Monday, July 01, 2013


presented at the Frameline 37 Film Festival
Castro Theatre, San Francisco
June 29th, 2013

“TEST”, a new film by Chris Mason Johnson, takes its audience back in time to San Francisco, 1985. Stylistically, it was a time of Walkmans and answering machines. A time of boom boxes and back-combed bangs. Choreographically, it was a time when narrative and structural modern dance were reconciling after years of separation. It was also a time when the AIDS health crisis was in its early years. A time when there were so many questions about the disease and not enough information and answers. It was a time of fear, doubt, anger and confusion. “TEST” follows this theme of uncertainty. Writer, director, and producer Chris Mason Johnson, choreographer Sidra Bell, composer Ceiri Torjussen along with the entire artistic and production team have created a film that brings this important message to the big screen in a fresh, exciting and artistically meaningful way.  

“TEST” is told through the eyes of Frankie, a gay modern dancer who is part of a small contemporary company in San Francisco. Much of the film centers around his modern dance community, with multiple scenes taking place in the rehearsal studio, backstage at the theater, and the fictional company in performance. Most of the other characters in the film are part of Frankie’s dance troupe; the people he interacts with day in and day out. And through his personal and professional experiences, the audience comes to realize that dance is not only Frankie’s occupation, it is his passion and his outlet.

At the beginning of the film, Frankie (brilliantly portrayed by Scott Marlowe) is experiencing intermittent bouts of dizziness and blurry vision. While his condition helps to establish the relationship between him and his doctor (which recurs later in the movie), the vertigo is really a metaphor for Frankie’s uncertainty. Everywhere he looks and everywhere he is, there are things and circumstances that he cannot control. As he deals with chaos in his apartment, his home is uncertain; as an understudy in the dance company, his career is uncertain; and as a gay man in the mid-1980s, his health and future are also uncertain.

Sidra Bell’s choreography, which is featured in the fictional company’s rehearsal and performance sequences, also speaks to “TEST’s” theme of inherent uncertainty. By creating dynamic and edgy contemporary movement that also had glimmers of classical ballet, Bell’s work moved between genres, not easily categorized. In addition, the narrative and conceptual foundation was constantly changing. A sense of doom was illustrated by gnarled
hands, staccato contractions and motifs where the eyes and mouth were covered. Then there would be an immediate shift into free flowing attitude turns, stretchy extensions and passé pirouettes. Each physical phrase toggled between fear and hope with no resolution. It was totally uncertain which emotion was going to dominate or whether there would even be a winner at all.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in Johnson’s film was also one of the shortest and quietest. Prior to one of the performances, the camera panned in on the company in the midst of their onstage warm-up. Dancers wearing headphones  stood at the barre, cycling through their routine preparation exercises. Here were individuals in their own world; their own space, yet at the same time, absolutely melded together as a group; as a company. With this brief vignette, Johnson made a striking comment about uncertainty – while it is personal and unique, it can also deeply affect an entire community.

Near the end of the film, Frankie decides to take an HIV test (which was still relatively new in 1985) and the results drastically alter his existence. His uncertainty is still there, but he seems able to live into it or live with it rather than being afraid of it. We see Frankie making the most simple, and sometimes humorous changes to his environment (unraveling a phone chord and turning the rodent in his apartment into a pet) to more fundamental choices - letting loose and allowing himself to have some fun. But Johnson was very purposeful and clear that the uncertainty in Frankie’s life had not disappeared; instead, it had evolved and become something different.

Casting dance films can be tricky. Do you choose actors who can kind of dance? Dancers who are acceptable actors? Do you opt for a body double for the main dancing scenes? The cast of “TEST” had it all – phenomenal professional dancers who were equally talented actors. Marlowe gave a truly unforgettable performance, constantly injecting layers and nuance to a character who was onscreen for the entire movie. Matthew Risch’s Todd had an unexpected depth, a strange yet vulnerable combination of boorishness and kindness. And then there were those who stole their respective scenes sometimes with only a few lines: Myles Thatcher as Sam, Rory Hohenstein as Tommy, Katherine Wells as Molly and Madison Keesler as Jennifer. Chris Mason Johnson’s “TEST” is a necessary addition for any video library, a must-have for those who love dance movies, stories of San Francisco and intimate, honest films that glimpse into the human soul.

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