Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Saturday Night at the Baths (1975)

          It’s interesting to read the spectrum of opinions people have expressed online about Saturday Night at the Baths, a fairly innocuous melodrama concerning gay life in New York City circa the mid-’70s. Some fans recall embracing the film at the time of its release because so few movies offered positive gay imagery, while others relish the piece as a time capsule because much of the picture was shot inside the Continental Baths, a mecca for gay men in Greenwich Village back in the day. Yet others pillory the film as predictable and timid, both fair charges, while still more dismiss the picture as an advertisement for the Continental. That charge also has some validity, seeing as how Steve Ostrow, who owned the Continental, produced the picture and plays himself in a small supporting role. According to this movie’s vision of the Continental, Ostrow’s establishment was a magical place where nothing bad or untoward ever happened. Even the notion of cruising receives little more than a mention, despite casual hookups being a significant part of gay-bathhouse culture. So with all these differing takes, which interpretation seems most accurate? Weirdly, all of them.
          On its surface, the picture is a gentle story about a young man coming to grips with a complicated sexual identity, since a job playing piano at the Continental forces him to consider long-suppressed homosexual yearnings. Underneath, Saturday Night at the Baths is an infomercial—don’t bother looking for any suggestions of peer pressure, prostitution, or sexual or substance abuse. Yet because some folks may have genuinely experienced the Continental as an idyllic place, the rose-colored portrayal could be at least partially accurate.
          In any event, the story’s protagonist is Michael (Robert Aberdeen), a skinny musician from Montana who lands a job at the Continental. The club’s manager, Scotti (Don Scotti), takes an interest in Michael very quickly, putting the moves on the pianist and then backing off when Michael says he’s straight. Sure enough, Michael lives with open-minded Tracy (Ellen Sheppard), though she plainly suspects there’s more to her lover’s gender identity than even he realizes. And so it goes from there. Spending time with Scotti compels Michael to move past homophobia, while also demonstrating to the audience that, gosh darn it, gay men are people, too. If it’s possible to imagine a movie that feels as earnest as an after-school special while also featuring drag queens, full-frontal nudity, and gyrating dancers wearing gold-lamé banana hammocks, then you’ve got a sense of what to expect from Saturday Night at the Baths.

Saturday Night at the Baths: FUNKY

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