Chris Mason Johnson's 1980s-set AIDS panic drama "Test" belongs loosely to a trio of recent films that capture the realities and rhythms of gay urban life without succumbing to the cliches that tend to plague queer cinema. Let's call it the New New Queer Cinema. These filmmakers want to tell stories, and their films are as much about a specific time and place as they are about depicting real, relatable erotic relationships between men.
Johnson's second film as writer/director, the startlingly intelligent, visually mesmerizing "Test" sets the moody tale of brooding modern dancer Frankie (Scott Marlowe) against a backdrop of dread as quickly-escalating as the outbreak of the then-unknowable HIV virus. Off the dance floor, the film flirts with death and looming romance, while evoking the emptiness and fleeting fulfillment of one-night stands, and the spikes of self-loathing, endemic to being gay in the city. Onstage, the choreography, with all its male musculature on full sweaty display, is gay as the day.
And it doesn't hurt that Chris Mason Johnson, who spoke with me on the phone, comes from the dance world himself. Variance Films opened this LGBT film festival hit in New York and LA in Summer 2014. It's now on VOD.
Ryan Lattanzio: Where did the idea for this film, and setting it within the AIDS panic of the 1980s San Francisco dance world, come from? It's very specific.
Chris Mason Johnson: I was a dancer in the '90s professionally, and in the late '80s, I was a teenager and saw the early part of the epidemic. So some of it is personal experience. I wanted to tell a story about gay dancers that took them seriously; the heroes of dance movies are almost always ballerinas, from "The Red Shoes" to "The Turning Point" to "Black Swan," and the male dancers are either "straight" or they're like a sniggering joke, like Mel Brooks' "Men in Tights." I hadn't seen this character represented seriously. Also, all of the AIDS films I've seen have been deathbed movies. I can understand why because the other stories needed to be told first for political reasons and for all kinds of reasons. But there were survivors. Enough time has passed that I think we can hear different sides of things now.
Most contemporary gay cinema comes in the form of those cheesy movies streaming on Netflix, or the rom-coms and the coming out stories. There are notable exceptions. How did you set "Test" apart?
Film Comment wrote, "If there was ever a contemporary film that illuminates why queer cinema still matters, this is it." During the transition into queer cinema, there was a lot of pandering product. A lot of stuff that was eager to please, make a buck, wannabe-formula and I think that with "Weekend" and "Keep the Lights On," "Looking" on HBO, and hopefully my movie, we're starting to see a different kind of realism again.
Do you feel obligated as a gay filmmaker to tell stories about the community?
It's kind of a double-edged sword. You're ghettoized and you're associated with a lot of that product but on the other hand I don’t want to give up the rainbow flag. I'm proud of it. We are on the verge of some really good cinema that has queer characters in it, and that isn't that other pandering stuff.
Your film is very cinematic, from the 80s period details to the sort of ambient rhythms of the sound and editing. You pay as much attention to form as you do to content. Why?
We're in a golden age of television but it really is a talk medium. I love cinema that's image-based so I wanted to tell the story cinematically and that approach fit the subject because the character, Frankie, is pretty much mute. In older queer movies, the characters are very verbal and are in communities of men who are very verbal together. In "Test" you have somebody who's not comfortable in his skin, in a closeted world, and he's facing the epidemic silently and with other people who are also facing it silently, partly because they're 20 to 25 and men in the other dramas are 30 to 35, culturally. Cinematically it’s the difference between an inner life represented through image, and my favorite example is Kieslowki's "Blue." It' more of a European tradition to represent an inner life through external images and we tend to be a more talk-based cinema in this country. So that was something I wanted to try.
That's one of my favorite films.
Mine too, but I also love "Moulin Rouge!"
What did you shoot on?
We shot on an HD camera that's basically the poor man's Red. I had a good DP who I've worked with before and we were really conscious of the whole look. I'm an editor; I edited my first feature and I edited this feature. Not alone but I did a lot of it.
Is editing, then, the essence of cinema for you?
There's an old saying. A film is written three times, once as a screenplay, once in production and once in editing. I find, especially with an independent film where you have a tiny budget and you can't just pay for everything you want, that the editing process is really another writing phase, where the story is rewritten and composed; there, you can try to film what's on the page and even if it's bad, that's what you have because it's on the page, or you can respond to what is on film. What did you get? What you get when you shoot is not necessarily what you wrote and if you're open to that, then it gets reshaped.
What surprised you in the post-production process?
The film is a lot lighter in a good sense, a lot more hopeful, than I expected. It's funny in places or amusing at least, and it definitely is melancholy but there is a lightness and hope.
What does the choreography in the dance sequences reveal about the characters and narrative of the film?
The dance had to really tell a lot of the story. Through images. When I was a dancer, I was in this dance -- I won't name the choreographer -- but it was all male and it just had this creepy vibe. It wasn't homosexual but there was an edge to it and later I realized, that choreographer was probably working through, unconsciously, some response to the AIDS epidemic. Like he was repulsed by gay men but was too liberal and smart to acknowledge that, so it came out in this imagery. That was my inspiration.
What tone were you attempting to achieve in these sequences, where the otherwise quiet, reserved main character appears to be expressing himself in ways he is unable to in life?
I wanted the dance to be creepy and homoerotic and macabre without being explicitly gay. It's an all male dance number, and I worked closely with choreographer Sidra Bell. We did a combination of the morbid erotic thing, combined with really fun virtuosic moves because I'm not a huge fan of barefoot modern dance. Nor am I a fan of classic ballet -- I find both boring. I like this middle ground where people can do ballet, modern, virtuosic things that are exciting and not cheesy.
There is this fine line of dancing that I like. Dancers have a super fine sense of what is cheesy just like anybody in any field and you really know it. The audience gets that too. People always say when I bring up dance, I don’t know anything about dance. But they always do. They know what they like.