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Why 'Test' Director Chris Mason Johnson Is One to Watch in the New Pantheon of Queer Filmmakers (TRAILER)

Features
by Ryan Lattanzio
June 13, 2014 5:16 PM
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'Test'

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 opens this LGBT film festival hit in New York and LA today, June 13. It's already available on VOD. (Trailer after the jump.)

'Test'

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.

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