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To Fuck and to Fear

By S.T. VanAirsdale

As accidental companion pieces go, you'd have a hard time surpassing this weekend's documentary combo of American Swing -- the beneficiary of a one-week extension at the Quad -- and We Live in Public, director Ondi Timoner's Sundance-winner that will close New Directors/New Films on Sunday night.

Peas in a pod (L-R): Larry Levenson and partner Mary at Plato's Retreat; Josh Harris at Quiet, c. 1999 (Photos: Donna Ferrato; Interloper Films)

The overlaps between Swing and Public extend far past their fascinations with self-made New York mavericks -- the former with Larry Levenson, the proprietor of the legendary swingers club Plato's Retreat; the latter with Josh Harris, the Internet mogul and putative tech-art pioneer whose own subterranean social experiment, Quiet, refracted Levenson's '70s-era liberation standards through a battery of Web cams and televisions for global dissemination. They go further still beyond the coincidences of, say, shared subject Donna Ferrato, the photographer and countercultural adventurer who vouches for both enterprises at their respective peaks, or the closures of each facility exactly 14 years apart, by the cops, on New Year's Eve (Plato's was padlocked in 1985 after months of prostitution hassles; Quiet was busted, ostensibly as a milennial cult, in the last minutes of 1999).

Rather, at their hearts, the films are preoccupied with two signature brands of Utopia, both sequestered, writhing communities where seemingly everything but longevity is permitted. Distinctly of their go-go eras and locale, Levenson and Harris built constituencies on utterly contemporary potential, crashing finally as AIDS, economics and general self-destruction undercut their short-lived empires: Levenson went to prison for tax evasion in 1981 and died an anonymous cab driver in 1999; Harris fled to Ethiopia several years after burning through $88 million and quickly perishing on the Web 2.0 frontier. (Hilariously, MySpace cofounder Chris DeWolfe insists he's never heard of Harris, whom Timoner positions as the Godfather of Social Networking.)

Yet between their inceptions and falls, the resulting trajectories thrust the stature of modern cynicism, irony, exhibitionism and media obsession into towering relief. We are introduced to Levenson as featured on a 1978 episode of Donahue, resplendent in his powder-blue leisure suit and defending the integrity and value of the lifestyle for which Plato's Retreat was quite literally its practitioners' Mecca. The host plays the consummate devil's advocate, with NYC chat kingpin David Susskind soon challenging Levenson and his lovely, doomed partner Mary on his own TV panel.

Among Swing's bawdy 16mm archival footage and new interviews mined by directors Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the talk-show material confers a sort of premium -- a finite spectrum of posterity from an era of gatekeeping both on the air and underground. Just as single men couldn't visit Plato's without a date, nor could they crack the media establishment without a story, and a good one. Levenson had that and more, inhabiting his outsized "King of Swing" persona with few compunctions, from the Ansonia's basement to the big house to cable-access pseudo-stardom and, ultimately, his dream's sprawling terminus on West 34th Street.

(Photo: Interloper FIlms)

Timoner introduces Harris, meanwhile, as we'll come to know him well: in front of his own video camera, stammering a 55-second farewell message to his ailing mother. And a good majority of that involves his determination to say goodbye "virtually," the way he claims to accomplish everything else in his life. "Good luck," he semi-grins. "I'll see you on the other side when I get there."

Distasteful as it is, at least Harris is consistent. In fact, it's a jarring diminution of the surveillance to which he's surrendered himself for most of the last decade -- cameras everywhere, first as the founder of Internet TV network Pseudo, then as the ringleader of Quiet, and finally, with then-girlfriend Tanya Corrin, as half of the couple whose bitter dissolution would eventually stream live at the site We Live in Public. Left alone, penniless and muttering to himself in the mirror, Harris later recalls: "At Quiet, I was in control of the all the rats in my laboratory. At We Live in Public, I was the rat."

Right. Still, even if the shameless showman and self-promoter Harris doth protest too much, his analogy is bracing. Like Levenson before him, Harris thought he had seen the future of intimacy. Quiet offered an idyll for a new generation of New York bohemians for whom polyamory alone was quaint, even suspect. After all, to fuck was to fear by the time Plato's shuttered in 1985, and to the extent that both men's "laboratories" transcended transgression, their faith in that transcendence diverged radically. Public attributes that decline to Harris's quasi-police state: Cloistered underground in SoHo, unable to leave, the residents of Quiet routinely surrendered to interrogation, psychological abuse and 24/7 surveillance. Their coffin-like sleeping "pods" stacked one atop another mere yards from a full-service firing range. (A stirring contrast to the sordid, stained "mattress room" that hosted orgies uptown 20 years earlier.)

What would compel such submission, subjection, humiliation? And voluntarily! What else: Fame. Following the vanguard of reality TV and cornering the young market for Web exhibitionism, Quiet was a temple of fast, fleeting notoriety. Harris was its high priest. Levenson no doubt believed the gospel himself, but breathlessly welcoming Richard Dreyfuss, Buck Henry or other luminaries wasn't quite the equalizer presented by Harris's DIY celebrity mandate. With varying degrees of canniness, each scene seemed to permute the legacy of Andy Warhol, another Manhattan Utopian whose cruel self-awareness eventually drew matching bullet scars and cursed as many acolytes as it saved.

But neither the most ill-fated of the Factory cabal nor the skeeviest Plato's patron were ever perceived as anything less than human by their hosts, whose causes required such validation. The "rats," meanwhile, teem with nostalgia for that untenable era when excess and access were rewards unto themselves, and connection was less a luxury than a liability. A decade removed from Quiet, Josh Harris's prescience is deeply disturbing. Taken with Larry Levenson's vanquished idealism, it's devastating. Who knew?

Posted at April 3, 2009 9:59 AM

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