Keeping it in the room: health, happiness and living in Berlin
Back in 1985, gay men were under attack. Aids was a new and terrifying virus, and rumours about how it could be caught – in an era when no-one had heard of the HIV virus – ranged from the sensible (unprotected sex) to the ridiculous (sweat). Travelling home on the San Francisco tram, main character Frankie (Scott Marlowe) sees the headline on a local newspaper: ‘Should gays be quarantined?’
Younger viewers won’t be aware of the massive fear of the virus during the 80s: it was new, it was scary, it would kill you. And, just like now, you got it by having fun.
The film follows two main characters: Frankie, a dancer aching to get his first major role, and his friend Todd (Matthew Risch), a buff Latino who teases – and scares – Frankie with tales of his sexual exploits.
Director Chris Mason Johnson is a dancer in real life, and is obviously keen to show as much dancing as he can in the film, with long segments taking place on stage. If you’re not into contemporary dance, this could be a real turn off. Part of the tension between characters is exhibited when Todd is visibly sweating during a dance practice with Molly (Katherine Wells), who must touch his washboard abs and is bent over backwards by him. A sexual dance would normally be a delight, but with the threat of Aids – and potential for infection lurking everywhere – can a drip of sweat from his nose be contagious?
The film brings us back neatly into the ’80s with Frankie donning his Walkman headphones as often as possible, dancing in the street as he attempts to prove, Fame-style, that he’s ready for the main role in the dance show. But that’s not the only thing troubling him; he’s heard there’s a new test, which would tell him whether he has the virus or not. He worries for himself, and for Todd, especially given the latter’s perceived promiscuity.
We also get to explore the subject of masculinity; director Chris Mason Johnson says that part of the appeal of making the film about dancers was their perceived lack of manliness. ‘Would you prefer your son to pick up a baseball bat, or a pair of ballet shoes?’ he asks, in a video designed to encourage people to contribute to the $35,000 crowdfunding request to cover post production costs. And so, throughout the film, we are reminded of the characters’ machoism, or lack of, with views of Todd’s bulging biceps; while Jerry, the ballet company head, yells at Frankie to ‘dance like a fucking man!’
But the film doesn’t quite cover enough new ground, nor does it have a strong enough story, to grip us. Acting is good, but not great; and perhaps we’re not into dancing enough, but the lives of Frankie and Todd just weren’t interesting enough. We’re also not American enough to recognise what was probably top music from the era; the only track we recognised was Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy – more of that genre would have made the film a lot more uplifting.
Test plays at the BFI Flare Festival on 27 and 28 March. Tickets are still available from the BFI website or at the box office . All assets courtesy BFI.
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