When we watch movies, we are immersed in worlds that are entirely of someone else’s making. Though movies are, each and every one, bound by the edges of the camera’s frame, within those boundaries, each world is only held back by the limits of the imaginations of its creators.
For Christopher Mason Johnson’s latest indie film, “TEST,” this world is ingrained in the details: lilac curtains, a vase of flowers made of an empty orange juice carton, a new, yellow walkman. These are the innocent but striking images that set the stage, so to speak, for the period dance film.
Based in San Francisco, “TEST” is set at the moment the AIDS epidemic is first gathering steam. Scott Marlowe, in his movie debut, plays Frankie, a 20-something-year-old dancer who is confronted, like so many others, with the possibility of having contracted the disease. The only way to know for sure is to take a newly approved test, which, for Frankie, is a daunting task in the face of the general distrust, ignorance and fear surrounding the disease. Meanwhile, Frankie is also challenged to succeed in a dance world favoring heteronormativity while trying to cautiously navigate his own fragmented love life with Todd (Matthew Risch), whose carefree nature agitates Frankie’s isolated and confused world.
Cinematography is the core of this film by design. Rather than creating a set of dialogue-driven scenes, Mason Johnson developed the screenplay intentionally as a series of shots of Frankie’s life that keenly prod at the unspoken fears within it.
“I love the tradition of image-driven movies,” Johnson said in a phone interview with The Daily Californian. “Stories about the inner life of a character are especially good to represent with image and close up. This is a very internal story about a man who is not talking about what’s happening. He’s mute in the face of it.”
The film’s reliance on cinematography to express Frankie’s fears works well overall. The lingering, solitary shots of Frankie decoding the spots on his body in front of the mirror or tripping down a hill or unsuccessfully untangling the telephone cord create and maintain a delicate intimacy between Frankie and the viewer. This is the relationship the movie seems to invest the most time and effort in establishing, occasionally at the expense of intercharacter connections.
Next to the film’s gorgeous cinematography, the dance sequences, choreographed especially for the film by choreographer Sidra Bell, are probably the strongest element.
Dance is addressed as a physical and psychological practice. How one thinks about one’s self influences how one moves, which ultimately shapes the performance and the audience’s perception of the performance. Here, Frankie and his fellow dancers explore this idea as the embodiment of conveyance of “manliness.” The dance sequences are beautiful, and the repetition throughout the film of the primary choreography by different dancers reincarnates the dance into something intriguing and new each time.
The only places the movie really comes up short is in capturing the AIDS epidemic as something larger than a few individual people in San Francisco. There is little, if any, attempt to broaden the scope of the story to include other points of view or even affected populations. In other words, though isolating Frankie’s character was a deliberate choice to reveal the internalized fear of gay men in the 1980s, it has the adverse effect of cutting off other forces, positive and negative, that may have been at play at the time and could have brought the story’s plot and themes somewhere new and interesting.
Despite this, “TEST” is visually lovely, embedding depth into even the simplest seeming scenes. And with solid performances from the actors, great dancing — and let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt that they all have fantastic bodies — this movie is a definite success.