The Body Electric
By Matt Connolly
Dir. Chris Mason Johnson, U.S., Variance Films
The last few years have seen a rise in films detailing the medical catastrophes, emotional turmoil, and political struggles within the gay male community at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Released in 2011, We Were Here recorded the memories of five San Francisco residents whose lives were permanently altered by HIV’s devastating impact on the city’s LGBT populace. The following year brought How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated recounting of the formation of ACT UP and their militant response to the federal government’s inertia in the face of the epidemic’s growing body count. (The less seen United in Anger: A History of ACT UP was also released in 2012.) Documentary portraiture has given way to prestige-picture dramatization in the last twelve months, with the release of the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club and the airing of The Normal Heart on HBO.
The question of why this cluster of films has sprung up at this particular historical and cultural moment certainly bears consideration, though I fear that limited space and lack of research would lead me to little more than trend-piece generalizations (greater LGBT media visibility, radical-activism nostalgia, etc.) What seems most striking about these works—and I will admit that, as the gods have not bestowed an HBO GO account upon me, I have not yet seen The Normal Heart—are the ways they attempt to frame the AIDS crisis in the U.S. from roughly the early 1980s to the mid-nineties primarily through the lens of political activism. Whether it be the documentary subjects of We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, the fictionalized version of real-life drug smuggler Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in Dallas Buyers Club, or The Normal Heart’s thinly veiled Larry Kramer stand-in, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), these films all implicitly invite contemporary audiences to remember the early years of AIDS in America as a time in which dying, disenfranchised citizens—primarily, within these accounts, white gay men—stood up to a callous system even as they cradled their lovers and friends in their death beds. It perhaps goes without saying that the project of preserving the work of AIDS activists for posterity deserves our collective admiration and respect, and that the capturing of said individuals on film has resulted in some galvanizing cinematic moments.
Taking the long view of AIDS representation in film, however, one sees how recent a development such an impulse is. Once one moves beyond the videos produced by AIDS media makers throughout the 1980s and early 1990s (and one should not move beyond such rich work too quickly), we might note that the majority of movies about AIDS focus less upon explicit political struggle and more upon the impact of the disease upon everyday life. New Queer Cinema took HIV-positive protagonists and made them violent vigilantes (The Living End), placed them in irreverent musical numbers (Zero Patience) and cloaked them in metaphor-heavy parables (Poison), while other films of the era tracked individuals living with (and dying from) AIDS through straightforward indie-cinema humanism: Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, Jeffrey, It’s My Party, and others. Critiques of their individual political efficacy and aesthetic value notwithstanding, they collectively offered a range of intellectual and emotional ways in to the experience of the crisis. For all their accomplishments, the current crop of AIDS films seems to position us in a somewhat related manner: as mournful and vigilant witnesses, grateful to absorb the experiences of those who fought and survived without quite being able to access what said experiences felt like in the moment-to-moment flux of daily life.
If Chris Mason Johnson’s Test feels like something of a minor-key revelation, it is in part because it attempts to locate the rhythms of commonplace existence at a time when each instant was imbued with almost existential uncertainty. The film covers a few weeks in the life of twentysomething Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a gay man and up-and-coming dancer whose fluctuations in professional and personal fortune unfold against a larger backdrop of medical and cultural anxiety. The place is San Francisco, the year 1985, and the first reliable blood test for HIV has just become available for public use. Some of the ways in which Johnson knits these micro and macro-level narratives together feel expected, even a little pat—anxious locker room conversations about transmission and safety; newspaper headlines glimpsed on public transportation (“Should Gays Be Quarantined?” blares the front page of one periodical). Far more often, though, the film manages the tricky task of conveying how the free-floating panic that permeated the gay community throughout the early-to-mid eighties subtly altered how one simply existed in the world. Things are as they always are for Frankie—rehearsals, roommate annoyances, hook-up possibilities—until they perhaps might not be, and the possible outline of a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion or the hazy memory of an unprotected one-night stand tilts his world just a little more askew, and makes every step a little more uncertain.
Johnson locates a fruitful nexus of metaphors and cultural signifiers in the male body itself. Frankie understudies in a modern dance company made up largely of gay men, and Test devotes significant time to capturing the rehearsals and performances that set their bodies into movements at once ecstatic and exquisitely controlled. As captured by cinematographer Daniel Marks and edited by Johnson and Christopher Branca, the dance sequences skillfully combine tactile immediacy and distanced contemplation. They know just when to hone in on the glistening skin and flexing musculature of a single dancer, and also when to step back and appreciate the elegant symmetries of the group in motion. (Sidra Bell provides the stimulating choreography.) Frankie offers a theory that the company’s main piece, entitled “After Dark,” is a sublimated metaphor for anonymous gay sex—which reflects Test’s larger interest in the connections between the eroticism of the male physique and the newfound dangers it faces in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Watching Frankie and the other dancers manipulate their lithe torsos and toned appendages as they glide across the stage, the viewer acknowledges the dark reality that these seemingly invincible bodies could, at any moment, fall prey to a silent killer that will reduce them to skin and bones. (Intended or not, certain shots of Frankie’s pale and bony frame eerily evoke images of late-stage AIDS patients.) This is not to imply that Test views the grace and athleticism of Frankie and his fellow performers solely through the lens of a metaphorical danse macabre. If the stage proves the province of studied technique, the dance floor of the club becomes the site of physical abandon, where gay men attempt to retain the bawdy humor and sexual fluidity that has become shadowed by the specter of disease, abandonment, and death.
Sex provides Test with a loose narrative structure as well as a thematic preoccupation. Frankie’s fluctuating anxieties surrounding the contraction of HIV develop across three erotic encounters dispersed more-or-less equally over the course of the film’s 89-minute running time. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that, with each passing tryst, the specter of infection comes increasingly to the foreground, even as the encounters themselves retain all the thrill, impersonality, comic bumbling, and occasional transcendence that so often accompany sex. A particularly memorable pair of scenes finds Frankie getting a surprise blowjob from an unexpectedly willing source: pinned against the wall as the other man goes to work, he somewhat haphazardly smokes a joint and stares into the eyes of the gentleman’s pet bird, who sits passively not two feet away. It’s an acutely observed and witty sequence, but the kicker comes when, days later, Frankie finds the man’s apartment suddenly, inexplicably empty. Or is it so inexplicable? Where did this man go in such a hurry? A move to another apartment, another city, or…? Here, as Laurie Anderson’s “Born Never Asked” slithers across the soundtrack, Test places us in the same moment of psychological freefall as Frankie. More broadly, Johnson seems to be asking how one can simultaneously embrace the sexual ethos of gay male life—so forcefully fought for and claimed throughout the 1970s—when every rendezvous has the potential to lead down a dark mental path of second-guessing and lesion-checking.
This process plays out across the stop-and-start friendship that develops between Frankie and Todd (Matthew Risch), a hard-living fellow dancer whom Frankie eyes with a mixture of suspicion, affection, and arousal. Todd possesses a more cavalier attitude toward sex in the time of AIDS—responding to Frankie’s concern that Todd “might get something” from all his bed-hopping, Todd replies with mock-innocence, “Like what?”—even as his unabashed promiscuity makes him a target for latently homophobic straight panic, as when a female dancer insists Todd “towel off,” lest his sweat offer a potential avenue of transmission. Johnson smartly does not seek to offer a “two-paths” cultural allegory with these characters, but rather allows them the breathing room to discover one another via the daily rhythms of rehearsals, performances, parties, drug-fueled outings, tiffs, confessions, and the possibilities of sex, romance, companionship, and love. It helps that both actors often feel at their sharpest and most expressive when paired against one another, with Marlowe’s golden-boy hesitancy and neurotic arrogance contrasting beautifully with Risch’s sloe-eyed irreverence and cocksure physicality. Their film-ending conversations about the realities of gay promiscuity and partnership in the age of “always wear a condom” are among the most lived-in I’ve ever seen in a film, as relevant to the present moment as they are evocative of an earlier era’s specificities.
Indeed, Test finds its ultimate power and electricity in its synthesis of the not-so-distant-past and the here-and-now. A recurring motif throughout finds Frankie listening to various period-perfect songs on his newly bought Walkman. (The film features heaping helpings of Calculated X and Martha and the Muffins, as well as tasty sprinklings of Anderson, Sylvester, Bronski Beat, and others.) “I love it,” Frankie tells Todd of his purchase. “The music always fits whatever you see, like a soundtrack.” Such an observation cheekily highlights the extent to which twentysomethings have been walking about to their own personally curated life albums for the past thirty-odd years. On a deeper thematic level, however, Johnson’s choice to frame so many of the film’s cues through Frankie’s headphones underscores a rich and resonant paradox that lies at the heart of Test. On the one hand, Frankie’s tailored selection of songs expresses a need to gain a bit of control over an unsteady world, scoring whatever situation he finds himself in to the music of his choice. (Forebodingly, the one time the Walkman’s batteries die comes right before his sojourn to the doctor’s office to get his HIV test results back.) On the other hand, this personal soundtrack inevitably becomes intertwined—infected, if you will—with the very unruliness of meaning and emotion that he seeks to control. (“The music always fits whatever you see…”) The aforementioned, Anderson-scored revelation of the empty apartment provides a particularly apt example, but countless scenes in Test evoke that uncanny moment when a randomly selected song interlaces with a moment’s emotional and psychological tendrils, transforming both ever-so-slightly before your eyes and ears. Johnson’s decision to make such moments a structuring aesthetic through line provides perhaps the film’s richest attempt to say to its viewers, “The past is unique, and yet strangely familiar.”
It’s a statement that perhaps matters more than most know. As a twentysomething white gay man, I know that I’m living in a post¬–drug cocktail world where some people insist that AIDS should be looked at as a chronic condition (provided you have the money for the medication); and that, statistically speaking, my skin color and economic status no longer make me the most likely candidate to become infected in the United States in 2014. And yet….and yet I’ve sat with friends as they’ve gone through scares, and they’ve sat with me as I’ve gone through scares. I’ve gone through the kind of paranoid mental checklist that one can see flash across Frankie’s eyes at critical moments in Test. (The condom was on, I think? Everybody slips up now and again, right? That’s definitely a bruise on my back, isn’t it?) If I—and others like me—need the reminders of how far we’ve come since those dark early days of what is thankfully a bygone era, I also need ways to ally myself with those gay men who’ve sat sweaty-palmed in doctors’ waiting rooms, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Test’s vision of life’s daily flow is both bracing in its historical specificity and curiously relatable in its sensuous tangibility. This gem of a movie offered me a gift not unlike the one Frankie is lucky enough to receive by the end of Test. For a time, anyway, it made me a little more connected, and a little less alone.