Since a number of the films presented in the New American Cinema section at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival use contemporary New York as their setting and/or the tribulations of aspiring actors as subject matter, it was like a breath of fresh air to find that Chris Mason Johnson’s second feature Test took place in San Francisco during the 1980s. (Though, oddly enough, Johnson’s debut The New Twenty  circled around a bunch of thirty-year-old New Yorkers.)
In a sense, Test could be perceived as an unorthodox, subdued horror movie: among San Francisco’s gay community there are rumours about some kind of virus that seem to be targeting gay men, but no one really knows any details. At the same time newspaper headlines raise the question of a possible “gay quarantine”. These signs of the time infuse the story of Frankie and his struggles to find his place as a fledging member of a modern dance company, and advance from being an understudy to actually be performing on stage.
Frankie travels in San Francisco are both external and internal; as he puts his Walkman on and makes his way through the city, Johnson mirrors — with the help of Daniel Marks’ light and sensitive cinematography — the harsh reality in a world where HIV is spreading. Frankie’s insecurities within the competitive dance company and as a precautious but sexually active gay man merge in Scott Marlowe’s carefully chiselled portrayal (in his acting debut).
One thing in particular makes Test stand out: The manner in which the frequently occurring dance performances let the story evolve. Being a former dancer himself, Johnson doesn’t shy away from repeatedly showing the same piece being performed in prolonged sequences. The dance that the dancers perform throughout the film — the choreography is by Sidra Bell and the music, with its appealing ’80s vibes, is by Ceiri Torjussen — is an excellent piece of work in its own right, and the actors — many of them are trained dancers, including Marlowe — execute it convincingly. But what truly makes it interesting is how the director deepens the characters and conveys the increasing fear among the dance crew through these performances: With each repetition we perceive within the piece a new fragment of information. In other words: As we see the piece yet again, we interpret it in slightly different ways in connection to what happens outside the walls of the dance company. And this feels like a fresh approach when it comes to character and plot development in a feature film.
Film is a medium that could, and should, be used to fuse varying art forms. In his filmmaking, Chris Mason Johnson incorporates the art of dance in an invigorating fashion.
Edited by José Teodoro
© FIPRESCI 2013