Greek immigrants arrive at, presumably, Australia.
After dancing solo at a wedding party, Ari moves to the periphery and watches the couple takeover as the center of attention.
A tradition of pinning money to the couple: they reap financial reward for following tradition.
Ari leaves the wedding celebration early, removing one costume and exchanging it for another.
A long shot, long take of the alleyway indicates his efforts to escape from a socially suffocating world.
Ari looks at Sean.
Sean looks at Ari.
Janet watches the exchange, recognizing what is going on.
Ari’s bedroom is an interior, segregated, private space within the familial home. It represents “the closet.” His bedroom also represents Ari’s interiority, whereby it and he are always under surveillance by patriarchal order patrolling the exterior. Notice Ari’s father outside the window.
Surveillance in Brokeback Mountain: Reveling in their private moments together, Jack and Ennis playfully frolic.
Surveillance in this instance is initiated within an economic context, in that the boss “keeps track” of his employees, ensuring they are doing their jobs, only this time he discovers something else entirely. It's an old-fashioned version of a surveillance camera.
The boss' expression suggests his awareness. He knows what this frolicking really means. Their behavior can be read doubly. Not only are they fooling around on company time, but their interaction is understood as sexual in nature.
The boss rides his horse above the action, looking downward a position of both authority and surveillance, further emphasized by his being hidden by the scenery. He does not invite them back to work on his mountain, highlighting the economic hardships and disadvantages which accompany being “discovered” as gay/queer.
Upon Jack’s long awaited arrival to visit Ennis' home, Ennis quickly looks around to see if anyone is looking.
Unable to control his desire, he pulls Jack to a semi-secluded area and kisses him. Ennis drops his performance just long enough for his wife to see them.
Alma stares onward, unable to give voice to what she sees, She knows that something “ain’t quite right,” that something is a bit queer. This sequence crystallizes the paranoia involved in queer self-surveillance: Don’t ever drop your guard, because it is possible that in that microscopic moment when you think you have evaded the gaze, someone may see, unbeknownst to you.
Surveillance in Head On: The aunt performing the traditional “coffee reading,” says that when Ari marries, no one will surveill his sexual behavior.
by Evangelos Tziallas
The Persephone myth is one of the most famous and enduring stories from ancient Greek mythology. Persephone, a half goddess, was stolen by Hades, God of the underworld, and then spent six months above ground and six months beneath. The myth allegorically explained the changing of the seasons, but over the years it has also been used to symbolize duality. In this context, near the end of Head On, a two-spirited[open endnotes in new window] character named Toula (also known as Johnny when not being Toula) refers to Ari, the film’s protagonist, as Persephone, both symbolizing Ari’s constantly negotiated identity and solidifying his inescapable relationship to space. Toula uses the myth to bind Ari to his Greek heritage and criticize what she sees as cowardice fluidity. Toula dares to and takes pleasure in transgressing her ethnic, gendered and sexual identities and their “respective” spaces. Ari, conversely, echoes the Persephone myth by endlessly traversing through space, mirroring and losing himself in his surroundings, embodying Pratibha Parmar’s summary of the life of queer first and second generation immigrants:
Head On is both a “day in the life of” and “coming of age” film. It tells the story of Ari, a second generation Greek-Australian unemployed, ego-centric, narcissistic, transient gay 19 year old. The film, based on Christos Tsiolkas’ 1995 book Loaded, was adapted to screen by Ana Kokkinos and gives audiences a brief look into its protagonist’s daily life. What stands out about the film is Kokkinos’ visual translation of the defining role that space played in the narrative of Tsiolkas’ novel. The novel has four main sections—North, East, South, and West, with Tsiolkas giving an account of what these regions in Melbourne represent for Ari. Ari travels through an almost baffling number of locations within an approximate 24 hour period (although it is more like 30 hours); the film begins with Ari dancing at a wedding and ending with him dancing on a deserted dock at dawn the next day. In between these dances, Ari travels through backalleys, markets, industrial zones, clubs, bars, coffee shops, and various homes of friends and family. Since Ari must constantly negotiate his presence through performance, the film uses space to emphasize the constructed and relational nature of gay sexuality, Greek ethnicity, and Australian nationality. Ari’s chameleon-like behavior does not segregate desire from duty or ethnicity from sexuality but marks their oscillating and complimentary presence. Parts of himself are dispersed throughout the spaces he moves through, so that we see overlapping relations between the private sphere, the public arena, and various liminal “semi-publics”—in all of which Ari acts as performative interlocutor.
The film was released in 1998 and screened at Cannes, L.A Outfest, San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and nominated for numerous Australian Film Institute Awards. The film was also a domestic box-office hit, in part by capitalizing on
Staring Australian heartthrob Alex Dimitriades, the film used the actor’s previous popularity and scene of brief full frontal nudity to diversify its appeal, removing it from the realm of “indie-ethnic,” or “gay” film and positioning it as viably mainstream. Its unapologetic and graphic representations, along with its edgy, gritty aesthetics also place the film within the tradition of New Queer Cinema, a trend the film tries almost too hard to mold itself after. Aesthetically Head On is not a nuanced film, but a loud one; Kokkinos does not attempt to hide, subdue or minimize the intricacies of balancing multiple and intertwined identities. Kokkinos was criticized for jamming “too much” into the film, yet this is precisely the point of the film. It portrays and communicates the intense, compacted “too muchness” of trying schizophrenically to be two or three different people at the same time, of trying simultaneously to segregate and integrate various identities, cultures, and people—keeping those conditions fulfilled and those people content—while concurrently attempting to please yourself and chart your own course. The fast paced editing, Ari’s inability to stay in one place, a mix of pyrotechnic and “natural” lighting, multiple supporting characters, sex, drugs, and throbbing techno music juxtaposed against patterned traditional Greek music/dancing—all these get thrown together. The narrative and cinematic elements combine to offer a glimpse into an overcrowded, suffocating world, a world which Ari ultimately cannot escape, leaving him in a state of unstable, transient jouissaunce.
A surprising amount has been written on the film by various critics and academics referring to its interplay between ethnicity, sexuality and nationality, discourses that I also will discuss, but most salient to me is Head On’s emphasis on space and performance. The film is exemplary in the way it highlights the role surveillance plays in forming queer subjectivities. Michel Foucault has demonstrated the many ways that surveillance has shaped Western society; although not explicitly addressed in his The History of Sexaulity Vol. 1, surveillance has played a particularly important role in shaping Western sexuality and homosexuality via (most importantly medical/psychiatric) discourse. Head On’s director’s emphasis on space, performance. and tension between visibility and invisibility situates her film as a critique of mid and late 1990s queer discourse, in which “visibility” replaced action, egalitarian/assimilative politics (gay marriage, etc.) replaced social activism, and queer lifestyles were co-opted by corporate luring of the “pink dollar.” Ari stands as a figure who is offered increased visibility, yet he feels oppressed by this visibility and is uncomfortable with the type of visibility is being offered: a “wog,” embedded in middle class family life. The film stands as a portrait of queer culture under intense negotiation. Ari’s frenzied fluidity, in conjunction with the film’s “grunge” aesthetics, situates him within traumatic spaces undergoing revision: post-AIDS/New Queer Cinema, yet pre-post-9/11 “sexceptionalism.” The film questions what kind of spaces will be left for someone who is “queer.”
An emphasis on migration and diaspora foregrounds movement and space as the script’s narrative paradigm. The film opens with a slow montage of black and white pictures of immigrants (presumably Greek immigrants) landing in (presumably) Australia. Images of mothers, fathers and their children standing in front of a large ship poignantly communicate a feeling of displacement. From the opening montage, Kokkinos foregrounds the importance of family, and its relation to identity as a result of the immigrants’ displacement. The use of black and white photos signifies history and memory, and when combined with the non-diegetic music and dissolves, creates a sense of nostalgia. Kokkinos’ concern is less about how Greekness is part of or integrated into gay identity than how queer migrant youths fit themselves into the paradox of “tradition;” an issue intensified by a sense of displacement. The opening sequence has been constructed to appear as though one were flipping through a family album. However, if we understand the film as a glimpse into Ari’s life, a life bent on continually searching for “himself,” what does the opening montage tell us about Ari? How do these pictures fit into this search? If these pictures are supposed to be where Ari searches for himself, for his identity via a shared or familial past, what does his invisibility in these captured memories tell us about his search?
Kokkinos transitions from the photo montage to a present day wedding, linking the past with the present, the family with tradition, and Greekness with the continuity of the Greek family. It is no surprise then that we are introduced to Ari performing the first of his many dances, stressing dancing as a performative act, relative to its spatial location. Ari is full of energy, dancing with passion and exuberance, spiraling his way into the middle. Once at the center, he has achieved a necessary visible presence. He then makes his way outside the concentric circle to the margins. Ari stands outside of the circle, enviously staring in, watching the bride and groom now make their way into the privileged center with all eyes watching. Money gets pinned to their clothes: a Greek tradition meant to bring good fortune to the new couple. Ari dances to fit in, but trying and pretending only get you so far. He is now literally and figuratively on the margins with the heterosexual couple symbolizing the pinnacle of where his spiraling movements were supposed to lead him eventually: heterosexual marriage. Kokkinos blends frenzied dancing, a fetishistic close-up of a garter being removed, use of money as a costume, and loud music to turn the celebration of marriage into a public spectacle, the excesses of which are meant to disavow unspoken anxieties.
Frustrated by his inability to fall into the symbolic order and recognizing his marginality, Ari removes pieces of his “costume” and makes his way into queer territory. He loosens his tie, removing what seems like a noose around his neck, along with his lapel flower, tossing it on the floor. A close-up shot of it hitting the floor visually codes it as a missed bridal bouquet. Ari will not be the next one to get married; he will not carry on tradition. The bright lights, saturated colors, and loud noises disappear when Ari leaves and takes a right-hand turn down a dark back-alley. Ari is enveloped by shadow and silence. While the grandness of the banquet hall was subverted with medium close-ups and close-ups of Ari, emphasizing his feelings of claustrophobia, the dark alley’s narrowness is positioned as a potentially open, explorative, yet isolated queer space by a static long-shot and long-take of Ari walking through this space. Ari enters a public bathroom near the end of this alley, a bathroom the film suggests he has visited many times before; it is a known cruising ground. Upon entering he finds a bulky man using the facilities ands moves next to him, cupping his behind. The film then cuts away to Ari the next morning in bed masturbating, using last night’s sexual encounter as a masturbatory fantasy, presumably continuing on in his mind the events that the film transitioned out from. For Ari, the danger and thrill of anonymous sex is what turns him on, and not necessarily the body he is interacting with. Queer public space, although allowing for exploration, ultimately dictates performance as well. The banquet hall mandated dancing; the bathroom, sex. The spectacle of the Greek wedding space visually and aurally overcompensates for the invisibility of the queer space and actions.
Kokkinos begins the film with creating a connected, yet somewhat binary spatial and performative relation. At the same time, she demonstrates how the binary is both permeable and interrelated. Throughout the film, this permeability will play a key role in constructing identity as interplay under a form of social surveillance. Papanikolaou takes up this point in discussing the film:
Despite the ethnic diaspora’s sense of detachment, the privilege of heterosexual uniformity and an open cultural continuum allow these dispersed individuals to openly unite as respectable members of capitalist order. Queer identity and sexuality, however, remain on the margins, segregated in the dark annals of the urban public space. Although diaspora is a term usually referring to a particular ethnicity or nationality (with the first major study on diaspora being done on the Greeks), Daniel Harris has argued that gays and lesbians:
In this encounter in a men’s room, it is not so much gesture or performance that signals the other man in the bathroom as queer (although his jeans and leather jacket do suggest he is a “bear”). Rather, his location and glances within this culturally understood queer space make his desire quite clear. Lacking a written, oral or visual institutionalized history, an ingrained social upbringing, or physical marks, queer identity has been understood as a spatially defined, performative practice, supported primarily by the act of looking.
Later in domestic space, and after we see a sensual, yet gratuitous, full-frontal nude shot, we see Ari wrap a towel around his waist and head into his brother’s kitchen. Here we are introduced to Ari’s brother, his girlfriend, and their roommate Sean. The kitchen represents for Ari a perfect accommodating space—with a gay, a Greek, and an Anglo. Here Ari is temporarily at ease, although he never lets his guard completely down as suggested by his discomfort when his brother affectionately wraps his arms around him. Such discomfort with affection indicates an anxiety about crossing the line from fraternal/heterosexual “fun” to “gay,” a moment which Kokkinos uses to underscore a disavowed desire to touch as an intimate, if not necessarily sexual, aspect of fraternal relations, so important in Mediterranean cultures. The apartment’s space is marked as a typical left-wing student dwelling; it is messy, cluttered, “organic,” has minimal furniture and is filled with activist posters promoting racial and sexual equality.
The mise-en-scene constructs both space and Ari’s brother as Ari’s antithesis. His brother, although dating an Anglo woman, Janet, will carry on Greek tradition and the politically activist spirit of his elders. Upon preparing to leave, Ari is stopped by Sean who offers him a joint. In Sean’s bedroom, the men sit in close proximity, gazing back and forth at each other, sharing a phallically suggestive marijuana cigarette. Thus begins the gay “dance”—coded and suggestive linguistic and bodily movements which quietly tap into an unspoken energy, something Kokkinos stressed when Ari first exited the bedroom with a towel wrapped around him and was introduced to Sean. Their eye contact acted as a silent language, an understanding further supported by Janet’s glance.
It is no surprise that only after Ari is introduced to Sean does Kokkinos introduce one of the film’s central motifs: surveillance. After introducing Ari to Sean, his brother answers the phone. Their mother is on the other end inquiring about Ari’s whereabouts, forcing Ari’s brother to lie on his behalf. Thus begins a prominent theme in the film: familial surveillance. While mocking Ari, Sean also points to the increased level of familial surveillance that children from migrant families chafe under, especially queer children. Kokkinos establishes the family as a conservative panoptic entity, or at least as the parents attempt to maintain it.
After leaving Sean, Ari returns home only to be interrogated by his father and mother as to his whereabouts. His mother is concerned that they will become the “laughing stock of the neighborhood,” inserting Ari’s behavior into a wider system of synoptic gazing. When Ari informs his mother that Peter (Panayoti, Ari’s brother) “rang first thing” in the morning, his mother replies, “That was hours ago, Ari. My God.” His mother wants to know what he’s doing at all times. Ari and Sean continue their conversation at a local bar and over lunch. Sean tries to understand Ari’s elusive behavior and is confused as to why Greek children need to live a double a life, mocking the lie Greek children tell their parents. Ari tells Sean that the younger generation must lie to gain a sense of power. This is where Head On and Kokkinos make an important interjection into queer identity politics. In emphasizing space and performance, the film makes explicit the role surveillance plays in constructing queer sexuality, and most importantly, an ethnic-queer identity.
Queer critics have used Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume 1 to discuss the social-construction of Western queer identities, yet the important role surveillance has and continues to play in forming Western queer sexuality have been seemly downplayed. For Foucault, the “homosexual” as a category was discovered through psychiatric discourse. What was once a sexual act between men now became
Foucault countered the “repressive hypothesis” by suggesting that Western culture was obsessed with the religious act of “confession,” an act that eventually transformed this private act of revealing one’s interiority into discourse. Thus, through medical-psychiatric surveillance, concepts of normalcy and deviancy were produced, with the homosexual as deviant and the heterosexual as normal. In transforming the act of sodomy into a signifier of deviant identity, the homosexual was constructed across a gendered axis and understood through both sexual and gendered deviant behavior. However, this new form of sexual regulation
Sexuality requires surveillance. Examination requires a balance between monitoring and discourse, between looking and talking.
Surveillance is thus inherent in sexual discursive practices and continues to play an important role in shaping gay identity. Discipline & Punish was published prior to The History of Sexuality Volume 1 and throughout the latter, we can see how Foucault’s understanding of surveillance shaped his understanding of Western sexuality. In discussing the supportive relationships between the surveyor (medical examiner, psychiatrist, pedagogical reporter, parent) and surveyed (patient, child, etc.) Foucault writes about
Here, one could even argue that Foucault’s experience as a gay man influenced his account of modern Western sexuality. Foucault has set up a conditional relationship, one based on a balance between hiding and performing, between searching and dodging. If the homosexual was discovered through discourse and understood as a discernable “type,” then evasion, cryptology and “play” became integral characteristics of homosexuality. If the homosexual was effeminate, he must hide his potential inclinations to feminine behavior; if his/her eyes were attracted to the same sex, extra emphasis was placed on regulating this urge, lest it “give away” one’s internal desire and expose one’s self as “a homosexual.”