WriteStuff: Head On's narrative strategy

Hunter Cordaiy

Convention dictates that the central characters in a feature film reveal themselves to the audience in such a way that we may share their ideals and problems. This process of identification applies even to unlikable characters. The need to understand evil in a personality is almost a sub-genre in cinema.

While these journeys to the dark side might not be historically new—there is a tradition that goes back to Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) where we had to be aware of gangster James Cagney’s mother complex in order to understand his predilection for shooting people locked in the boot of his car—it does suggest that cinema is now more interested in the shady rather than the wholesome.

But what happens when the central character is both a lost personality and so interesting that we come to genuinely care for him?

Ana Kokkinos’s film Head On turns this into a compelling advantage. Her hero Ari, played by Alex Dimitriades, hardly responds to experience in a way that progresses his personal story—in fact, the final sequence of Head On deliberately denies the idea of redemption in the life of the central character.

How does this work on the audience to make Head On such a powerful experience?

There are several strategies employed. The first and most important is that Ari is always on screen. It is a technique borrowed from classic detective stories—we know only what the private eye learns and experiences—and we must deduce and digest the same information as the character. There is no allowance for a wider interpretation. This confines us and the character into a tight relationship of mutual knowledge.

Having established this, Kokkinos then allows Ari to progress from incident to incident in his 24-hour journey, while we can only guess at the ‘map’ he might be using. Each event does not, on the surface, advance him towards any specific destination. Later we realise this might be an acceptance of his destiny.

In dramatic terms each scene is, in some sense, a structured failure. All relationships that might stabilise Ari result in argument and escape. In succession he is asked to accompany his parents to a Greek club, has several failed attempts at seduction, and is arrested by the police and subsequently beaten. To confirm the dramatic intent of the film, the only thing that is in any sense successful in this day-in-a-life is anonymous tough sex with strangers in alleyways. These encounters are presented as a risky addiction, whereas everything else in Ari’s world is an obligation to be rejected or avoided.

In Ari we are shown only the need for oblivion, and the frustration we sense in him has the potential for violence. Kokkinos cleverly contrasts this with black and white images from his parents’ early days in Australia as they took up the political cause of opposing the Junta back in Greece. They at least had ideals and a cause, a channel for their beliefs and anger at their personal and collective condition.

Head On clearly says that one generation later, the children of those idealists are adrift in an Australia that does not politically engage them. There is only a dwindling tradition of weddings and afternoon card games where English is not spoken and the old songs are sung. These are not major scenes, but their cumulative effect is a major narrative strategy of the film. Small incidents, repeated with slight variation, building to a statement about the absorption of immigrant values within the wider Australia.

Ari’s brother does have political discussions in cafes but the language used is deliberately presented as hollow rhetoric. These discussions are also shown to be the province of the articulate and the employed. Both are conditions that Ari fervently eschews.

By showing the tensions within Ari’s family, particularly between father and son, Head On also depicts the fracturing of that traditionally important structure which in turn confirms the ‘drifting’ of Ari as a personality, cut loose from the values that would have reinforced his identity within a specific community.

Head On does not conform to a classical feature script structure and, as such, should be seen as a courageous piece of writing. By using incidents rather than major set events, and by forcing the audience to interpret Ari’s thoughts about his condition from what they see rather than what they’re told through dialogue, the script proposes a less literary form of Australian film writing and instead espouses the value of the visual as primary content.

Head On, director Ana Kokkinos, writers Kokkinos, Andrew Bovell, Mira Robertson (adapted from the book, Loaded, by Christos Tsiolkas), distributor Palace Films, currently available on video from Roadshow Home Entertainment.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 15

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001