(2022, 81 min)
Director: David Buckley
Studio: Altered Innocence
Newly restored in 4K, David Buckley's landmark excursion into bisexuality, 1970s relationship politics and the historical importance of gay bathhouse culture is celebrated in his 1975 film Saturday Night at the Baths. When struggling pianist Michael (Robert Aberdeen) lands a job at the legendary Continental Baths in NYC, his wife Tracy (Ellen Sheppard) encourages him, even emphasizes how special this institution is. Michael initially struggles with his own homophobia, yet at the same time starts developing feelings for his confident and sexually free co-worker Scotti (Don Scotti).
Shot on-location inside the famous Continental Baths and featuring an unforgettable 12-minute scene of the actual entertainment, both musical and sensual alike, Saturday Night at the Baths is a sublime example of the compelling and sensual queer cinema of one of the most groundbreaking periods in gay and bisexual film history.
This is an American restored film that I have wanted to see for some time, directed by David Buckley, entitled Saturday Night At The Baths.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this movie. A curio, perhaps; a nice time capsule of the period. But, in spite of its low budget and sometimes-stilted acting, it turned out to rather enjoyable. At the very least, it's a great guilty pleasure that provides a peek at a nostalgic era of pre-AIDS gay liberation. Saturday Night At The Baths is the story of a bisexual triangle set against the backdrop of the legendary Continental Baths. Michael (Robert Aberdeen) is a young pianist from Montana who has recently relocated to New York City. Looking for employment, he applies for the pianist job at the Baths. His girl friend, Tracy (Ellen Sheppard), tells him that, even though the Baths are famed for their "decadence," he "has to start somewhere."
The actor who plays Michael looks like a young, and slightly more effeminate, Robert Redford. He is a bit taken aback by what he sees at the Baths, especially when a very queeny man comes onto him. He becomes even more uncomfortable when the manager, Scotti (Don Scotti), asks him if he ever did it with a man before. Scotti's gaydar goes up when Michael spits out the water he was drinking and then says, "Well... sure, when I was younger." Despite hearing that Michael has a girl friend, Scotti knows a closet case when he sees one and sets his sights.
The plot is a little slim but it was pretty radical for its time. Films that celebrated gay sexuality were not exactly the norm in the mid-70s. All one had to do to get a laugh in a movie back then was to simply dangle one's wrist and speak in a lisp. It goes without saying that Saturday Night At The Baths probably did not play in Topeka, Kansas but, still, those that did get to see it in large cities like New York and San Francisco were treated to a celluloid treat where the fag didn't off himself in the final reel. Saturday Night At The Baths isn't a major studio release (like Making Love, seven years later) but it isn't one of those "shocking" dykesploitation flicks like That Tender Touch either. It falls somewhere in the middle.
Michael is dealing with some internalized homophobia while Tracy seems to be a lot more open; not to mention intuitive. When Michael asks her how he can stop the guys at the Baths from hitting on him, she asks if he is giving off signals. Around the middle of the film is a very nicely done scene where Scotti smokes a joint with Michael and Tracy. They have just attended a photography exhibit and Tracy, who is a photographer herself, giggles about how she was more than "just flattered" when two beautiful lesbians asked if she would come home with them to take their pictures. Scotti wistfully tells them about those "rare times with strangers" when "passion mingles with love and trust" and describes a spontaneous orgy between himself, another gay friend, and those same two women. Michael and Tracy are clearly fascinated. Or it's just the pot. When Michael feels Scotti's hand stroking his, he nervously stammers, "I don't think I can handle this right now" but he doesn't move away from him either.
This leads, later on, to some really forced dialogue between the two guys. "You know what I'm talking about," Michael shouts and Scotti replies "How am I supposed to know what you're talking about when you don't know what you're talking about?" But luckily, before this can descend into Valley of the Dolls, Michael delivers a beautiful monologue about being 12 years old and caught in a storm with Greg, an Air Force fighter pilot whom he idolized, and how they shared a sleeping bag to keep warm. Sex doesn't appear to have entered the picture but, the next morning, Michael's father and a squad of MPs broke into their cabin and dragged Greg away. "The lesson of the story," according to Michael, "Is that I learned not to touch men." This speech precedes, by decades, similar confessional scenes in films as varied as My Own Private Idaho, Latter Days, and Brokeback Mountain.
There are two quite lengthy sexual interludes, one hetero, one homo. The male love scene is especially candid for a non-porn film from 1975. Lyrical and tender, it drips with tasteful carnality. There are lovely close-ups of hands stroking a hairy arm or a leg, and slow sensuous kisses. Long shots of them lying together alternate with the camera moving in close, following the lines of shoulders or buttocks to transform their bodies into vast erotic landscapes.
I wrote earlier that Saturday Night At The Baths was a very low budget film but, you know, a lot of today's queer indies look just the same. I enjoyed it more than I ever expected to. The ending really engaged me; I anticipated a conclusion with histrionics but instead it was left wide open. It depends on the movie, but ending with a question can sometimes be a good thing. Look at 2001 and Blow-Up. But Saturday Night At The Baths isn't Brokeback Mountain, far from it. The acting in the first scenes is so stiff that it is painful, but they must have shot most of the movie in sequence because the actors relax into their roles more and more as the film goes on. The director reveals, on the disc's extras, that he hired an uptight actor to play Michael while he cast the actual manager of the Continental Baths, Don Scotti, to play Scotti. The club's founder, Steve Ostrow, also appears as himself in the film.
The film screams 1970s. Not just the haircuts and the clothes, but also the look of the photography and the music. Despite boasting an original score, most of the un-credited music belongs to composer Erik Satie, specifically his very well-known Trois Gymnopedies, performed mechanically on the piano and sometimes on woodwinds. The disco-style music heard in the Baths is heavy on the flute and sounds like an unholy union between Issac Hayes' theme from Shaft and Jethro Tull.
But, all flaws aside, Saturday Night At The Baths offers the sheer pleasure of seeing the famed Continental Baths preserved on celluloid. All we're missing is Bette Middler. There are many scenes that were shot inside the actual Baths; the pool with its famous fountain, the dance floor, the steambaths, the showers. Men in towels dance performance art ballet, a drag show includes Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Shirley Bassey (!) The Soho art exhibit mentioned earlier features early body building photography from Bruce Webber. Like the French film from the same year, Johan, the 1978 British ditty, Nighthawks, and even 1980's Cruising, Saturday Night At The Baths features a tour of a gay scene from long, long ago in a galaxy far away; it can be enjoyed simply as a historical document. At the same time, however, one gets a sense of perspective upon realizing that many of the men in each of these movies probably died from AIDS complications within the next decade.
The new DVD replaces the original 2005 video release with a fresh, and uncut, master print from original director David Buckly's vault. The male sex scene was cut from many original prints of the film and appears here intact. The disc includes long interviews with both the director and the Baths' founder, Steve Ostrow - who states that he agreed to appear in the film because he felt that the director was "respectful." He shares the history of the Continental Baths and many other reminiscences from the 70s. I was intrigued that he spoke at length about an event in history that was also given great weight in the documentary After Stonewall - the American Psychiatric Association's removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Ostrow recalls what a cathartic moment it was: to have been sick and then magically cured.
All in all, this is a worthy DVD. Anyone who is a student of our queer cinematic past should see this film as it is quite an achievement for its time. If you don't agree, it's still interesting historically. The documentary preserves the memories from two of our elder statesmen and this is also important. Many of our historians are gone now; Barbara Giddings, Harry Hay, Vito Russo, to name just a few. This DVD is a must for any collector.
-- Review by Michael D Klemm, Cinema Queer (http://www.cinemaqueer.com)