Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 16, 2014 11:31 am 
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Turning point for a San Francisco dancer, 1985

Test is a gay film with a light touch, some might think a tad too light, given the heavy time it deals with, the early days of AIDS in San Francisco. The city in the Seventies and early Eighties had been an earthly paradise for young gay men, who made up a high percentage of its male population (40%, a study reported in the New York Times in 1984 said) and were often well off. Now it's 1985 and gay guys in their prime are dying in droves. AIDS paranoia is rife. Quarantining of gays is advanced as a possibility in a local paper, while the etiology of the disease remains a mystery. Molly (Katherine Wells), a female dancer in a predominantly gay company, is paranoid about touching the sweat on the chest of fellow dancer Todd (Matthew Risch). Dancers scrutinize their torsos in search of telltale spots. Night sweats, diarrhea or other warning symptoms aren't mentioned, though, and the film treats the disease as a hovering fear rather than a present horror.

The protagonist is a longer, leaner, more delicate understudy in the troupe, Frankie (Scott Marlowe), who develops an opposites-attract relationship with the more macho but likewise openly gay Todd. The withholding and perhaps internalized-homophobic ballet master Jerry (director Johnson) tells Frankie to "dance like a fucking man!" Thus are gay self-issues sketched in.

Frankie is worried, and wondering if he should take the test. (It wasn't a happy idea to learn you're positive, but it was terrifying not to know.) Frankie is meant to be insecure about his dancing, because he has not stood the test or gotten the fulfillment of dancing the lead he's understudy for before an audience. But as he's seen in the film Frankie seems simply dance-obsessed, launching into warmups and stretches before he's even out of his bed in front of a San Francisco Victorian's big bay window. The excessive warmups and actual performances in the movie fit with who Frankie is but also cut into time that could have gone to defining him better as a person.

Director Chris Mason Johnson seems obsessed with Scott Marlowe's almost painfully thin, lithe, long body and with the dancing of the troupe, which makes up a big chunk of screen time, including a sequence when the lead can't show up and Frankie indeed gets to perform for an enthusiastic audience. It's pleasant to watch the dancing, which is well filmed. Marlowe is an appealing, if somewhat underwhelming, lead. Putative insecurity aside, he seems pleasant and assured when he gets to talk. But Matthew Risch, as Todd, a more confident actor, emerges as the more distinctive character.

The movie has its own little ways of sketching in the historical moment, notably nice San Francisco apartments that are still affordable, rotary phones with the running joke of their annoyingly tangled wires, and Frankie's trusty yellow Walkman to listen to music on headphones wherever he is, allowing for lots of plugged-in Eighties tunes. There's also Frankie's persistent search for how best to deal with mice in the apartment. These motifs create a certain rhythm, an alternative to the dancing and Frankie's incessant dressing and undressing and flexing of his lithe limbs.

With its serenity and focus on dance Test may seem to neglect the urgency of its AIDS theme. But after the New York sturm and drang of Kramer's The Normal Heart , recently revived through Ryan Murphy's HBO film version; David France's turbulent documentary How to Survive a Plague; and deeply sad AIDS melodramas past, this new film has some value as an historical corrective. Not everyone was community-oriented, or up in arms. In 1985 some San Francisco gay men continued, like Frankie, to live in a bubble, self-involved, pursing their own pursuits, clinging to Seventies hedonism.

Frankie may be nervous about AIDS, but he still has sex with men, particularly one called Walt (Kristoffer Cusick), met in a bar. He has a strong challenging vibe from the provocative Tood, who brags of sex for money and indulges in cigarettes and alcohol and lures Frankie into a night at the clubs on Ecstasy. Finally Frankie takes the test, and it turns out Todd has too, and that changes things.

The "point" of the film is to refer, in current terms, to the need for this demographic of gay men to redefine their post-AIDS lives as perhaps monogamous, and involving sex with condoms. The bubble is ending, an it's the end of gay paradise San Francisco, and everywhere else.

Test, 89 mins., debuted at Seattle 7 June 2013 but got major reviews when appearing in the Panorama section of the Berlinale 7 February 2014. It opened in New York 13 June 2014. Screened for this review 16 June at Quad Cinema.

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