In the police station: The barren, excessively white space is oppressive. Notice Toula and Ariís location at the margins, the wallís centrality and the spatial ratio between it and them.
The cop holds a phallic gun close to Ariís mouth, aligning state authority with patriarchal power, perverting earlier moments of male bonding and revealing the underside of masculinity.
Ari feels shame under the officerís gazes while Toula defiantly returns their gaze with resistance.
This important moment highlights the Anglo-officer’s gaze as a form of surveillance, in that the young Greek officer must look back to acknowledge his superior's gaze, indicating that he does not necessarily want to harm Toula. His attack is also a performance, but a performance slowly being conditioned into a way of thinking by way of the Anglo officer’s disciplinarian gaze. The young Greek officer may be acting right now, but eventually these actions and the mentality which inspires them will come "naturally" to him.
The smirking police officerís disciplinarian gaze is also scopophilic, that is, he takes pleasure from looking on at the violence done to homosexuals' bodies.
Ari stands on the street after being ditched by Toula. He is consumed by the public space.
Ari at the end of the film walks alone at the train yard and docks in the early morning.
Ari walks through a desolate, concrete urban space. If the city space is sometimes suggested as a queer playground, it is also often framed as abject and isolating.
Signs of alienation and abjection: Ari wears headphones as the stock-boy goes down on him.
Drag queens stand in front of 3 Faces. Their powdered white faces mark the spaceís whiteness and the graffiti marks it as abject.
Ari dances at 3 Faces. The lighting and color stylistically hybridizes this space, pulling in elements from the wedding hall (bright lights, public dancing, crowdedness, music) and the bouzouki’s/back-alley/bathroom stall (darkness, segregation, open displays of queerness and gay desire).
Semi-private displays of gay sex.
Ari and Sean in Sean’s room: The scene is lit similarly to the bathroom and bouzouki’s back-alley and uses the same color pallet. Notice Sean’s hairy chest and Ari’s hairless one. Such a physical detail in the casting reverses the physical markedness of the Greek body. That is, as Ari expressed to Sean earlier during lunch, he said Anglo women saw a Greek man as nothing but a “hairy back.”
Sean attacks and dominates Ari. This open form of violence, post-rough sex, dialectically posits the long and intertwined history between violence and gay desire/sexuality.
Ari looks upward in a moment of attempted catharsis. He's significantly in both a familiar space and familial space as this is also Ariís brotherís home.
As we see a spliced-in shot of Ari’s mother marching in protest, Kokkinos does not make it clear whether this image is diegetic or non-diegetic. We don't know whether this image comes from Ari’s memory, like a picture located in some family album, or if we are to understand it as a feeling that he is attempting to suppress with drugs.
Again, it is not clear whether Kokkinos cuts to Ariís father within the story'sí real time (showing the audience what Ariís father is doing post-fight while Ari shoots up), or whether this image, too, suggests a general feeling Ari is attempting to suppress—the image of a concerned, lost, tired, worn-down man.
Ari walks in front of the Melbourne skyline at dawn.
We leave Ari the same way we were introduced to him: dancing, only this time in a more displaced space.
Ari is forced to confront the tension between privilege and oppression when he watches a second generation Greek-Australian officer physically assault and verbally humiliate Toula. After leaving the bouzouki, Ari and Toula are arrested on suspicion of drug possession and are locked in a bright white interrogation room. The room’s blinding whiteness is almost oppressive, both foreshadowing the events to come and standing as a visual metaphor for the way “whiteness” acts as a sign of repressive authority and power. Here, the state-authority’s power is understood as an inherent practice of surveillance, with a long standing violent and invasive history [open endnotes in new window] of police surveillance and homophobic state-morality now graphically visualized on the screen. This pivotal scene points to how, although not as excessively violent as it was in the past, the state still punishes sexual transgression. A young Greek police officer and a slightly older Anglo officer enter the room. The older police officer goes over to Ari and puts him in a choke hold which, as Hunn has noted, “rearticulates the earlier scene in which Ari is caught in the embrace of another patriarch, Toula’s father,” but also by Ari’s father during their dance in the kitchen. Ari is forced to confront his fear of the consequences of being “out,” as well as the privileged pleasure he has received as a result of being able to slide under the radar of institutional social surveillance.
The scene reinforces Ari’s up-to-now partaking in the privileges of heterosexual performance, homosocial bonding and patriarchy. He experiences the known punishments for traversing the fine and blurred line. Both he and Toula must disrobe, an order aimed at humiliating them and rendering them unable to use masquerade. When Toula gets down to her underwear, she refuses to remove any more clothing and yells out in Greek, “Den ene sosto (this isn’t right)!” The Greek officer, under the enraged gaze of the xenophobic and homophobic Anglo officer, goes over to Toula and punches her, rips off her clothes, and berates her by yelling, “Your parents should have drowned you!” He calls her a “cunt” and a “whore.” Ari stands to the side and is forced to watch Toula be beaten. He dare not help her, lest it give the Anglo officer provocation to attack him. Covering his genitals, Ari feels shame, the very feeling the Anglo officer wanted to elicit, yet the gesture also symbolizes castration. Ari is rendered powerless; the organ which gave him confidence and bravado has failed him. Under the sadistic gaze of the Anglo officer, an embodied gaze which signifies omnipresent state moral policing, Ari seems a coward, with all of the officers’ hatred displaced onto Toula’s body. As Judith Butler has argued,
Toula’s stripping goes further than simple humiliation; the police want a coerced confession of an essentialist understanding of gender.
Kokkinos also uses this graphic scene to expose patriarchal power as oppressive to women and femininity. Patriarchal disgust for femininity was previously hinted at by Betty when she and Ari were together intimately. She implicitly refers to Ari’s gay desire after he fails to succeed at going down on her. Ari s that he likes men, but Betty take pride that he “doesn’t act like a faggot.” Ari responds that he is “still a man” because he does not “take it up the ass.” Betty retorts,
She suggests that all Greek women get it in the ass. By desiring men, she implies, he inevitably takes a subordinate social position by way of queer sexuality’s association with physical penetration. Her claim also exposes masculine heterosexuality’s hypocrisy: you are not gay unless you take it in the ass. Giving it does not count.
To return to the scene at the police station, it is not only violent but it also points to the layered potential aspects of one’s identity. The young Greek officer pushes his ethnic affiliation into the background and his national/Anglo identity into the foreground. Kokkinos uses his scene as a way to construct characters who have an essentialist understanding of race, in that the young Greek officer here is appropriating “whiteness” or an Anglo identity. As Richard Dyer points out in his study White, “whiteness” is about a constellation of power discourses projected onto the corporeal “white” body.
Here, the young Greek officer is being conditioned to appropriate the power discourses related to “whiteness,” enacted through and predicated on the oppression of others. (In an earlier sequence with Sean, Ari tells him that Anglo women see a Greek man as a “hairy back.”) As Dyer points out:
Ari and Toula are, of course, white looking, but not as white as the Anglo officer. They are marked in comparison to the Anglo body, which is unmarked. In this jail sequence, however, Kokkinos displaces emphasis on the body as the locus of racial discourse by pointing to its fluidity and its construction within a power-discourse matrix. The young Greek officer erases his inferior position by submitting to and mimicking Anglo authority.
The officer’s pleasure lies not in watching Toula being beaten but in his ability to control and change the behavior of “others,” in this case, that of the young Greek officer. His surveillant gaze conditions the young Greek officer’s behavior to conform to his desire, the desire to see an “other” turn on and vilify what should be an ally. The Anglo officer demonstrates Stuart Hall’s belief that “they [have] the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other.’” The racial surveillance gaze is internalized by the “other” who incorporate it as a filter through which they see themselves. Toula attempted to leverage her Greekness to forge an allegiance but failed to do so. The two friends have been betrayed; they may be gay/queer, but they are still Greek and regardless of their sexuality, that, in their culture, is still supposed to mean something. The young Greek officer recognizes that if he rejects the Anglo officer’s orders, he himself will be punished; therefore, the punishment he exercises on Toula is a way of displacing it from him onto a further “othered.”
Upon leaving the police station, Toula dumps Ari and heads home, leaving Ari to make his way to the gay club alone. The only public manifestation of a queer defined space in Head On is the 3 Faces club, referring to the multiple personas queers appropriate both within and outside of the club space. Queer spaces, although interrelated and integrated within the urban landscape are consistently depicted as abject or alienating. The film’s cinematography creates a tension between the cramped and claustrophobic Greek-defined spaces and the various urban spaces which are understood as queer. Kokkinos allows for moments of disruption and shapes the spaces as permeable, such as Ari’s and Johnnie’s bedrooms functioning as “queer” spaces while located within their parents’ homes, which are marked as “heterosexual.”
Despite this, the mise-en-scene still retains a degree of alienation. Ari uses the urban landscape as a sexual playground, as an open space to escape his home, yet he is consistently framed in an alienating matter, subverting the space’s suggestion of openness, as now too open. Such an ironic vision of urban freedom encapsulates Jon Binnie’s belief that
The escape from home in search of “home” produces as sense of homelessness. This visual critique of Ari’s quest continues as the exterior of 3 Faces is graffitied and the interior has an aura of individual display rather than communal gathering. Ari travels around the city listening to techno music, music which represents his affiliation with Anglo and queer culture but also isolates him within his own head: he even wears his headphones while receiving oral sex from the stockboy. This sense of isolation is continued inside 3 Faces, where the similarly styled music functions as the only connective conduit with Ari’s drug intake only compounding his isolation. Compared to the rigidity and focus required in Greek dancing, his bodily movements in the gay club seems lucid and free, yet these motions themselves still conform to his surroundings. He is still constrained, for he is performing in accordance with the rules of another group’s space. 3 Faces comes off as just as alienating as the various public queer spaces Ari has traversed.
The film quickly cuts to the backroom of the club where the camera tracks alongside Ari, revealing little cubicle-like spaces covered by transparent curtains, with the curtain calling out its own uselessness. It is meant to feign modesty. People here do not want to hide; they want to be looked at. A red-lit, subjective close-up tracking shot of Ari flying backwards down the backroom corridor connotes Ari’s descent into oblivion. At the end of this emotional free-fall is Sean, and it is in his gaze where Ari confronts himself. Sean is Kokkinos’ replacement of Anglo-xenophobic patriarchy with tolerance and affection. Sean’s warmth contrasts with the Anglo police officer’s coldness, yet his kind gaze disturbs Ari, as it symbolizes everything Ari stubbornly seeks to reject. As Bennett argues, Ari
The two begin to kiss passionately and then and head back to Sean’s home.
Ari’s anxieties about his sexuality are revealed in this climactic scene at Sean’s place, leading to a moment of emotional awareness and catharsis. Sean stops kissing Ari, says he is falling in love with him, and then proceeds to perform oral sex. Sean’s ability to “fall in love” with someone within the span of a day is suspect; perhaps someone might like a potential partner after a day, but love someone? To me, his declaration suggests fetishism, possibly ethnic fetishism, or lustful conflation for a rugged, sexy bad-boy. On Ari’s part, as we know from a previous sequence, Ari tells Toula that he can only feel love while having sex and that once he has an orgasm, love is gone. Ari discloses his emotional conflict as he equates love with lust, aligning his conflation with Sean’s. Prior to Sean moving onto his knees, Ari’s face unintentionally confesses his internal anxiety; he fears he will end up making Sean hate him. Love means stability and Ari is a sexual flaneur. Love means dedication, maturity, and dependence, all the things Ari does not want and cannot be. Sean offers Ari a way out, but Ari does not want that way of life.
As Sean performs oral sex on Ari, the camera focuses on Ari’s conflicted facial features, revealing his personal tension around physical pleasure versus emotional attachment. This is not a random sex encounter for Ari since now emotions are attached. When he comes, his feelings do not immediately dissipate. Ari’s irritation over his inability to focus on his sexual pleasure is complimented by the camera slowly zooming in and tightening the frame around Ari, which subjectively communicates Ari’s feelings of claustrophobia. Ari becomes frustrated and uses his hands to forcibly rock Sean’s head harder and faster, combining his need to come and his need to control. Sean’s “discomfort is made apparent though the sound of gagging” and, unable to breathe, he pulls away. Infuriated by Ari’s disrespectful treatment, Sean throws him on the bed and repeatedly hits him, yelling at Ari to look at him; Sean wants Ari to confront himself through him. After being thrown out of Sean’s bedroom, Ari sits naked against the wall, quietly crying and whispering to himself, “I’m sorry.” Who is he addressing the apology to? Sean? God? Himself? This is the only moment of emotional release that the script allots Ari, yet instead of following the “coming-of-age” narrative ending, whereby the character comes to a realization leading to maturity, Ari heads to the docks for another pickup, placing himself within the same trajectory he followed prior to this emotional confession.
This moment of attempted catharsis also has a relation to a previous scene where Ari shoots up, in that both sequences suggest his sense of guilt and awareness of his inability to confront himself. When shooting up, images of his father and black and white photographs of both his parents protesting are intercut into the narrative. The (possibly subjective) intercutting suggests a sense of guilt about not fitting into the Greek family that he would suppress via drugs, a feeling Kokkinos replicates here with a darkly lit close-up during his verbal confession and emotional catharsis, and then a long shot expressing his isolation. Instead of using drugs to suppress his feelings, he will again use sex, returning back to public cruising grounds. In this way, Head On’s ending is a contemporary revision of the “sad gay man” narrative so popular in the 1970s and 1980s but presented here with more complexity than was afforded to queer characters of the past. Here, it is not so much blanket “social oppression” that makes the gay man sad but a constellation of forces, with Kokkinos leaving open the possibility of sadness becoming a form of resistance.
The final sequence completes the film’s cycle with Ari returning to a hybrid, liminal space of queerness and Greekness, where his jouissaunce is solidified in his own interstitial existence. Throughout the film, Ari performs Greek dancing five times: with his family in his home, at the wedding, at the Greek bouzouki, briefly at his aunt’s house, and one final time at the end of the film. Each of the dances highlights performance within a different spatial and cultural context. At the end of the film, the dance is performed for himself. This dance is Ari’s moment of true confession. The once rigid and enforced movements become a symbol of freedom, an understanding and acceptance of his ghostlike fluidity and the pleasures involved in performance and evasiveness. His Greek dance is performed on the docks, between the Melbourne skyline and the garage, which was the setting to his most recent sexual encounter. Indeed, Kokkinos’ canted framing of Ari places him at a “queered-border,” evoking Hamid Nacify’s concept of “border consciousness”:
The dock is a site of ethnic immigration, gay cruising and national border permeability (import/export). All these resonances coincide with Ari’s voice-over, establishing the space as both transient and a gateway:
As the sailor perpetually traverses the seas, and the prostitute the streets, Ari will continue his journey searching for some vague object of desire—that thing which unknowingly drives and compels him to keep moving. Is it home he seeks? Understanding? Forgiveness? Salvation? The ending is too ambiguous to specify what his goal is, and this is both the film’s failing and power.
Perhaps this why I chose to write about this particular film in that I, and perhaps many others, can identify with Ari’s feelings but not necessarily his actions. To me, Head On is a film that manages to communicate a feeling of dislocation through its narrative, dialogue and aesthetics. It manages to capture a sense of contemporary schizophrenia and disillusionment that goes beyond its queer and ethnic politics; this is perhaps why it has managed to find a mainstream audience. In many ways, I identify with Ari. I too am gay and Greek and live in a country that is part of the British Commonwealth (Canada). Yet in many respects Ari is the complete opposite of me. I have had a job since I was fifteen (I actually dropped out of Greek school to work and make money), and I am currently working on a doctorate. Even though I too come from a working class background, I choose to be ambitious and push forward rather than wallow in self-destruction. I think what I see in Ari is an energy. On the surface, he is a deluded loser, and yet there is something about his “fuck this shit” attitude that touches me at my core. Although I would never choose to live life his way and cannot really identify with his actions, I can understand his frustration with oscillating between alienation and claustrophobia, between living as “Greek,” “Canadian” (in his case Australian) and “Gay.” I too understand the pleasure and fear involved in constantly being watched, constantly having to watch myself and “others.” Like Ari, I live within an experience of ceaseless and diffused surveillance and voyeurism. I can understand the insanity that comes when worlds collide and frustration when worlds are kept separate.
Ari rejects everything, but where does that leave him? He can see through bourgeois ideology as consumerist, fantasy bullshit, but he is still unemployed, unemployable, racist, violent, narcissistic and irresponsible. Ari feels Anglo culture’s social gaze, but rather than resisting, he simply refracts this gaze onto others, like the pedestrians he yells at as he zooms by in his cousin’s car. Often his gaze mirrors the more oppressive one of the young Greek police officer. Ari complains that racism hinders his ability to find a job, but it does not seem to hinder others. I should say that one of my personal criticisms of the film is Kokkinos’ lack of direct engagement with issues of class, racism and sexuality. As a result, it seems that while Ari may verbally speak accurately about these issues, it is probably his overall “anti-conformist” attitude which keeps him unemployed.
Ari, for me, stands as an interesting figure in queer cinematic history. He is a catalyst of discourse, a figure Kokkinos uses to play with notions of queer and ethnic constructions of subjectivity and resistance in late 1990s global Western culture. This has been a culture based on instant gratification, mobility, surface value over substance and hyper-individuality, characteristics Ari embodies that propel him towards self-destruction. Kokkinos goes beyond looking at racial/ethnic/queer interplays. She configures Ari as a young person disillusioned by the revolt so popular in the mid-1990s. He was an 80s child who was promised wealth, success, and class mobility and was told that gays equaled AIDS and family was everything. But his life slowly implodes under the weight of impossible demands and social lies. This is an important moment between “post-closet” and gay marriage, between invisibility and almost hyper-visibility brought about the 1990s focus on visibility and the boom of digital/global culture. This was after KD Lang but before Brokeback Mountain. As Rosemary Hennessy argues about gayness in the mid 1990s:
The film is critical of an historical development when queer culture merged with consumerist culture; in the film, that moment is represented by Ari’s overconsumption of sex and drugs—which leaves him alone, isolated and homeless. In achieving visibility, gay culture has become subservient to and poached by conservative market forces and its usual output of conservative/safe representations. What options are available to Ari at the film’s end? He can either give in and assimilate or continue on this trajectory and end up an addicted, possibly HIV positive, jobless, homeless outcast, who is pushed further into the margins. For all of the fluidity and permeability of the gay urban lifestyle, it is this haunting dichotomy Kokkinos leaves us with at the end to ponder about Ari and ourselves.