"Head On"

Using rough sex and rougher drugs to escape the marriage-mortgage trap.


Daniel Mangin
August 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

When a male director films a gritty, visceral look at life
-- a "Mean Streets," a "Reservoir Dogs" or a
"Trainspotting" -- it's usually taken at face value and
praised as "muscular" moviemaking. Let a woman try the same
thing and she's apt to find herself being chided for trying
to "out-macho" her male counterparts, as has Ana
Kokkinos, the Australian director of "Head On."
Sexism aside -- "I thought the press here had matured past that kind of thing,"
was Kokkinos' only comment about it during a conversation we had in June -- with "Head On," the insinuation seems all the
more misguided given that most of the film's action also
takes place in its source, Christos Tsiolkas' novel
"Loaded." If anything, Kokkinos was in competition with the
book, in which a rebellious, drug-devouring 19-year-old
describes his fucked-up world. She reworks what was mostly a series of monologues in "Loaded" into vivid scenes, and trumps the book by supplying the techno-infused soundtrack it implies.

Ari, the nihilist protagonist, has two solutions for every quandary in his life: rough sex and even rougher drugs. He's the type of self-indulgent lout
audiences either find captivating or exasperating --
particularly when the entire narrative unfolds from the lout's point of view, as it does
here. What intrigued me about Ari was the way he, like many kids his age, uses
his body to thrash out his metaphysical conflicts. During
the slightly more than 24 hours in his life the film
depicts, he gets an inkling that an easier strategy might
exist, though he's a ways off from shifting paradigms.

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"Head On,"
which has begun to pop up in U.S. art houses, was a box-office hit
in Australia -- something of a surprise given its modest budget and trippy style.
Heavy doses of hand-held, choppy and swooping camerawork give the film an
edgy feel, one that's accentuated by the contributions of editor Jill
Bilcock, who cut the equally frenetic "Romeo + Juliet."
Kokkinos goes overboard in spots and isn't above hot-dogging
with the camera angles, but in general the cinematography
complements Ari's emotional state.

Kokkinos puts a specifically Greek-Australian spin on a
familiar coming-of-age tale. Everyone around Ari, especially
his family, offers the same predictable advice: Get a job.
Get married. "Then you can do whatever you want," his
friend's mom tells him -- a stance he finds too hypocritical.
As a "wog," or foreigner, in a Melbourne suburb, Ari doesn't
fit in with the white majority. "They look at us and all
they see is a hairy back," he says of Anglo girls. But his
parents and their generation -- many of them political
activists in Greece during the 1970s -- seem not to notice
the psychic upheaval immigration has induced in their
offspring. Lacking imagination, most of the kids opt for
what Ari derides as the marriage-mortgage compromise.

Alex Dimitriades, an Australian TV star and teen heartthrob,
plays Ari with robust impetuosity. All his sex being
metaphorical, Ari lurches into some skanky episodes, not the
least of them an Oedipal back-alley tussle with a portly
fellow his father's age. Ari's at first debased when he's
forced to give head -- until now, he's only been the top
-- but afterward recoups a portion of his pride by forcing
the guy to jerk him off. When his partner momentarily gets
caught up in the act's intensity and makes a slight move to
kiss him, Ari brutally twists the man's head away and
maintains the hold until finally shooting. Kokkinos
choreographs the scene to mirror an earlier one in which
Ari's father attempts to seduce his son back into the enveloping
comfort of patriarchal affection during an impromptu Greek
dance they share. Both scenes emphasize the grip Ari's
family and heritage have on him, and from the dance it's
apparent that the ties binding him aren't entirely negative.

What's telling about Ari's tryst is that whatever
self-respect he's regained at its conclusion is on the old
terms -- namely, macho one-upmanship. But the older man is paradoxically the first person to
force Ari to accept his sexual vulnerability. Given his
chemical intake, however -- Ari has already shot up, smoked,
snorted various drugs and had several drinks to boot -- most
of this is lost on him in the short run.

Ari has so much homosex, and is so
trashily proficient at it from the get-go, that it took a while for it to
dawn on me that "Head On" is also his coming-out story. Ari
hasn't yet accepted being queer -- the sex for him is always
about something else. Early on, he meets a white Aussie,
Sean, who sees more of Ari's potential than Ari does himself.
Sean's projected too far into the future -- it's hard to
learn much in a day, and Ari is a slow learner in any case --
but in their interactions lies the nucleus of his
transformation.

The themes "Head On" juggles -- sexual identity, cultural
alienation, conformity, individuality -- lend themselves to
didacticism. For the first hour or so Kokkinos, who's
Greek-Australian herself, merges her philosophical
observations into the action. Toward the end, though, she
falters. In a scene that's not in the book, Ari and his
cross-dressing friend Toula (nee Johnny), who's been
teaching him about standing up for one's truth, get themselves arrested while tripping.
One of the cops is a textbook
white racist. The other's a Greek guy who's trying to
assimilate and becomes infuriated and embarrassed by what
Toula represents as a Greek. Only the sly performance of
Paul Capsis as the sassy Toula gives any bite to the
less-than-subtle confrontation.

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Its missteps and excesses aside, "Head On" is a promising
feature film debut for Kokkinos, who previously directed the
hour-long drama "Only the Brave," about a Greek-Australian
lesbian teen's coming out. The director puts Ari through no
end of macho paces -- though nothing anywhere near as gross
as the ear surgery in "Reservoir Dogs" or the toilet scene
in "Trainspotting" -- but doesn't revel in his bravado.
She's clearly fond of the character, even moved by his
predicament. I'd almost say she nurtures him, for despite
his fatalistic ranting that closes the film, I think she sees
a future for a boy with this much fire in him. But then, that'd be
stereotyping her, wouldn't it?


Daniel Mangin

Daniel Mangin is a writer and editor living in New York.

MORE FROM Daniel Mangin

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