Test: Chris Mason Johnson’s AIDS Movie (LGBTQ, Gay)

Venice and Cannes Film Fest had instituted a prize for best LGBT-themed film in 2007 and 2010 respectively. However, Berlin began handing out its “Teddy Award” back in 1987 (with Pedro Almodovar’s “Law of Desire” snagging the very first one).

In 2014, one of the eagerly-awaited movies was Chris Mason Johnson’s “Test”, a sly low-budget indie about Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a dancer in San Francisco in 1985, who juggles his career and love life while agonizing over getting the newly HIV test.

With period detail and propulsive soundtrack (featuring Bronski Beat’s club anthem “Smalltown Boy”), the film, cast with professional dancers, achieves authenticity.

The protagonist is not passive–both his anxiety and thirst for life are released when he dances.

Test” takes a fresh approach, depicting the panic and paranoia in LGBT communities after the AIDS outbreak. But it’s also a film about bodies in motion, about dance as affirmation of endurance and revolt against the imminent threat of mortality.

Revisiting this particular moment in history, when the HIV test was introduced?

CMJ: I think the stories that needed to be told first were of death and dying and governmental inaction and political activism. But I think enough time has passed that a different kind of story can be told. We’ve seen movies about older men and men in their 30s dealing with this. However, a movie about the 20-year-old facing the AIDS crisis isolated and alone – that hasn’t been done as much.

The dance world is very closeted, even though there are a lot of gay men — just like Hollywood. So back then, the question for a lot of male dancers was: How could you be open about this disease if you weren’t open about your sexuality? It was sort of this double problem. I don’t think that story had been told.

Furthermore, this particular moment in our history was complicated. When the first test came out, there was no guarantee that the information would be protected. There was a lot of homophobic scapegoating, talk of a quarantine of gay people, or the government keeping a list of people who were sick. In hindsight, it seems extremely farfetched. But it was a real fear at the time. And there was this test, but the disease was a death sentence, because there was no treatment. There was a debate within the community about whether you should even be tested. So it was all very fraught.

Autobiographical film?

CMJ: Yes, to some extent. I was a teenager at that time, dancing professionally. I was definitely there, and I was definitely scared. I’m definitely drawing on some memories in this movie.

Current state of queer cinema?

CMJ: Those are complicated questions. What we see on TV and sitcoms, even ones I respect, is kind of the gay character as court jester, which has a long history going back to 1930s Hollywood. I’m grateful for “Will and Grace” and “Modern Family,” but I feel like we’re ready to evolve beyond that. Movies like “The Kids are All Right”, “Brokeback Mountain,” “Weekend” and I hope my film, do that.

The real issue for me is not mainstream versus marginalized, but between types of representation.

I think after an initial phase of amazing queer cinema in the 90s, we entered a phase that was less adventurous. And now I think we’re coming out of that into a more artful, realistic representation that doesn’t depend on the court jester prototype. So I do think there’s progress, even if it’s slow.

“Dallas Buyers Club” drew criticism because it tells the story of this disease through a heterosexual character

CMJ: I haven’t seen “Dallas Buyers Club” yet, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion! I think the politics of representation are especially important when you don’t have a lot of representation. So how Hollywood does a black character, a Latino character, a transgender character, a gay character – that matters, because we see it so infrequently. When more and more of that content is out there, getting it exactly right will matter less. So I’m happy for the makers of “Dallas Buyers Club” for making it, I think that story should be told. But because there’s so little representation around the subject of AIDS, I understand why people in the gay community might have an issue.

Gay sex in American films is chaste

CMJ: I think that’s because of the Puritan thing, but there’s also a real squeamishness about gay sex. I tried to address that in my film by having some fairly frank scenes. We’re still not comfortable as a broad audience watching gay sex, but hopefully we’ll get there, too. I want to add that I’m not interested in sex onscreen unless there’s some conflict or drama. A sex montage set to music is embarrassing to watch, gay or straight.

‘Test’ official trailer