre that might be called "Sexual-Social Deviant as Hero." Among the more notable entries are Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," based on the career of porn star John Holmes, and a number of others the titles of which have slipped from memory almost as quickly as their subjects. Some who come to mind are Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler magazine), Howard Stern (ground-breaking shock jock), and Bob Crane (TV series star who was a sex addict and victim of an unsolved brutal murder).
"American Swing" is definitely in the same vein, except it's unlikely that it showed on many theater screens. It's a low-budget documentary about a libertine-crusader, Larry Levenson, who was the founder of Plato's Retreat, the NYC swingers' club that might be seen as a metaphor for heterosexual sex in the seventies (and a bit beyond). If you never got around to reading Gay Talese's comprehensive, authoritative best-seller "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (1981, though it's currently available on Amazon in an updated 2009 edition), "American Swing" might seen as the Cliff's Notes version (though Talese is admittedly one of America's talented writers--check out his essay on Frank Sinatra).
All of the aforementioned five movies take a basically sympathetic view toward their protagonist, making him appear like a sincere, well-intentioned social maverick who was misguided (by his inner demons?) and paid a price (though Flynt and Stern fall more into the "to be continued" category). When all is said and done, none of the major players, like so many near-tragic heroes, "knew what hit him." Larry Levenson, like Bob Crane, left behind loving progeny (one son, in Bob's case; two, in Larry's). Moreover, Larry's sons have faces made for the screen--some of the widest eyes you'll ever see in front of a camera lens. But the real gold mine for filmmakers Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart is a pair of former Plato's Retreat members--a married couple looking like typical retired AARP card-carriers--both of whom can't say enough about Larry, his adventures and misadventures, his alliances good and bad, and his notorious buffet.
Of course, there are snippets of more familiar faces--Mayor Koch, porn star Ron Jeremy, TV host Phil Donahue--but the camera's constant return to the retired couple pretty much says it all: Plato's Retreat was a dump, and poor Larry Levenson was, above all, the captive of his own delusions. The complimentary buffet that he took such great pride in was, in fact, deemed inedible by experienced members, who knew enough to bring their own food if they planned to stay for any length of time.
Despite the unpopular (if unforgettable) buffet, the disintegration of his love life, the loss of all his friends, a brutal mob-like beating that nearly killed him, and serving extensive prison time, Larry kept his chin up and, like the Road Runner, kept coming back, ever optimistic about the future and unshaken in his belief about the rightness of his cause. But Larry was so caught up in his magnificent obsession that he overlooked a minor matter: paying taxes to the IRS. In fact, to hear the interviewees tell it, he didn't go to the trouble of concealing the crime, he left witnesses to his indiscretions all over the place, and finally it scarcely occurred to him to mount a legal defense.
By now you no doubt will have guessed the ending, though it's still probably worth hearing it told. Plato's is closed for good in 1985. Larry winds up driving a cab. Larry dies (in the 1990s) at the age of 62 (I thank the writer who clarified the matter). Apparently there were no more fast lanes or entrepreneurship opportunities to be pursued. The last shot of this 2008 film is of a former acquaintance who, upon being asked his recollections of Larry Levenson, responds: "Larry Levenson! Did he die?"