by Douglas Messerli
Franklin Khedouri (screenplay), David Buckley (director) Saturday Night at the Baths / 1975
David Buckley’s 1975 film Saturday Night at the Baths is almost two films in one. The first is a rather amateurishly written and acted, although basically likeable story of a lanky Montana piano player, Michael (Robert Aberdeen) who has recently moved to New York in search of larger venues for his evident talent. Although he lives with a rather hip up-and-coming photographer, Tracy (Ellen Sheppard) in a SoHo apartment, he is rather a hick, having brought with him many of the bigoted attitudes when it comes to gender, sexual identity, and behavior. Given his easy-going personality and generally genial demeanor none of this might have mattered had he not just been offered a job playing piano at the famed Continental Baths, opened by Steve Ostrow (who appears in this movie) in the Ansonia Hotel in 1968, and which infamously featured a disco dance floor, sauna rooms, an “Olympia blue” swimming pool, bunk beds in public areas and the standard tiny cubicles that every gay bathhouse offered. The facility had a capacity for 1,000 men for 24 hours a day, while also offering an STD clinic, a supply of A200 (the lice-killing shampoo) in its showers, a mouthwash dispenser, and, as one character in the film hints, a K-Y Jelly vending machine. As one of the most popular of gay guides crowed: “The Continental revolutionized the bath scene in New York City.”
When the film’s possible hero Michael gets called there for his audition, he asks Tracy what the place is like: her answer says it all, “decadent.”
It’s hardly surprising, accordingly, when the Montana-born ivory tickler enters its hallowed halls, some of the bathhouse clients immediately lay claim to the pretty new face with blond curly hair. Yet, even if we know such a thing was possible, the stereotypical “nellie” camp behavior of these figures seems tone deaf, as if the entire customer base of the Continental were made up of queens. The straight boy is understandably nonplussed by their “hands on” greeting, albeit perhaps a bit more confused by the kindly and straight-looking manager, Scotti (Don Scotti), who asks him, upon perceiving his new hire is straight, if he has ever done it with a man before.
As writer Michael Klemm characterizes the scene: “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,” asking his out for lunch, presumably to “get to know him better.” It’s one thing, apparently, for obvious “effeminate fags” to droll over the new straight boy, but quite another for someone who looks not so very different in appearance from Michael himself to make a pass, about which he complains to his girlfriend.
Similarly, the straight sex-scene between Michael and Tracy soon after is filled with Michael’s absurdly cornball imitations of a German and an Arab as he mock wrestles her pretending to tie her into the bed before coitus. The scene seems so sexist and superfluous, despite its rather straight-forward representation of nudity—something that might not have surprised us while watching Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends of Chantel Ackerman’s I you he see of the same year, but was not yet common in US filmmaking—that we almost feel a bit queasy about the director’s implications.
And the next scene, when, upon Scotti’s invitation, the couple visits an opening at a local art gallery, Razor, showing Bruce Weber’s masculine and feminine bodybuilders, Michael’s comments continue in that vein, denigrating a world outside of the one he has previously experienced. Tracy, on the other hand, is quickly asked by a lesbian couple to photograph them and gratefully accepts the offer. Although Michael determines to leave early, she stays on drinking and enjoying the company of other artists and Michael’s new employer Scotti.
With the men seated on the floor while Tracy sits between them on the couch, Scotti relates a special story. Once more, Klemm nicely summarizes the situation:
“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.”
Michael’s behavior, moreover, becomes even more deplorable when a day or so later the three of them are sitting comfortably in the sun of Central Park, Scotti recalling that his first experience with sex was almost at the very same spot. “What was her name?” Michael clumsily asks. “His, his name....” Scotti corrects. “You mean you never had sex before that with a woman?” he inquires with complete incredulousness. “No wonder you’re not normal.”
That remark not only closes the conversation, but almost ends their friendship, resulting in a similarly shocked reaction from Tracy, who severely reprimands her lover. His defense is simply that that is what one said growing up in a military family in Montana. But they are not in Montana, she argues, and surely he now knows how stupid his comments are. Evidently not. “Faggots are still faggots’ to his way of thinking, and although he “likes” Scotti he couldn’t ever be a close friend, fearing always what that might suggest.
This time, in his idiotic rural-bred conceptions, Michael has gone too far. Tracy suggests that they both must do some deep thinking to determine whether she and he can continue to be a couple given his way of perceiving things.
Uncomfortably, the audience is made to feel similarly. The character with whom we have begun this story is just too simplistic to allow us to maintain interest in this tale. While we recognize, obviously, that the screenplay by Franklin Khedouri is meant to emphatically demonstrate the outsider, conventional viewpoint of all those who cannot even imagine the Continental bathhouse exploits, the central character has himself now become as much a stereotypical figure as the salivating queers in the film’s earliest scenes. Caught between two extremes, Buckley’s film seems almost ready to spin into a vortex of clashing visions that can never be resolved.
Fortunately, the “second movie” begins at that very moment. In transition, Michael visits Scotti at his apartment just prior to the evening’s festivities to apologize, explaining a back-history we long suspected was there all the time. Befriended by a sensitive military officer serving alongside his father, the 12-year old Michael was treated to trout fishing outings and other sporting events. One night, caught in a storm, the two found refuge from the cold in a cabin, the Air Force fighter pilot sharing a blanket and a hug to keep the shivering boy warm. He fell to sleep in the officer’s arms, with evidently no sex involved. But the next morning Michael’s father and several MPs broke into the cabin, dragging the boy away. "The lesson of the story," Michael reflects, "Is that I learned not to touch men." And with that admission the director has been freed to start his film all over again.
For those who have seen Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game of 1992, they will recall that if the bar in which the central figure of that story, Fergus first meets Dil everything seems absolutely entrancingly romantic as if it were a heterosexual meeting place for desiring couples; yet gradually the feeling of the place shifts becoming suddenly an almost bizarre private club when Dil and her friends begin to sing and lip-sync a few nights later, forcing those in the audience who had previously seen the world in blinders as Fergus does, to realize that Dil is transsexual rather than the heterosexual woman the Irishman has thought her to be.
In Buckley’s work, the same thing occurs but totally in reverse: if the characters of the Continental first appeared as outlandish representations of queers, we now witness them within a context that becomes spellbindingly alive, almost magically real and most certainly something which we might wish to be part of.
As Michael Koresky wrote in his “Queer&Now&Then” column in 2019:
The Michael who returns to Tracy in her studio is a different man as he honestly answers her questions of why he has been so late and if anything had happened between him and Scotti. When he answers “yes,” she asks how it will affect them as a couple. His answer is a straight forwardly honest as one can imagine: “I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t.” But it has already changed him whether he realizes it or not. If nothing else, he will never again question the normality of gay sex.
Saturday Night at the Baths is not a great film, locked in its time, social mores, period dress, retro Kemtone color, and its echoing sound system, as well as its often graceless dialogue and acting. Yet it is hard to imagine a more sincere work that simultaneously captures a gay, pre-AIDS world that can never be brought to life again. In that sense, finally, Buckley’s work has truly become the documentary that the director pretended to be filming in the guise of his narrative fiction. And as an historical document perhaps the movie looks better today than it originally did.
Los Angeles, December 12, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).