Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

26 August 2014

Test, or, Monogamy(?)

It is an interesting choice to set a romantic narrative in San Francisco in 1985 - at the same time that Larry Kramer was creating the horror-film-slash-homophobic-rant called The Normal Heart. But Chris Mason Johnson's new film Test does that. Johnson's movie is about a dancer looking for pleasure (and maybe love), while also worrying that he might have AIDS.

There's sort of a lot to say about Test. First off, it is much, much better than Johnson's earlier film The New Twenty, and it is shot in an art-house style rather than the straightforward rom-com style of a movie like, say, That Awkward Moment. Test is about a dancer, and it contains lots of beautiful choreography and some beautiful movements on film. I loved all of the dance in the movie. Watching these men and women move is one of the true pleasures of Test. There are others, too. The film is about two people getting to know one another slowly, haltingly, and Test tracks this friendship/relationship beautifully, with the starts and stops that one would expect rather than (shall I compare it to That Awkward Moment again?) the sort of love-at-first-sight or hate-at-first-sight-but-we-all-know-where-this-is-headed formula to which we have all become so accustomed.

AIDS as a topic works well in Test, too, because the film is interested in what the effect of an epidemic has on passion, on intimacy, and on friendships. Instead of sending a message or telling us all how to behave, Test explores the effects of the plague on the bedrooms and lives of a few white men and tells that story. I racialize the men consciously: I'm not quite sure why all of the men in which the movie is interested are white. I'm not quite sure why Johnson's version of a dance company in the mid-'80s is almost completely white – especially since The New Twenty was so diverse. I found all of this whiteness sort of unnerving and (frankly) boring.

Mr. Risch
Test's protagonist, played by actor-dancer Scott Marlowe, is supposed to be a kind of (white) everyman, I guess, but he is so bland, so kind, so affectless, that I found him to be a bit of a cipher at the center of the film. Who is this guy? What is he about? What does he want? His foil Matthew Risch, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: mysterious, troubled, wickedly funny, always grinning about something. Risch is totally compelling in every single scene. The film is about these two, but if Risch is onscreen, it's hard not to pay attention to him.

There are some other great things in Test. In a quiet moment, a dancer in the company (whose name we never even learn) clandestinely checks his torso for signs that he might be getting sick. This is beautiful storytelling – Johnson quietly indicates that his protagonist's questions and fears are shared by the men in his immediate circle, even if none of them talks about it together.

But the movie's politics in regard to the history of the AIDS crisis left me a little confused. At the end of Test, the protagonist chats with his lover and offers that AIDS has changed everything vis-à-vis the sexual revolution, that men will all have to try to be monogamous now, that that will be so very strange. But, maybe, he says to his lover, monogamy can be its own kind of experiment in possibility – like a test.

So. Does the film finally leave us with the solution to the spread of HIV by offering that perhaps we all just ought to grow up and get married? Is Johnson's solution to the AIDS crisis the same as Larry Kramer's (viz. if we could all just stop having so much sex, the world would be a safer place)? I am a little confused by the film's ultimate point of view. I object to the Freudian suggestion that AIDS caused queer people to grow up, leave behind the hedonistic ridiculousness of anonymous sex, and embrace the monogamous wedded bliss that every proper, adult neoliberal subject enjoys.

But it is also possible that I read the film wrong, that Johnson does not present monogamy as a solution to anything. Maybe Johnson simply gives us a new shade in the history of pillow talk: a brand new pick up line. In the age of AIDS, perhaps the cleverest way I can ask my lover if he wants to be exclusive is to talk about how safe it would be for both of us if we only had sex with each other. Upon reflection, this is how I'm going to read the film's final minutes. In this new world, AIDS becomes simply an obstacle/asset in the search for connection. It is a health crisis, yes, and everything else that it is, as well, but it is also a mere backdrop, a set of rules or codes that sets a scene for what's really important – connecting with the people in our lives be they lovers or friends or one night stands.

Did I say I loved the dance sequences? I did. They are lit beautifully, too, and a true pleasure to watch.

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