Set in 1985 San Francisco, the low-budget Test is a compelling drama about the onset of the AIDS crisis. Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is a dancer whose unease about the disease is palpable. His concerns are contrasted with those of his fellow dancer, Todd (the magnetic Matthew Risch), who has a more reckless attitude towards life and sex. In Frankie’s eyes, Todd seems more likely to get “it” because of his behavior, but Frankie goes to get tested after a series of sexual encounters scare him.
In a recent phone interview, writer/ director Chris Mason Johnson discussed what prompted him to make Test. He explained, “AIDS films in general, if we can use that label, have been death-bed stories. That’s understandable; those stories needed to be told first for political and emotional reasons, and it’s understandable that sex is edited out of AIDS stories.”
He continued, “But I have a young male dancer protagonist who wants to have sex. I wanted to put the sex back in the story, and make it tense and difficult because he is paranoid about illness. I also wanted to make it real, human, funny, and erotic. I didn’t want to sanitize the sexuality out of the story just because we’re dealing with the theme of HIV/ AIDS.”
But Test is about tests other than just HIV status. Frankie is tested as an understudy in a dance company when he gets the opportunity to perform at one point in the film. Johnson explained that he used the world of dance to mirror the experiences of gay men at the time of the AIDS crisis.
The dance sequences are beautifully done, and Johnson cast Scott Marlowe—a local dancer in San Francisco—in the lead role because he was a dancer who could act naturally in the part.
Another “test” in Test is a point raised in the film’s end, where a character suggests AIDS enforces monogamy for gay couples—that it is “like a test.” Johnson develops this idea throughout the f ilm, as Frankie’s roommate, Tyler (Evan Boomer), embraces a heterosexual relationship despite an attraction to Frankie.
“The early AIDS epidemic chased a lot of young men back into the closet for a decade,” Johnson acknowledged. “Tyler the roommate is an example of that trend or reaction, which is one fate for Frankie.”
Considering the emotional state for gay men in the epidemic’s first decade further, he added, “There was this tension—assimilate or maintain your identity. I’m all in favor of gay marriage, but I want to point out that the assumption of normality and monogamy and being mainstream and just like everyone else is a great thing, but you also lose something, like you do with gentrification.”
“I wanted to be provocative and also point out that in the beginning the move towards monogamy in the wake of the early AIDS epidemic was also fear-based and an ‘insurance’ plan. That’s not to say people didn’t value emotionally committed relationships, but that it was over determined.” How audiences come to judge and appreciate the characters is part of what makes Test so absorbing.
Burning Blue is another new movie worth your time. It’s an intense, engrossing drama about a military investigation that turns up a possible “gay cell” on a Navy Aircraft carrier. Daniel (Trent Ford) and his best friend William (Morgan Spector) are best buddies. When Matthew (Rob Mayes) enters their unit, a love triangle tinged with jealousy develops. (One of the men is straight.)
Wr iter/director DMW (David) Greer, adapting his own play, has crafted a poignant story about masculinity and sexuality within the culture of the military. Burning Blue is really about wanting what others say you can’t have. Greer met with me for the San Francisco Bay Times and explained what prompted him to make Burning Blue, first as a play, and now as a film.
“It was a need to exorcise very deep grief. It’s a personal story, but it’s a work of fiction, one very much inspired by my real life. I was in the military. I had been in love with a guy for years who was killed flying. I lost a lot of friends in aircraft accidents, but when this guy was killed, his death was the epiphany. It was the seed that was planted for me to tell the story. But the catalyst was my closest friend’s response to my telling him that I was in love with this other man.”
He continued, “I had relationships with men prior to this, but not anything that was as deeply profound as this. It was a platonic relationship, but it was very special and intimate.”
As viewers will see, the film, whose story ends in 2001, is an emboldening cautionary tale about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Gary M. Kramer, a is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer