Ana Kokkinos’s film Head On is Greek myth transposed to a modern urban setting. The film’s protagonist, Ari, simultaneously evokes the spirit of the tortured, ecstatic dance of Zorba the Greek—an archetype whose earliest manifestation is the god Bacchus—and the myth of Persephone.
For this, her second film, Kokkinos has adapted Christos Tsiolkas’s 1995 novel Loaded for the screen. Loaded records twenty-four drug-hazy hours in the life of Ari, a young Greek man questioning his sexuality and ethnicity. From this material Kokkinos has fashioned an honest, brutal, authentic film. She uses the full resources of cinematic narrative—‘God’s point of view’ shots, voice-over, slow-motion, fast-motion, juxtaposing fantasy with reality, visual distortion—to create a picture of life so delicate in its perceptions, so musical in its squalid beauty, that we emerge from the theatre feeling dazed and disoriented. She has taken an outpouring of intense physical and spiritual anguish in the face of unremitting alienation and fashioned it into an intensely Baudelairian urban poem for this age of cinema.
Part of the film’s power is a result of its relentlessness, as scene moves into scene in an effort to escalate the intensity of the story unfolding before us. Or perhaps I should say ‘enfolding’, for due to tight close-ups and roving cameras that invade the space between and around characters, we are always somewhere within this film, never standing as observers. Sound, too, is used with great suggestive power; the music evokes memories long buried, perhaps even forgotten. But most of the film’s strength comes from its insight into character.
By opening her film with footage of migrants arriving by ship in Australia, Kokkinos immediately signals her intentions: this will be an immigrant’s song, as out of the throats of these self-exiled people comes a lament for what has been, what is and what is yet to come. A lost way of life? Possibly. But more than that, it may well be a yearning for a Mount Parnassus of the psyche. For when the weary mother at the heart of this pagan drama whispers, ‘Ari, I fought with your poppou, too. But I had respect’, can we take her at her word? Has the battle over the bones of each generation ever been so clear-cut? The screaming, the barely contained rage, the resentment the impotence of mothers and fathers as their offspring defiantly leave the nest, severing their ties with what it has taken generations to establish: watching this, we ask ourselves, how can anyone live with such outright rejection? Of course, they can’t. Not the parents, and not their rebellious children, who, in time, will realise everything and plot their course back to that original site from which springs all pain and all joy.
Head On does not portray the gay world of the bohemian inner city. Rather, we are presented with the reality of furtive beings surviving on the fringes of society. These men, like the fleeting, intense sexual encounters in alleyways we observe, exist in a no-man’s-land, outside whatever ethnic group they may belong to, and certainly not part of the commercialised gay world. These are people who would tell you that although they are erotically drawn to people of their own sex, they would not categorise themselves as gay. They wouldn’t know what to do with that word.
Let’s take, for example, the bearded, middle-aged man Ari cruises in a Greek club and later entices into an alleyway for a sweaty encounter. How would this man, with his grey hair, paunch and tatty clothes, come across in a hip gay club full of shaved, buffed and pumped-up bodies? As Ari observes in relation to Anglo girls, ‘They look at us and all they see is a hairy back’. Athenian Greece may at one time have fostered a brand of homoerotic culture, but the modern Greek will deny this outright, even as he claims for himself the more acceptable and noble achievements. (There again is the film’s preoccupation with denial and rejection.) In this respect the shadowy portrayal of such men within the framework of the film is spot on.
In her film, Kokkinos aims for truth, and that is what she achieves. With their similarly gritty, fluid styles, the nearest equivalents we have are Dogs in Space and Romper Stamper, but even these energising urban dramas lack the warmth and compassion that runs in the veins of Head On, as they do in Tsiolkas’s novel. In its relentlessness, brutality and raw energy, Head On is the antithesis of the bourgeois film (the ponderous ‘Three Colours’ trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski being an example), just as Loaded, with its disregard for social niceties and its celebration of the vernacular, was the antithesis of the bourgeois novel.
I say Head On is ‘honest, brutal, authentic’, but I don’t mean realistic. For the aim of film has never been to pander to crass realism, of which we suffer an overabundance. Film adds an accent on reality; at its best it may transmit or heighten sensation and awareness. What Head On offers us is a sudden, intuitive flash of insight. Its audacity manages to encapsulate what film often strives for but rarely achieves: a rush of pure sensation (in all the better senses of ‘sensation’), piercing straight to the heart of the pleasure principle.
Could the film have been made as effectively by non-Greeks? I doubt it. Each an outsider in their own way, the team of Tsiolkas, Kokkinos and lead actor Alex Dimitriades have lived and thrived under the yoke of the love that stifles. They hate, love and burn with a finely wrought passion for their Greekness and the possibilities of all that they can be, so deeply rooted in the bloodsong of kefi and glendi. Some have remarked that this intense subjectivity excludes a general audience. Perhaps you have to be steeped in this world to understand it. After all, the relentless music, the trance-like dancing, the ecstatic, pained looks and the lurid brick-veneer houses can look too ‘woggy’.
The thing is, the Greeks, Turks and Maltese of Australia may not see anything unusual about any of this. For them, this is just how things are. This failure to project oneself beyond one’s confines may be why Anglo friends bicker about what they perceive is a false note in a scene where Ari’s mother clears the dinner table with one angry swipe of her arm, or complain about the lack of resolution at the film’s end, or about too many shots of the West Gate Bridge. Interestingly, when the film was screened at the Athens Film Festival, one of the talking points was its depiction of a Greek culture frozen in a distant time and place. Urban Greeks, now part of the sophisticated European melting pot, were mystified and amused by Greek-Australians stuck in a time warp of steadfast values long vanished in their own cosmopolitan cities.
But this is to miss entirely what the film wants of you. What the film wants, demands, is that you surrender yourself to it totally, be swept away on the currents of its images and soundtrack, ululating with Greek island songs. In this it is a Bacchic orgy of song and wine, given Apollonian polish by the refinements of drama and film.
If, as director, Kokkinos is the backbone of the film, then Dimitriades is the heart that beats so perfectly for Tsiolkas’s soul. Through Dimitriades, the angry, frightened, drug-fucked Ari installs himself in our memory as the Holden Caulfield of the nineties. The profane, hedonistic Ari, wandering the blighted, night-time city in search of instant gratification, is an homme fatal; a vortex, sucking in and spitting out everyone and everything in his path. His aim is freedom, but stretched out before him he sees all too clearly a world of absolute otherness, a difference that is monolithic and catastrophic.
In allowing himself to be so completely possessed by the character, Dimitriades joins a long line of literary and cinematic narrators given to delirium and blasphemy. Such is his savagery, tenderness and menace as he stumbles through his hallucinatory world that they almost cancel out his humanity. Ari comes to represent the unrestrained cruel energies of Eros, as the Ancient Greeks knew and worshipped him. Ironically, for someone as intensely preoccupied with notions of masculinity as Ari, he is also cast in the role of Persephone, who spent half the year in Hades and the other half in the world above with her mother. When Ari is on a drug-induced high, Kokkinos employs a textured, hyper-realistic look, so that the places he escapes to are made to look more exciting and vibrant. In contrast, when Ari is clean, the tone is stark and cold. As an outcast trapped between worlds, Ari’s drag persona, Persephone, sees the Underworld as a richer, more inviting place than mundane reality.
Head On suggests sudden collision, deadly impact, metal relentlessly grinding against metal, glass exploding, sending jagged splinters flying into the night, whereas Loaded is a cocked gun pointing directly, accusingly, at the status quo, or your head. It’s either an assassination or a suicide. In either case, blood will be spilled, lives lost. Ari presents a snapshot not just of himself but of all humanity torn between the upper and lower worlds, the schism between base instinct and social artifice.