Reviewed By Alistair McCartney
Forget "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Forget "Muriel's Wedding." You've already forgotten "Crocodile Dundee," so I don't have to urge you to forget that. As an Australian, I found those movies decidedly un- Australian, full of visual cliches and cultural stereotypes. Aesthetically they reeked of Hollywood production values, coming off as little else than America's celluloid projection of how it would like to imagine this far-off country (and the accompanying nostalgia for its own lost innocence, how it would like to imagine that the USA itself once was.) Whatever trace of "Australianness" remained, always felt like tacky propaganda put out by the national tourist board. But finally, in the form of "Head On," a movie has come along that feels like an authentic vision of Australia as it really is, at the end of the twentieth century.
The second film by Ana Kokkinos ("Only The Brave,") "Head On" charts the frenzied, unfocused existence of a handsome young Queer-Greek-Australian man, Ari (played by Aussie soap super-hunk Alex Dimitriades, who was the star of Australia's version of "Beverly Hills 90210," "Heartbreak High".) Ari finds himself at odds with all his given identities, unable to comfortably align himself with either his ethnicity or his sexuality.
Christos Tsiolkas (author of the novel "Loaded," on which the film is based,) wrote in an essay:
"I can't separate my sexuality from my ethnicity, my class position, and how I think about the world generally."
Ari is testament to such a philosophy: he's a walking talking tangled web of split-subjectivity, oozing sex appeal through the grimy streets and back-alleys of inner-city Melbourne. Living aimlessly, at the speed of light, his family keeps imploring him to settle down; they urge him to make them proud, by getting a steady job and marrying a nice Greek girl.
But he refuses to anchor his chaotic sense of self in family or respectable society. Instead he takes refuge in sensual acts of senseless expenditure. Rather than playing the "good Greek son," he is more interested in taking copious amounts of drugs, indulging in anonymous sexual acts tinged with violence. His only goal lies in seeking out fleeting, ecstatic moments that erase any possibility of a socially acceptable self.
All this existential angst (fag-flavored, Greek-Aussie style,) takes place against the backdrop of an equally unstable Australia. Shot in a mixture of gritty neo-realism and hallucinatory, surreal shades (recalling the raw, chiaroscuro tones of "Savage Nights," and the bright delirium of "Trainspotting") "Head On" captures the "other Australia": a country that never left behind its brutal origins as a penitential colony, a nation steeped in the residue of its genocidal beginnings. We see an Australia that is not only the land of fun-loving drag queens, and happy-go lucky losers, but also a complex space inhabited by a variety of frayed identities, constantly on the edge of exploding. This is the land of drunken drift and ceaseless monotony. The myth of Australia as "the lucky country" is exposed, and we get to view what's concealed behind that myth: racial tensions, domestic violence, stagnant unemployment, endemic homophobia, police brutality.
This may sound grim, and it is, but at the same time it's eminently watchable. This is due to Kokkinos's fast-paced style, as hybrid as the city she is intent on depicting. She will casually interrupt the narrative to break into a music video styled assemblage of images. Or she'll derail the forward flow of the story by splicing in haunting, sepia toned footage of Greeks arriving in Australia after WW11. The film's compelling quality also derives from the excellent acting, particularly from Paul Capsis as the trans-gendered black sheep of the family, who from time to time disappears into the identity of his dead mother Teula. Nor does it hurt that Dimitriades is pretty as a picture, and sexy as fuck.
Kokkinos mentioned in an interview that much of the Greek-Australian community felt deeply affronted by her representations. This is not surprising, for she spares nothing when depicting the rigidity and dogma embedded into the culture. And the film's identity politics are far from being politically correct; Ari is venomous when it comes to his "roots":
"If you tell a wog the truth, they'll use it against you."
Though unsentimental, her camera is also distinctly humane, lovingly documenting Greek music and dancing. More than in any Australian film I have seen, we get a sense of the daily struggle that decentered peoples undergo, when trying to create a new center for themselves in a hostile country. And Kokkinos gets to the paradoxical heart of the immigrant dilemma: parents so intent on remembering the past, having raised children who simply want to forget.
It won't be surprising if the movie doesn't find favor with the gay community here: those gays who want all their movies to end like fairy-tales, beautiful boy ending up with beautiful boy, in the banality of homo-eternity. Ari's abject sexuality is full of shadow and self-loathing. We see him having graphic sex with people who are not only plain, but also conventionally "ugly," a taboo in gay cinema.
I won't give the ending away, but it is thankfully free of any kind of easy redemption. Finally a movie where the star, does not see the light, but rather sees himself; he becomes who he already is, and surely that is the most difficult thing. And finally an Australian movie without a big show number.