In 2014, a story about AIDS in San Francisco in 1985 is as relevant as ever. Though it shares subject matter, Chris Mason Johnson's Test is the virtual antithesis of Ryan Murphy and Larry Kramer's survey of the early plague years, The Normal Heart, which aired last month on HBO. Test is smaller in scale, more intimate, virtually free of melodrama, and features characters whose relationship to AIDS is not that they are dying from it, but that they are living in fear of it.
"Is this story worth telling?" "Who's gonna care?" "You didn't suffer enough," are things that went through Johnson's head as he was writing this, he told me by phone last week. Johnson, who was in his teens and living in San Francisco at the time that this movie is set, is HIV negative and thus worried that he didn't "have anything to say in this dialogue." But as the ongoing conversation about Truvada has shown, HIV is not just an issue for gay guys who are positive. It's something that affects all of us, regardless of serostatus, and it's something we all need to care about.
For that reason and for its still-pertinent examination of body scrutiny and insecurity regarding masculinity, I related to Test, which is set in the dance world of San Francisco. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of my discussion with Johnson about his movie, HIV, dancing like a man, and queer cinema.
Chris Mason Johnson: Oh yeah, I was a bit younger than the characters in the movie, but I was there. It's personal fiction but [protagonist Frankie] is not me. I didn't want to do a coming out story, but I wasn't comfortably out at that age, as the characters are. So that's a huge difference.
What was it like seeing the onset of AIDS from your perspective? Obviously it stayed with you so long that you ended up making a movie about it?
Exactly. In my life, [AIDS and the dance world] were inextricably bound. I think one of the things that it's in the movie that touches on this question is the whole "dance like a man" issue. During the early AIDS epidemic, before ACT UP, before we knew how it was contagious, there was a huge amount of scapegoating and homophobia. It was really powerful and there was a powerful message coming from the press both tacitly and explicitly that these guys had it coming, deserved to die, should quickly go off to a leper colony, and not infect the rest of us. And in the dance world simultaneously there was this dance-like-a-man phenomenon, where your identity and physicality is questioned. On both fronts, you're being exterminated, you're being told you're not right, you're not good, you need to change who you are, who you are is not right, who you are is dangerous. It was a hard message to disentangle on several fronts.
I didn't live in San Francisco and I was 6 at the time that this movie is set, but I still found plenty to relate to here, even today. Gay men still scrutinize their bodies, even if it isn't for Kaposi's sarcoma as much anymore. And traditional masculinity is still an ideal amongst so many gays.
I went to college after I danced and one of the most valuable things I learned was that misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. That explains the femmephobia, which isn't exactly the same as homophobia because it's about shunning and exposing the sissy, and some straight men are "sissies" and some gay men are "machos." The effeminacy issue is kind of a separate thing, but it's potent for gay men because it's a measure of masculinity in a patriarchal culture. So absolutely, these issues are still alive. You still see it on the reality dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance. You still see this tension, like, "We want this boy to dance 'straight' so we believe he loves the girl." That's a valid concern in terms of dramaturgy because that is the story of the dance. But instead of framing that as a physical challenge—"Well, what does it mean to move in a masculine way and how can I accomplish that for the purposes of this fiction"—it's framed as, "You're gay and you shouldn't be."
Is it still like that in the dance world?
I hear stories from major ballet companies about young, gay dancers who are told that they're too gay. "It's a problem how you dress, it's a problem how you act." That's still there.
I saw this movie last year at Outfest and since then it's only become more relevant—because of The Normal Heart, because of Looking, which is set in San Francisco, and because of the intensified debate over Truvada.
I think what distinguishes Test from other depictions of the AIDS epidemic, whether they're from the era or more recent period pieces, is that this is not a movie about being sick, it's a movie about the fear of being sick. I think almost all the others, as far as I can think, have characters who are sick, either they die or they don't, but they get sick. That's been a challenge in the marketing. Audiences watch it and they feel good and it's sort of uplifting and they don't get what they were afraid they'd get. I think that's an important distinction—it's not another disease movie. But even people who did get sick went through this phase, right? I think this smaller slice of the story hadn't been told yet, and maybe that was right. Maybe the other stuff needed to be told first, because it was more urgent. I had to wrestle with that to write this: "Is this story worth telling?" "Who's gonna care?" "You didn't suffer enough." I'm negative. "You don't have anything to say in this dialogue."
I can relate to that, having written quite a bit about HIV while also being negative. But I think to pretend that this isn't an issue that affects everybody, whether positive or negative and especially everybody who's a gay man, is just wrong. Negative people need to care about HIV.
There's still this leper/plague onus attached to HIV, but in fact there are all kinds of serodiscordant couplings out there that are completely safe and insignificant. People have a hard time thinking or talking about that, again because of our human repulsion to disease. It's just that when our repulsion to disease conflates with homophobia, that's when you have this really toxic thing and I think the movie's about that, too.
Did you feel any sense of duty to inform younger people about what the early plague years were like?
I wouldn't call it a duty, but I did feel an urge to share this. I hope it's not pretentious to say, but I'm trying to make art here, and part of that is connecting with an audience. Absolutely one of the ways I want to connect with younger audiences is to share this subject in a human-scaled, intimate, immediate way. The big epic stories, and the big documentaries are great and I love them, but I think for a younger audience it might be easier to connect to these young, sexy guys that just want to have fun.
It drives me crazy when I talk to gay guys in their early 20's who are willfully ignorant about gay history. Generations of gay men who came before worked, bled, and died so that those guys could have such a privilege! I think it's disrespectful.
I teach at Amherst College, and I make films and employ younger people, so maybe I just have more respectful twentysomethings around me, so I haven't had that feeling. But I can relate to what you're saying in the sense that it's kind of surprising and a little alarming and dismaying that history disappears so quickly. But then that raises the question of: What is history? I think I can connect that to your last question in that I didn't want to make a documentary. I didn't want to write a history book. I didn't want an overview. I wanted to go inside one character's self-centered, isolated fear. That's my story. I'm not ashamed of it, I'm not particularly proud of it either. But it's very human, and very small. I think people connect to that smallness.
Film Comment said of Test, "If there was ever a contemporary film that illuminates why queer cinema still matters, this is it." Where do you think you fit into queer cinema?
There was that really heady moment of queer cinema in the early- /mid-'90s. And then over time the marketplace kind of exerted its power, and I think there was a lot of gay content—and it's not an accident that the label shifted from queer to gay—that was frankly just trying to make a buck, or just wanted to emulate mainstream entertainment in a mindless way. Just kind of pandering product. I don't want to be too hard on that because it's such a difficult business and people want to work, but I am kind of heartened that it seems like we're evolving toward a new kind of realism that can include gay characters and maybe in the long run that means assimilation narratively, as you can kind of start to see on TV. I do think that we're in a sort of new chapter. I've mentioned Weekend and Keep the Lights On and Looking before. I think maybe one of the differences is we don't have to be "gay" in square quotes, but it's also not about disappearing. It's a particularly American thing. We've gone through this court-jester thing where it's OK if gays are funny or maybe if they're dying tragically, but not as just regular guys or girls with diverse stories that don't shuck and jive. I hope we're moving toward that.
Test is playing in San Francisco and available on VOD now. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.