Head On

I reserve the right to destroy myself
★★★
☆
Released: 
1998
Director: 
Ana Kokkinos
Starring: 
Alex Dimitriades, Paul Capsis, Julian Garner, Elena Mandalis
The Setup: 
It’s hard to be gay, Greek, and Australian.
Discussion: 

I have heard about this movie in various ways for years, but when a reader in Tazmania wrote with a helpful list of good Australian movies and this was on it, I decided it was about time. First of all—did you know that there Australia apparently has a large Greek community? That was news to me. But Mmmm, two hot tastes that go great together. So we open with these black-and-white images of Greeks immigrating to Australia, while traditional Greek music plays, then segue into this traditional Greek wedding where our protagonist, the incredibly handsome Ari, breaks off from the crowd, then heads out. He goes into some seedy alley, switches to cruise mode, and picks up some hot alley action. This is intercut with Ari rubbing one out, and shows us right up front that he has a big cock. This is aimed at gay audiences remember, and the CRUCIAL character-setting information MUST be delivered right up front.

Let’s make a brief aside to note that there seem to be very few gay-themed movies about guys that are less than absolutely gorgeous, and thus you should constantly keep in mind that if YOU are gay and somewhat less than gorgeous and have something less than a big, plump cock, YOU. SIMPLY. DO. NOT. EXIST. Thanks in advance for your cooperation!

So then Ari meets this bland anglo guy, Sean, who he flirts with, then returns home in the morning to his parents, who are furious that he didn’t call, and pretty much tell him that he’s a pointless waste of life. Ari shoots up, then remembers being a young boy with his parents at some sort of political or Greek pride march.

Later, he goes out walking and picks up this rather large Chinese restaurant worker. The mother of a female friend reads his tea leaves and tells him “There is someone who wants to take care of you, but you are facing away.” This woman realizes that Ari is gay, and reacts as though he has terminal cancer. She advises him to “Find a girl. Get married. Then you can do whatever you want.”

And that seems to be the exact crux of this movie: It is made out that in the Australian-Greek subculture here, you MUST get married and maintain a heterosexual exterior, and once you do no one will question any homo stuff you do in your personal life. But Ari, who hardly seems to be a gay rights icon, finds it hard to deal with these restrictions and life a false life. Then Ari goes over to see Johnny, who dresses up as a woman and adopts the name Toula during those times. As soon as Ari gets off he’s uncomfortable and wants to go, which obviously isn’t that delightful to Toula. Then Johnny/Toula’s dad comes back and finds Ari there, screams at Johnny that he’s a “poofter” and says “You’re shit.”

Not long after, there’s a scene where Ari comes into the kitchen to find his mother and sister dancing to pop music, and begins dancing with them. You’ll notice that he is very seductive with his mother, which I think is… well, not seen as "seductive" to someone within that culture. Then his father comes in and says “If you want to dance a [traditional Greek dance] you should dance a [tradition Greek dance].” I can’t remember the name. The thing is, not only did no one say they want to dance a traditional Greek dance, it’s QUITE obvious that they don’t. But the dad’s a boor. He comes in saying he will “show them a good time,” as though it’s not possible they could have one without him. He then dances with Ari, who resists him at first, then gives in. The father is now what I see as very seductive with Ari—the scene fades out as it looks as though they’re about to kiss.

I found this to be the most interesting and evocative moment in the whole movie, because it demonstrates Ari’s perhaps over-seductive relationship with his mother—legendary for breeding narcissistic homos—and the way his father is very seductive with him, demonstrating the weird paradox in certain cultures like this, where men are extremely intimate with each other, so long as you never cross that blurry line into “homosexuality.” In fact, one could argue that it is the very strength of the prohibition against homosexuality that allows this intimacy between men—and possibly even sex between men on the DL. As his friend said, so long as you’re married and have kids, you can do anything you want. But you can see how confusing this would be to a person who is aware of his own homosexuality, with his father in this scene, being very close and intimate with him, but Ari unable to respond the way he feels he’s being led to, or he will be harshly rebuked. Look but don’t touch.

Then Ari goes to this party. He makes an attempt to come on to this girl, even going into a room and trying to make it with her, but ultimately it just doesn’t work. She gets angry, beats at his face, and calls him a poofter. Going back out to the party, he spots this bearded guy who gives him the eye. Soon Ari and the girl he was wit in the bedroom go to the bathroom to snort coke and smoke, whereupon they’re found by other disdainful friends, one of whom tells Ari that he’s ashamed to be seen with him. Ari then follows the bearded guy out to the alley, where Ari blows him, the whole thing having a somewhat angry, abusive tone. They guy wants to kiss Ari, but he won’t let him. The guy moves to walk off, but Ari angrily pulls him back and demands that he pull Ari off. The movie wants to show that there’s a lot of hate and anger mixed in with these encounters, and that they are not as truly satisfying as one would hope, but the problem is that Ari is spectacularly handsome and the bearded guy is about a 10 in my book, and given the notion prevalent in the gay community, based on nostalgia for some perceived paradise that existed in the 70s, that furtive, anonymous encounters are super-awesome, I suspect many people will come away from this scene thinking that sure it may be angry and unsatisfying, BUT IT’S MEGA-HOT!!!

I must confess around this time I was getting pretty bored, which lasted until the end of the movie.

SPOILERS > > >
Ari goes back to the party, or some other party, forget which, where Johnny comes in, dressed in full drag. Her appearance causes a big stir, especially when she starts doing a traditional Greek women’s dance in front of everyone. Ari dances with her briefly, also in front of everyone, who are growing increasingly hostile. They leave together, take a cab, doing more drugs in the cab, and getting pulled over and arrested by cops. They are the typical sadistic, homophobic cops and they rough up and humiliate both of them, in the surely-to-be-expected “hitting bottom” scene. When they are released, Ari is telling Toula she should have done what the cops said, and Toula forces Ari to his knees: “Every time you keep your mouth shut, that’s where you stay,” she says. Methinks a point has been made! With the subtlest sledgehammer tap imaginable.

So Ari goes to another club and takes more drugs! He encounters Sean, who tells Ari that he loves him, In response, Ari violently fucks Sean’s face. So it IS love! Sean tells him to cut it out, and Ari ends up crying naked and alone at the bottom of a stairwell saying “I’m sorry.” He then proceeds to the nearest pier, where he blows some dude there. We have a voice-over as he says “Whore, dog, cunt… My father’s insults make me stronger. I’m going to live my life; I’m not going to change a thing.” He then does a traditional Greek dance alone there on the pier as the sun comes up, symbolically bringing his two identities together.
< < < SPOILERS END

It is good in many ways, but at the same time I have several reservations about it. On the good side, it’s an interesting, uncommon topic: how to handle being gay in a repressive ethnic immigrant community. The textures of the Greek community here are well-handled and its rules are clearly communicated. The central conflict is clear. Ari is well-acted and we get a very clear sense of what he’s going through, though not really any thought process about what he thinks of it all. And the achievement of the movie is that it clearly demonstrates how repression in one’s personal life can manifest itself in oppression toward others. And the performances are good and it’s decently written and looks fine and all that.

My problems with the movie are partially with this movie, partially with this movie as an example of gay films in general. First, as mentioned, is it POSSIBLE to have a gay movie whose protagonist is not GORGEOUS in that Abercrombie way? Do we really have THAT little respect for gay audiences’ ability to endure five minutes without seeing some hot shirtless guy? The movie even insists on showing us his cock right up front, as though we would simply wither up and die if we didn’t see it. I’m also curious about the movie’s lack of condemnation for Ari’s clearly destructive lifestyle. Not that it NEEDS to condemn him, but it also doesn’t fully support him, and I personally come away without much impression at all. A deluded character chooses to remain deluded. The end. I suspect that either there was some delicate balancing of ideas in the book that simply failed to be translated [many on the IMDb mention that the subtle ideas of the book do not come though], or [and it could be both] the decision not to condemn Ari is political. There are many people who would have a fit if the movie were to seem to say that there was something wrong with Ari going out and having anonymous sex in alleys, so it seems to make the choice to say pretty much nothing [except the whole, well-worn “if you keep your mouth shut…” speech] and just slide out silently. In fact, now that I think about it, there are groups of people who would object to almost ANY statement a gay movie might make—except the old “homophobia is WRONG!” chestnut—and this could account for why almost all gay movies are terrible.

So, compared to most gay movies, this one is pretty good. And compared to movies in general… well, it has a lot of strengths. It does a good job of laying out the subculture and the challenges of being gay there. But I don’t feel that we got very far under Ari’s skin. We just see what he DOES. It is possible for the movie to take a perspective on Ari’s embrace of his destructive lifestyle without necessarily condemning or endorsing it. I would compare this to the recent Big Fan, which managed to generate a lot of pathos from its hero’s absolute refusal to accept others’ ideas on how to improve his life. But here the movie just [metaphorically] mumbles a few pleasantries and slips out.

Should you watch it: 

Ultimately yes, definitely worth seeing, although personally I have my reservations.