Bright Lights Film Journal

Still Breathing: Ana Kokkinos’s Head On

Ari’s a mess – it’s in his kiss

Ana Kokkinos’s debut feature Head On was one of the more distinctive entries in San Francisco’s 1999 Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, not least because it threw out once and for all the foolish notion that women can’t direct hot gay (or straight, for that matter) sex scenes. But Head On is more than the string of brutal anonymous sex encounters that litter the plot like so many used rubbers. The film is a solid exercise in generational angst – in this case the angst-ridden youth is gorgeous 19-year-old Ari (Alex Dimitriades), a semi-closet case who spends his time snorting coke, getting blown by mostly ugly strangers (or blowing them), and trying to find a fit in a world that won’t have him.

Ari’s a double outsider, gay and a Greek living in Australia. His parents are fervid Greek nationalists and former radical activists who alternately coddle and berate him, unable to understand why their values don’t mesh with his. Not that he’s totally outside. His conflict in this realm is one of the driving motifs here. In one of the film’s best scenes, his gruff father lures him into a traditional Greek dance in the family kitchen, and Ari succumbs to his father’s attention with a kind of sorrowful desperation – he’s quite capable of connecting with his heritage, but only temporarily, almost ironically. Typically the scene ends in a fight, with Ari donning his trademark headphones, and storming away to quell his nervous rage with drugs or sex.

As sultry and seductive as Ari is, his taste in men will send some viewers screaming for the exit. True to his compulsions, he acts instantly on his libido with little discrimination in who’s going to get him off. In one scene, that means making it with an unappetizing behemoth behind a warehouse. In another, he’s cruised at a club by a troll who looks like a prehistoric Mormon elder. In a frenzy of lust, he falls to his knees before said troll, who uses Ari’s “sweet mouth” in a noisy back-alley blowjob.

Ari’s relationship with his closet is tentative, toying – he’s constantly bringing up his own homosexuality in a mocking way, grabbing his straight friends’ asses, insisting they all go to gay clubs, constantly pressing on the closet door without quite daring to open it. The film makes it clear that he can’t relax into his own gayness; he’s too fearful and driven for the kind of self-analysis that would require. The film also presents an intriguing drag queen, his friend Johnny aka Toula (Paul Capsis), as a kind of moral yardstick Ari can never measure up to. Johnny travels in the same circles as Ari, and the two are obviously close, but Johnny’s insistence on speaking out and living the way he wants only makes Ari more nervous. In a powerful scene, the two are picked up by the police, stripped, and assaulted by a racist white cop and his confused young Greek assistant, who’s mortified by what he sees as the pair’s repudiation of everything noble and heterosexual in their heritage. And while Johnny, now the tranny Toula, bears the brunt of their violence, she emerges morally unscathed; Ari gets a lesser beating but surrenders something precious.

The filigreeing of Head On with Greek cultural motifs gives the film a welcome density, and makes it clear what Ari can never really be a part of. Like Ari, the director is both Greek and Australian, and she fleshes out with panache the ghetto in which this group lives. Elaborate sequences of traditional music and dance add flavor, particularly in the interplay between parents and children in the kitchen that starts with upbeat Old World singing and dancing and ends in violent arguments.

Kokkinos’s visual style is intense and arresting. She interpolates historical footage of Greek immigrants coming to Australia, suggesting the hold the past – however distant – continues to have on a schizoid community. The jittery, often hand-held camera perfectly captures the chaos of their existence and particularly Ari’s life.

The acting is fine throughout, but the high point is Dimitriades’s brazen, no-holds-barred performance as Ari. Allegedly straight in real life (he’s a well-known Australian soap opera star), he’s at his most forceful in the gay sex scenes, particularly in an extended vicious encounter with a blonde boytoy who lusts after him. Kokkinos pulls us inside his private chaos in such scenes. Voiceovers lifted directly from Loaded, the novel on which the film is based, evoke Ari’s desperation and bare survival: “I’m sliding toward the sewer … I can smell the shit. But I’m still breathing.”