The recent commercial success of AIDS-themed movies like Dallas Buyers Club and The Normal Heart proves that audiences and filmmakers alike are eager to embrace the once largely-ignored social issue.
Dancer turned filmmaker Chris Mason Johnson adds to that expanding time capsule of relevant films with his latest feature TEST. Set in the San Francisco modern dance scene of 1985, TEST follows a young dancer named Frankie as he comes to grips with the challenges of his own artistry and mortality.
SF Weekly caught up with Chris Mason Johnson to discuss misconceptions of men in tights, AIDS in film and why it all still matters.
There seems to be a renewed interest in Hollywood for films that deal with the AIDS crisis what with Dallas Buyers Club and The Normal Heart. Why do you think that is?
I don't know but I do think there's something to the zeitgeist point. I noticed that there was a similar time gap with the Vietnam War films like when Platoon and Full Metal Jacket came out 25 years after it ended. There were some films at the time that dealt with it like Coming Home a few years after, but maybe that's part of the mysterious human consciousness that there needs to be sort of an incubation period before people can address some of these things again.
One thing I would like to point out is that what's different about TEST from all the others that you mention, and also from the documentaries that have come out in the last couple of years, is that this is the story of characters who don't get sick. One of the things that the films that deal with the AIDS era naturally fall into is sort of the deathbed narrative. That's understandable because you're dealing with a deadly disease and those stories must be told, of course, but I think enough time has also passed that this story that I'm telling, which is about someone who's really on the sidelines rather than at the front, I think maybe the time is right for this sort of smaller more hopeful story as well.
Why did you choose to explore AIDS in the 80s set in the world of dance?
I had come off working on a script that was bigger and more commercial and that had gotten stalled trying to raise money as so often happens. I just sort of turned my attention to something else and said, "You know what? I know how to make movies. I know how to do this and I want to take the power back and do it." I turned my attention to just writing something very personal. I was a dancer before I was a filmmaker and I was in that world. I wanted to wrestle with some of those issues. It came out of a very personal place on a couple levels. One, just professionally, I wanted to do something small that I could produce and direct and not be dependent on other people to tell me I could make something. Two, I wanted to deal with the most personal material that really made me vulnerable as an artist because it just felt like that was the next thing I needed to do.
How much of this film is autobiographical?
Some of it is. I'm a little bit younger than most of the characters. I was a teenager in the 80s and I was dancing so I was sexual. I was there and so I was able to draw from a lot of my own memory but I also did research. A lot of the issues, like my lead character faces in the dance studio about dancing like a man, those are definitely drawn from personal experiences. That's a real dynamic you see in the dance world today and you see it on those reality dance shows. But also I was there in those early days before people knew what was happening and how long it would last and how big it was and whether you could get it from sweat or mosquitos. "Should we eat at this restaurant with a gay waiter because it could be like hepatitis?" In hindsight everything is so predictable because we already know the ending but at the time there was this fog of war and you really didn't know what was happening. I hadn't seen that on a really intimate small scale.
Your film provides such great insight into the dance world which is usually so closed off to the rest of us. Why did you decide to incorporate dance into the film?
I'm glad you mention that. I think the dance world is one of those worlds that is so easy to represent in a cheesy way on film. Maybe doctors or lawyers and every other profession have the same thing. It's harder to do something authentic. As someone who knew the dance world, I hadn't seen that done in exactly this way and I wanted to do that. Also, when you think about dance films it's almost always a lead ballerina, a lead woman, and I think that's because the idea of men in tights is just a kind of snickering joke. It's homophobic and effeminaphobic.
I think we're at a place now where we can see that that's actually not an appropriate attitude to have and I thought the time was right to represent some male dancers in a non-comic way. I think on a more thematic level, the effeminaphobia of the dance world and the "dance like a man" issue where these gay men are intrigued to butch it up, that message was happening at the same time as the press and the public were reacting to AIDS in the early years. They were basically saying, "You deserve to die. Please just go to your quarantined leper colony and don't infect the rest of us. You had it coming, you fucking faggots." Those two things overlap. They're both talking about how this effeminate gay male, if you will, is disposable.
Your film doesn't shy away from sex. How did you go about choosing that route?
I wanted to keep it real because I think AIDS movies tend to vet out the sex because it's too uncomfortable to think of both things at once. But this isn't the story of someone who gets sick. It's the story of somebody who doesn't. He's a young character who wants to have sex and I wanted to put the erotic and the sensuality back in that story. It's also mirrored in the dance. The bodies are very erotic but they're also kinda creepy and morbid with the gestures they do in the dance.
The whole idea was to create this irresistible eroticism so that people understand that you're in your early 20s and you're pretty randy and surrounded by other good-looking people in their early 20s who also want to have sex. It's a highly charged and highly erotic environment and that's the world he's in. It's not like some sanitized world without sex, so I just approached it like that and tried to do it in an honest way. I hope my film is trying to find a more adult, less pandering form than the cheaper, sort of gay films.
Are you comfortable with the film being labeled as "queer cinema" or "gay cinema" and categorized with recent films like Weekend or Keep the Lights On?
I'd be proud to be considered along with those two films. I think the early queer cinema was sort of a high watermark aesthetically and then in the couple decades that followed it sort of morphed into gay cinema which is a little softer around the edges and a lot more generic product that's just trying to make a buck. Now maybe we're coming out on the other side where we can start to have a third wave of more serous films that broader audiences would want to see because they're good films.
Are there any other social issues that you would consider exploring in film through the context of dance?
Well I'm definitely still committed to LGBT representation in general and there's a huge range of social issues in there. I remember asking myself years ago, "Why the hell do I want to make movies after being in the dance and theater world?" It was so difficult and now I'm going into another difficult, highly competitive, artistic field. That was kind of the answer is that this representation really matters. I'm really committed to that in a very personal way. I'm not sure exactly what form that will take in the next film but that's definitely the terrain I'm interested in.
TEST is now playing at the Presidio Theatre and OnDemand.