By Don Simpson | October 22, 2013
Director: Chris Mason Johnson
Writer: Chris Mason Johnson
Starring: Scott Marlowe, Kevin Clarke, Kristoffer Cusick, Matthew Risch
In 1985, AIDS was believed by most of mainstream society to be a gay disease, even though no one knew exactly what caused it, how it was transmitted, how to prevent it or how to treat it. Chris Mason Johnson’s Test excels in fully immersing itself into the fear and self-loathing perpetuated by all of the uncertainty festering within the gay community in San Francisco. Experienced via Frankie’s (Scott Marlowe) perspective, something dark and menacing is always lingering on the horizon, leaving it difficult to surmise if AIDS or the rampant homophobia is the more sinister villain in this film.
A professional dancer, Frankie is as paranoid about AIDS as most gay men in 1985. Even working among a troupe of gay men, Frankie is trained to dance like a real man — in other words, attempt to pass as straight men while performing. Frankie’s stress level escalates to dizzying proportions as he impatiently awaits his virginal opportunity to perform in front of an audience. In the meantime, Frankie is relegated to watching his dance troupe’s performances from backstage. His only chance of getting under the spotlight is if another member of his dance troupe becomes injured or ill.
All the while, sex has taken on negative connotations for Frankie — heck, any sort of physical contact with another gay man seems to be life threatening. Frankie is petrified that he already has AIDS, which makes him hesitant to take the newly released test. Eventually, he realizes that no matter what the result, at least the test will end the crippling uncertainty.
For better or worse, 1985 signifies a tremendous shift in the history of gay culture. A culture that was presumed to be promiscuous was suddenly given an indisputable reason to practice safe sex and monogamy, just as Frankie’s “fuck art, let’s dance” mentality shifts to a more responsible and calculated approach to living.
Test perfectly encapsulates the uniqueness of this time, place and culture. From the production design to the soundtrack to the overall mood and tone, Johnson nails it. For some of us, the mid-1980s may not seem all that far away — that is until we see just how archaic the Sony Walkman and rotary telephones seem in comparison to modern technology. It gives humanity some hope that in less than 30 years, the Sony Walkman and telephone have come to be combined and replaced by the iPhone; just as in a relatively brief span of time, a cure has been developed for AIDS (though not everyone who needs it has access to it).
In comparison to recent LGBT breakout films like Weekend and Keep the Lights On, Test seems a bit more — well — gay. For example, while the dance sequences do provide some metaphors that add meaning to the overall narrative, those scenes may actually distract mainstream audiences from latching onto Test, because we all know that dancing is totally gay. I am playing the sarcasm card only because it would be a crying shame if that truly becomes the reason that mainstream audiences do not allow Test the same opportunities that they provided Weekend and Keep the Lights On.