TEST may sound like a generic title but the fine new gay indie by that name is anything but. Chris Mason Johnson’s Test follows Frankie (Scott Marlowe) a young gay dancer in San Francisco in 1985. He's the troupe's new understudy. He’s learning a dance he might never get to perform. The threat of AIDS looms large — a female dancer worries about the sweat from her gay partner and reminders are everywhere (papers, graffiti, whispered dialogue). It’s not just the dance; Frankie’s beginning a life he might never get to live.
He and his dancer friends are varying degrees of worried about AIDS and the topic of a new test for it keeps peppering the conversations. Will Frankie take it?
As it turns out you can make a 1985-set AIDS movie that doesn’t follow the typical beats. The dance environment gives Test a surprising visual appeal but, as the director (pictured left) reminds when we settle into our interview, it’s also not fully an AIDS movie in the way we think of them.
“Every other AIDS movie has been about death and dying, understandably. I think it’s safe to say that [Test] is about the fear of getting sick, it’s not about being sick. It’s just as much about dance as anything else.”
Queer cinema has seen better days so it’s a thrill to see an indie this fresh again that speaks so personally to the LGBT audience. Test is in the top 25 iTunes indie charts and the early success is well deserved.
Sex scenes, masculinity debates, and dancing AFTER THE JUMP
Chris Mason Johnson’s first feature The New Twenty was about a group of friends hitting 30 and though it had a couple of gay characters it was a decidedly more mainstream effort. Test is a huge leap forward artistically and the director’s voice is clear. Why is that? “Part of it is practice,” he admits, adding humorously “That’s the boring answer!” He directed, wrote, edited and produced this new film after a more commercial project fell through. “The more interesting answer is I had a much stronger sense of what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do. And it was much more personal.“
Johnson began his career as a dancer and paired with his talent behind the camera this grants Test a rare authenticity, especially for a micro-budgeted indie with “light suggestions of period". Johnson jokes that they just had to kind of point the camera up for lack of 1985. Joking aside, he knows just where to put the camera and I thank him profusely for letting us actually see the dancing rather than editing the movement into abstraction. He shares a list of inspiring films that got dancing right “Cabaret - Bob Fosse was an amazing director of dance, Pina did a genius job, The Red Shoes of course, Hair, Saturday Night Fever, Pennies From Heaven the Christopher Walken number is incredible.”
Of course this all works in no small part because he hired actual dancers. I tell him I imagine it was tremendously difficult to cast.
“Yeah, it really was,” he admits. “The analogy I use is that a lot of people can carry a tune but they can’t do opera. This is sort of the opera equivalent of dance. Natalie Portman [in Black Swan] had a body double and we didn’t want to do that -- The whole fun is seeing a real person do it. I met with different dancers and read them on camera - tricked them into auditioning to see if they were natural.” He settled on Scott Marlowe, a handsome dancer who gives an unforced engaging performance nailing Frankie’s nervousness and conflicting emotions around the test itself. But he's truly electric when he's dancing. “We workshopped for about six months. He thought it was free acting lessons, I thought it was free rehearsals so it was kind of a win-win.” The second lead Matthew Risch is a Broadway actor and dancer.
We reach the topic of sex scenes and I wonder if that’s easier with dancers who are used to performing shirtless and are, by profession, attuned to their bodies and physicality. “It’s always difficult to film sex scenes,” he says, discarding my theory. And then, rather unexpectedly, he recounts the shit he got from some members of the gay community when The New Twenty came out and the straight sex scenes were "robust" and the gay scenes weren't, which he thought was right for the plot and those characters. With Test “I wanted to prove I wasn’t squeamish about that.” He’s very happy about the chemistry between his leads. They filmed the sex scene on Matthew's last day of the shoot. “It felt really real. If you have a four week shoot, you can’t redo and redo.”
One of the most striking story beats is Frankie's struggle to 'dance like a man.' It opens up dialogue about the enduring topic of performative “masculinity” that is so prevalent in gay culture. Was that always in the screenplay?
“Absolutely! It was one of the central motifs from the beginning." Johnson was drawing from personal experience. "As a dancer a choreographer actually did shout at me 'Dance like a man!'. I talked to very young gay dancers in ballet companies and they're still going through that. It's an aspect of the dance world a lot of people don't know about. They assume that because there's a lot of gay men in it that it's gay friendly and therefore there aren't any issues. That's not true. Mainstream dance depends on male / female tension like Hollywood. It's understandable. You're telling a story of erotic tension and we have to believe that. The problem comes when directors can't separate out sexual identity from the performance of gender of the body. Instead of saying ‘When you move your arm like this, it's a little soft and we need a harder feeling here,’ they say ‘You're too gay. Don't be gay!'."
And this ties neatly back into Test itself, which takes place when that message was pervasive and gays were scapegoated. "Frankie's getting the message from all sides 'What you are is worthless and you deserve to die from AIDS. And you're not even a man as a dancer.'" We both agree that things are immeasurably better now however far we still have to go.
As for where this director is going, I'm happy to report that he wants to do more dance in film. But with the success of Test under his belt he’s also looking into developing for TV. Even better, because we need these cinematic voices, he says "I definitely want to stick with queer representation."
In a new video for the global gay social network Moovz, drag queen Willam Belli arrives in Tel Aviv for Pride at the same time as NYC trans nightlife icon Amanda Lepore and her built, handsome posse of bodyguards.
This leads to some shenanigans when Willam catches one of their eyes and finds himself scouring the city in search of him.
Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...
In San Francisco on Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was asked about Texas Governor Rick Perry's recent remarks comparing homosexuality to alcoholism and whether the GOP and the Republican Governors Association should disavow Perry's comments.
Said Christie, who leads the RGA: "I disagree with them. I don't believe that's an apt analogy and not one that should be made because I think it's wrong. Every governor and public official needs to speak for themselves on these issues. I just spoke for myself."
Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...
The latest gay rights compilation video by Dave Evans, with news clips from 2003-2014.
Featured in this video: The Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision, Massacusetts becoming the first state to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, President George Bush calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, the begging and end of Proposiiton 8, the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and openly gay professional sports players Jason Collins and Michael Sam - among other big moments on the nation's road to LGBT equality.
Check it out, AFTER THE JUMP...
President Obama released a proclamationg for Father's Day 2014:
Fatherhood is among the most difficult and rewarding jobs a man can have. It demands constant attention, frequent sacrifice, and a healthy dose of patience. Even in a time when technology allows us to connect instantly with almost anyone on earth, there is no substitute for a father's presence, care, and support. On Father's Day, we show our gratitude to the men who show us how to learn, grow, and live.
With encouragement and unconditional love, fathers guide their children and help them envision brighter futures. They are teachers and coaches, friends and role models. They instill values like hard work and integrity, and teach their kids to take responsibility for themselves and those around them. This is a task for every father -- whether married or single, gay or straight, natural or adoptive -- and every child deserves someone who will step up and fill this role. My Administration proudly supports dads who are not only present but also involved, who meet their commitments to their sons and daughters, even if their own fathers did not.
Today, let us reflect on our fathers' essential contributions to our lives, our society, and our Nation. Let us thank the men who understand there is nothing more important than being the best fathers they can be.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, in accordance with a joint resolution of the Congress approved April 24, 1972, as amended (36 U.S.C. 109), do hereby proclaim June 15, 2014, as Father's Day. I direct the appropriate officials of the Government to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on this day, and I call upon all citizens to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirteenth day of June, in the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) Reacts After Gay Marriage Ruling: 'The Wisconsin I Know Deserves Better'
Wisconsin's Attorney General JB Van Hollen and Senator Tammy Baldwin released statements following yesterday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb which put gay marriages on hold in the state.
“I am very pleased that Judge Crabb has followed the lead of courts across the country, including the United States Supreme Court, and fully stayed her ruling. By staying this ruling, she has confirmed that Wisconsin’s law regarding same-sex marriage remains in full force and effect. The state and all of its agencies and subdivisions must follow and enforce Wisconsin’s marriage law. County clerks do not have authority under Wisconsin law to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Judge Crabb’s stay makes this abundantly clear."
“I believe that we owe it to the next generation to give them a Wisconsin that is more equal, not less equal. The Wisconsin I know deserves better than a Governor defending discrimination and an Attorney General prosecuting progress. Wisconsin should be a place where every family’s love and commitment can be recognized and respected under the law. It is time for Governor Walker and Attorney General Van Hollen to stop standing in the way of freedom, fairness and equality for all Wisconsinites. Love is love, family is family, and discriminating against anyone’s love, against anyone’s family, is just plain wrong.”