Sex sells, but no one was buying David Schisgall's take on suburban swinging. Arthouse audiences are changing that

The Swing Dance 

Sex sells, but no one was buying David Schisgall's take on suburban swinging. Arthouse audiences are changing that

They could be lifted right out of a Reagan campaign commercial, from their Sun Belt addresses to their kidney-shaped swimming pools. They're suburban Republicans, with country-western accents, department-store wardrobes, permed hair, and earnest manners -- normal and red-blooded in every way. Except for one thing: These retired real-estate ladies and cops and aerospace engineers get together on weekends and holidays and have sex with each other. Not just the slow, old-fashioned way either -- these folks are genuine sexual dynamos. In the words of one of the enthusiasts, Costa Mesa, California's 70-something "Wild Bill" Goodwin, "There's oral sex, regular sex . . . all kinds of sex."

Erotic enthusiasm aside, this is exactly the crowd that sophisticated urbanites look down their educated noses at. But David Schisgall, a 31-year-old Harvard grad who now lives in New York, doesn't see these people as foolish. To him, suburban swingers are American pioneers, champions of freedom and democracy. "Swingers are frontiersmen," Schisgall says from his apartment on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood associated more with the urbane banter of Woody Allen's films than red-white-and-blue barbecues. "They're out there on the new frontier, the suburban communities built on the edge of the cities in the '50s, trying to create new moral systems based on the fundamental, underlying assumptions they were brought up with: Get married, have kids, get a job, stay-in-school-don't-do-drugs, and have unlimited sexual pleasure."

Though he comes across as a little smirky, Schisgall's got a wide-eyed vision of America that's positively Whitmanesque in its generosity. "America is a free country, and in a free country people are going to have more and more liberty, and some of that liberty will be sexual." He doesn't believe in the fashionable Boogie Nights theory of American sexuality -- that nobody did it before the '70s. "Sexual liberty in this country goes back to letting women vote, to whorehouses on the frontier," he says.

Schisgall's film -- The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs, which is his first -- captures this montage of rutting bodies, sun-baked used car lots, and democratic promise in all its glory. Though he pokes only good-natured fun at his subjects, the film is not only a fascinating cultural study; it is also downright hilarious. Its unforgettable cast of characters includes a conservative Latino couple -- the wife a no-nonsense ex-Marine -- who tell their kids they're going dancing while they're out at swing parties; a giggly Asian man, both philosopher and clown, who convinced his schoolteacher wife to swing by telling her about people who get together and "do . . . sexy things!"; and the youngest pair: A New Orleans sex-ed teacher and her nebbishy, grad-student husband (who's completing a dissertation on "suspicion and paranoia in the American novel since World War II"). She compares her husband's efforts to introduce her to swinging: "It was like me trying to convince him to get contacts [lenses]. It took me two years to get him to buy contacts."

Though some of these swingers talk about overcoming religious restrictions -- one woman, a fiery red-haired librarian, describes growing up in a repressive Southern town -- by and large this is not a group of rebels. But to Schisgall, they're just as bohemian as urbanites who swear by Kerouac or Sonic Youth. "America is an ongoing alternative culture," he says, sounding defiant, "and there's just as much alternative culture in Orange County as there is in SoHo."Though it's become an obsession in the last few years, Schisgall is interested in more than just group sex. He grew up in a Jewish family in Chevy Chase, Maryland -- adjacent to the similarly well-heeled D.C. suburb that produced hipster director Spike Jonze -- the son of a surgeon and elementary school teacher. "People in our generation who grew up in the suburbs assumed that everybody else's family was normal and that our own was really strange," he says. "While they're all really crazy. So I was really interested in what was going on behind closed doors."

It was while working at ABC, during a depressed stretch in 1995, that Schisgall met Dan Cogan, then a 25-year-old, first-year film school student at Columbia. Cogan, introduced to Schisgall at a bar in the East Village, remembers the encounter this way: "David was very drunk, and we were talking about filmmakers. And he told me he wanted to make a film about normal, average people in Middle America who were engaging in group sex. In the honest, drunken moment, this was what was on his mind."

Cogan didn't believe people like this had existed since the 1970s, but Schisgall insisted that their scene was stronger than ever. Walking home from the bar that night, Cogan was intrigued with the idea. While getting to know the director in the ensuing weeks, discussing everything from sexual and political extremism to English Protestant splinter groups of the 17th century, he realized: "David Schisgall is half-genius, half-crackpot."

Fascinated by the project and Schisgall's mind, Cogan began to raise money. The director, meanwhile, started scouting out swingers, calling numbers he found in the backs of magazines and newsletters. "When I first started making phone calls," he says, "99 percent of the people hung up on me."

But after several months of work, a Nashville swing club owner -- and former president of the Northwest Arkansas Realtors Association -- was drawn to the young director's earnestness and invited him down. Schisgall followed lead after lead. "My pitch was that I was independent -- I wasn't going to take this back to New York, where some executive producer was going to insist on "balance' -- which is usually a code word for repeating the conventional wisdom. Which, in this case, was a mass of prejudices."

He also told them there would be no narration, no cautionary figure emerging to warn the audience not to try this at home. Typically, it took him a year between meeting people and convincing them to do interviews. It took him, often, another full year to get subjects to go on camera. Orin, a retired horse trainer who swings with his schoolteacher wife in the Inland Empire, says he responded to Schisgall's drive as an artist. "I understood the fire in the belly. I could empathize with him, that he had to do this before he could move on with his life."

Despite the assurances he made his subjects, Schisgall took an objective, journalistic approach. "We were always looking for the dark side of swinging," he recalls. "When am I gonna go to someone's house and see a hint of coercion or a woman crying or someone's kids who are really fucked up or AIDS outbreaks? I was tracking down former CDC officials -- the whole nine yards."

But he eventually realized he was looking for something that didn't exist. "It was prejudice. These people had a different sexual practice than I did, and I was determined to find something dangerous or illegal." He found a world that's generally controlled by women, a world of middle-aged empty-nesters enjoying their newfound freedom, a world where people sometimes keep their swinger identity secret, but have nothing serious to hide. For many of these swingers, he says, group sex can be a real bonding experience. And Cogan, who had seen his own family nearly destroyed by adultery, was fascinated by the survival, even thriving, of swinger marriages.

Not everybody, Schisgall concedes, can swing. "This is innocuous for people who have the emotional ability to pull it off -- not everybody does. You have to be very good at marriage, very good at communicating, and you have to have no sexual jealousy. If you can't watch your woman get fucked by another guy, you will not be a good swinger."In search of swingers, Schisgall and company roamed past the John Wayne Airport, past Disneyland -- which the director calls "the epicenter of swinging in America" -- through the Inland Empire, across the country to Denver and New Orleans in their white van. They drove all over suburban America, interviewing swingers and shooting hours and hours of swing parties, during which Schisgall and his crew were usually undressed. "I often got naked when I was making the film," he says. "My attitude was, if you're a journalist and you're going to a black-tie affair, you wear a tux. If you go to a swing party and wear clothes, you advertise your difference. I didn't want to advertise my difference -- I wanted to get to the point where people could ignore me." The effort paid off: During the film's last dozen or so minutes, the director captures naked swingers discussing charcoal versus gas grills.

Schisgall showed the completed film to his swinger subjects and found them largely approving. Orin says that, while he enjoyed the film, he noticed that Schisgall portrayed mostly swingers in their 50s and 60s -- independent entrepreneurs or retired people who have nothing to lose by going onscreen -- which skews the movie a little. And he points out that swinging is only one aspect of their lives. "You know what? We've got income tax. Forget about partying until the 15th of April!"

After all the labor he put into the movie, Schisgall expected his idea to register with independent studios. But he found not only indifference, but outright hostility. "The indie film industry is always selling itself as avant garde, pushing the envelope, cutting-edge. But that's horseshit." In 1997, in New York, he showed a pitch reel to the president of a major indie distribution company he would rather not identify. "At the end of the film he came outside, and his face was red, and he started screaming at me! "What's your point? What are you trying to prove?' I always wanted the film to piss people off, but I didn't expect it to piss off people in the film industry. And I didn't want it to piss off this guy. But I've learned that the film business, even the indie film biz, is very reactionary. It's become very rigid. And that's especially true of the documentary world."Though the movie is promoted on its trailer as coming from the producers of The Ice Storm and Happiness -- both hip suburban-hell films also funded by the independent production company Good Machine -- The Lifestyle is harder to describe than either. It certainly makes a case that, however confused and deceived the Academy seems to be about documentaries -- they recently overlooked yet another brilliant Errol Morris movie, Mr. Death -- there's been a renaissance of great nonfiction film in the last few years. Not only the work of elder statesmen like Morris, but also Bennett Miller's The Cruise, S.R. Bindler's Hands on a Hardbody, and Chris Smith's American Movie. What these young documentary makers -- they are all around 30 -- have in common is the ability to capture distinct parts of America in all their unvarnished glory, creating an eccentric new regionalism.

The most subversive idea in Schisgall's film, and the one he thinks has stirred up resistance, has to do with his attitude toward Middle America. He's not kidding about this. Schisgall calls C.J. -- The Lifestyle's Southern-born librarian, who now lives in Colorado -- "a genuine pilgrim frontierswoman." With some indignity in his voice: "The young people in the cities do not have a monopoly on American rebellion and diversity. I think that's the real reason people get angry about the film. "We are ahead of the people in the suburbs' -- that's crap.

"Nobody hated the suburbs more than I did, and nobody wanted to get out faster than I did. And get out I did." But toiling in TV showed the director the contempt and condescension many of his co-workers in the media had for the suburban middle class. "When I worked at ABC, there was a very clear worldview, and deviation from it was not acceptable. What the people in Manhattan and L.A. imagine the country to be like becomes the way the country is portrayed -- this homogenized, reactionary, benighted peasantry. And that bugs the shit out of me.

"I'm a firm believer in the goodness of the American people and the creativity inherent in our system."

Schisgall hasn't given up his fascination with utopias and weird subcultures. "I'm interested in making a film about a cult, a real religious cult, a documentary about their travails. I'd like to find a cult that was innocuous, that glorifies what society already tells you to do, a yuppie cult -- and there really are some in upstate New York. I really want to find a cult that encourages production and consumption -- that takes the stuff of America and elevates it to the form of a new religion."

Between now and then, he's hoping The Lifestyle will make arthouse audiences rethink not only their own biases about sex, but also about the soul of the nation itself. One of the film's shots shows the crossing of Bob Hope Drive and Gerald Ford Avenue in an empty stretch of desert near Palm Springs, California. "For me, that's a metaphor for the film," he says. "What are they going to build on that empty lot? A subdivision of swingers. I wanted to leave it up to the audience to decide if it marked the triumph of civilization or the decline."

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