In mid-1980s San Francisco, any and every unusual mark – every blemish on your body – was cause for concern. This was the reality for scores of people worrying whether they had been exposed to AIDS and were seeing the lesions of AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Test, the multiple award-winning second feature of writer-director Chris Mason Johnson (The New Twenty), explores this frequently harrowing time. Featuring dazzling original choreography by Sidra Bell, the story is set in the dance world at the height of the first wave of the AIDS outbreak.
“Most of the depictions of the early AIDS crisis have focused on out gay men who were older (30 and up) than my protagonists,” Johnson has written about the film. “I felt the time was right for a different story: of very young, isolated, frightened men who were part of a gay, yet tacitly closeted, dance culture and who suffered those early years in silence.”
Now out on DVD, Test is an insightful and dramatically engaging way to commemorate World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, while being reminded not only of how far we’ve come, but also of the importance of continued vigilance.
“In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, it remained unclear what caused the disease or how it was transmitted,” the film’s opening reminds us. “By 1985 the virus causing AIDS was identified and the first blood test developed.”
We’re introduced to Frankie, a young dancer who’s an understudy with a new dance company, where he meets Todd, a more experienced dancer in every sense of the word. Rugged, brawny, street-wise, cynical — and not above “hustling” now and then to pay the rent. The idea astounds the more naïve lad at first.
“You have a totally hot body,” Todd tells Frankie early on.
“You think?” Frankie retorts defensively. “Maybe I should sell it and make a little extra cash — no wait! Only a fucking moron would do that!”
All the same, he begins to feel an odd admiration for this enigmatic dance veteran, and a friendship between them develops that eventually (and at times begrudgingly) grows into mutual attraction. As their relationship deepens, both understand only too well that they, and practically everyone they know, are navigating a world of risk, and although news of the new test brings much-needed hope, it also brings out all the trepidation and uncertainties that caused many to worry about whether the information or a positive outcome might be used against them.
“If you had it and they found out, they could do something with the information — couldn’t they?” Frankie frets, “Like a quarantine or put your name on some list?”
As suspicion turns to admiration, though, resistances are lowered and deeper feelings shared, like when the pair finally open up and talk candidly about the relentless nihilism that seems to surround them.
“You know what scares me most about … I can’t say it …” Frankie breaks off, allowing Todd to finish the thought for him: “If you get sick, that’s how your family finds out — you come out by dying!”
Transporting viewers back to the decade of Sony Walkmans, music videos and Betamax, Johnson brilliantly captures the emotional “temperature” of the time and place he’s recreating. He is aided by director of photography Daniel Marks, whose shots make terrific use of the dynamic and picturesque city of San Francisco. The beauty of the surroundings here belied the deadly serious situation that many faced. This was an era when even the simplest and most mundane of encounters gave rise to flashes of overreaction, mistrust and self-doubt.
But it’s in smaller, subtler reactionary moments like these that the larger picture of the times is effectively conveyed.
“You can’t get it from sweat … can you?” Frankie asks after one female member of the dance troupe (apprehensive about Todd’s open and random sexual practices) requests that he wear a sweatshirt to avoid coming into contact with his sweat when they dance together. Soon after, he hears that another member of their troupe won’t patronize restaurants in the city’s famed Castro District, fearing that AIDS can be spread through food. Then, traveling on a bus, Frankie spies someone reading a local paper with a headline reading: “Should Gays Be Quarantined?”
Johnson also touches on the rash and desperate actions that some within the community took in the face of the growing pandemic. Take for example Frankie’s roommate Tyler: Although it’s obvious that he’s attracted to his young housemate, he nonetheless takes up with a girlfriend in the vain belief that engaging in hetero sex will keep him safe.
“Even though he knows better, it all feels like a punishment” for Frankie, notes Johnson. When peers like Tyler step back into the closet and pull the door shut, Johnson said, it’s hard for him to know what to do.
After what seems like weeks of waiting in the wings, our boy is at last given the chance to go on and afterward, he and Todd head off to a local club to celebrate. There Frankie meets and hooks up with Walt, which (he’ll quickly learn) puts him directly at risk for infection. At that time, it took a full two weeks until the results of the then-new blood test were available. The montage showing this lengthy waiting period are bound to be painfully identifiable even today.
Not everything here is darkness and panic however; this was also a luminous world of youth, art, beauty, music and ready eroticism, where at the local dance clubs, the slightest chance encounter held the promise of meeting “Mr. Right” (even if he was just “Mr. Right Now”).
Likewise, Test also works as a first-rate backstage story. In fact, in many ways, one might consider this a gay man’s answer, or at least tribute, to films of the decade like Flashdance and Staying Alive. This is again thanks to both Johnson and Marks’ proficiency at capturing the many sumptuous dance sequences — capturing the motion of the dancers through correspondingly fluid movements of the camera.
The film boasts a classic ’80s soundtrack, and even the closing credits are lively, featuring additional dance segments covered by Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” Other artists featured on the razor-sharp soundtrack include Laurie Anderson, Romeo Void and Cocteau Twins. There’s a certain poignancy in hearing disco superstar Sylvester, one of the first big music personalities to succumb to AIDS, played in the background of one scene via his hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”
Boyishly handsome Scott Marlowe plays Frankie, and there’s a lot riding on his performance because he’s the figure through whose eyes and experiences the story is told. He is immediately likeable — and completely empathetic — in the role. Marlowe is lean, lithe and athletic, and there are plenty of opportunities to show off his tight physique.
Matthew Risch (perhaps best known from HBO’s Looking) is Todd, and he does an excellent job as the cool, attractive, sardonic guy we all wanted to impress back in our high school and college days.
Equally refreshing is the strong underlying message about the continued vital importance of safe-sex practices and caution — even in these times, when medicines like Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) are available. When our heroes ultimately do get together, they wonder about the advice they’ve been hearing involving this thing called “safe sex,” which advocates using condoms to protect themselves. Although each sheepishly confesses to having gone out and gotten some, neither will admit to actually using them — yet.
At first they joke — laughing at the very idea. But understanding the newfound importance of protection, they get past it all and use one.
“My God, these things are going to end sex forever!” Frankie initially says, more than a touch incredulous. Subsequently, he muses, “I wonder if there’s gonna be, like, this wave of monogamy because of all this.” (These were, after all, very different times!)
“Well, that’s one way to be sure, right?” Todd replies, to which he concludes, “It just seems so … unnatural though — just being with one person. It’s like this massive unnatural challenge … like a test!”
Presented by Serious Productions, in association with Gloss, Test is now available on DVD, and it can be ordered at WolfeVideo.com. Bonus features include deleted scenes, Kickstarter video, a featurette on the original chorography and the theatrical trailer. The film is also available on V.O.D. from WolfeOnDemand.com and all major digital platforms. For more information, check out http://www.testthefilm.com.”