Credit: Altered Innocence
by Joshua Peinado Feature Articles Featured Film

Saturday Night at the Baths — David Buckley

April 16, 2024

The “gay bathhouse” comes from a rich and storied tradition, from 15th-century Florence to 19th-century Paris to 20th-century New York City. Featuring an assortment of waterworks, private rooms, and a secure, safe place away from the public — gay men found reprieve in the company of each other, tucked away from their historically less-than-tolerant societies. Saturday Night at the Baths (1975), directed by David Buckley, explores the environment through the eyes of a newcomer, Michael (Robert Aberdeen), who has been hired as a pianist for a bathhouse. Though at first reluctant to embark into, let alone embrace, the homoeroticism of the venue and its many patrons, Michael does gravitate toward the club’s manager, Scotti (Don Scotti). The two’s initial encounter is riddled with tension — Michael, perhaps wary of his position as a stranger to gay life, hesitates to define his sexuality in any concrete terms, and downplays his relationship with his girlfriend, Traci (Ellen Sheppard). Scotti’s interest in Michael is apparent, and his point-blank questioning of Michael’s sexual history reveals to the audience that Michael is not entirely disinterested in Scotti. The rest of the film plays up this “will they won’t they” dynamic between Michael and Scotti, as Michael and Traci become all the more enraptured by the men of the bathhouse.

Saturday Night’s most visually poetic moments rejoice in the corporeal form of Michael and his sexual partners. The two sex scenes — one straight, one gay — are performed differently. As Michael and Traci begin, bodies are turned around in a carnival ride of carnal thrills and amorous desire. The scene between Michael and Scotti, though still explicit, is more intimate. The camera traces the landscapes of their legs, backs, and chests as one or the other crawls their lips around. It’s most reminiscent of Ronald Chase’s Cathedral (1971), and one wonders if Buckley couldn’t have found some inspiration there for the remarkable effect achieved within the scenes. Another marvelous moment comes just before Michael and Scotti first have sex, as the pair stand outside the club. The two, covered in shadow from the moonlight bouncing off the immense pillars, gaze upon the nightish city in all its lights.

Saturday Night acts primarily as an exploration of Michael’s sexuality. He comes from an air force base in Montana, and is frank and crass about his own intolerance for queer men, though his slurs are always coated in shades of presupposed irony and a distancing of himself from real homophobes. Traci, for her part, doesn’t play into the woman betrayed when she first notices the feelings Scotti has for Michael and the latter’s belligerent attitudes that seem to cover for something much deeper. Saturday Night is all the more interesting for its time period. Situated exactly halfway between the Stonewall riots and the onset of the AIDS crisis, the film is a reflection of a burgeoning golden age for the queer community. Buckley’s camera offers up a prismatic portrait of the Continental Baths just a few years before its close — complete with its many pools, disco floor, and grand piano. The film is also an obvious rejection of the characterization of gay men in other films of the time, and even to this day. Buckley plays with many stereotypes about gay men, but ultimately disavows them as their only true believer, Michael, comes to confront the reasons for his bigotry. In a tender communion between Michael and Scotti, moments from Michael’s past become illuminated for the first time, and the enigmatic presence of a lost opportunity for love becomes filled in.