Herostratus Review

Simple reviewer looks at complex film or: clydefro tries (and mostly fails) to make sense of a supposed masterpiece of British experimental cinema which has, until now, remained largely unseen.

Facts first: Herostratus was the first and only feature film directed by Don Levy, holder of a PhD from Cambridge and an experimental filmmaker with shorts like “Time Is” and the works which comprise “Five Films,” all of which are included in this release, to his name. It stars Michael Gothard, in his film debut, as a troubled young man who takes his idea of publicized suicide to a powerful advertising boss, but soon becomes disenchanted with the apparent excess in the build-up to his death. Levy inserts a vast arrangement of footage across his main story. Everything from black and white concentration camp horrors and the repetition of Adolf Hitler smiling smugly in front of a vast crowd to Allen Ginsberg reciting poetry and men in business suits marching down the sidewalk. The most indelible of these juxtapositions is a sequence where we see the full-color queasiness of a slaughterhouse quickly cut back and forth with a striptease. Another seeming digression is Helen Mirren (in her first screen appearance) and her cleavage dancing for a short period of time only to reveal her true motivation as advertising some sort of orange gloves meant for household cleaning.

It’s almost unavoidable to approach Herostratus without acknowledging that it is, on one level, a film dealing with the surrounding complications of a planned suicide which was both directed and partially conceived by a man in Levy who ended his own life while starring yet another man in Gothard who likewise killed himself. As such, suicide isn’t a mere conceit of plot in Herostratus, but also a motif, even a reaction, to inform its entirety with the tragic overtones of a film as failed therapy (though both men remained alive for decades following the production). The disillusionment and anger shown by Gothard’s character Max carries more weight when applied to his creators. It could be a false correlation, certainly, but it’s the only entry point I can find for a film which is extraordinarly messy, difficult and seemingly locked airtight inside a time and place as unknown now as if it never existed.

The BFI’s accompanying essay by Amnon Buchbinder (who actually has a website devoted to Herostratus) presents Levy’s feature as an unseen, yet influential and highly important, brilliant work. There could hardly be a more forceful love letter to a movie which has been out of circulation since 1967 and never given any form of commercial distribution. The resulting expectations are a bit confusing, or at least they were for me. You can’t help but wonder what sorts of cracks could’ve existed for this to have remained buried since its completion, and, yet, the hope for something important and fascinating remains. Clearly, there’s nothing audience-friendly to be had here. It was shot over 8 or 9 months but looks more like a week. The interiors feel stagy and claustrophobic while the outdoor shots almost exclusively appear to have been lit via clouds. Levy took literally years to edit the picture, and the result is sprawling confusion spliced against often horrible, seemingly off-topic images. Even so, it must have been exactly what Levy wanted at the time.

I don’t believe the word “Herostratus” is uttered at all in the film. It is a title clearly intended for comparison against the Herostratus who, legend claims, set fire to a well-known temple in Ancient Greece as a means of gaining fame. Levy’s Herostratus is Max, who sets out to find advertising man Farson (Peter Stephens) with the proposal of having his suicidal jump from a skyscraper be marketed as a means of protest against society. Max gets far more than he naively bargained for, though I think the lack of any sense of reaction or effect from this supposedly ballyhooed public suicide is a real weakness in the film. We see Max watching and listening to a television set but there’s no further conveyance of the magnitude this spectacle might have achieved. It becomes, and perhaps this was Levy’s intention, an event exclusively inside Max’s mind. I interpreted the absence of crowds and onlookers as a budgetary limitation which unfortunately pulled the film away from a basic layer of accessibility. The very long sequence involving Max and Clio (Gabriella Licudi) in bed wth an empty black background had a similar effect despite it needing to be a pivotal section in the plot where Max essentially regains his desire for life.

Initially, Herostratus struck me as an angry statement devoted to youth in revolt and opposing society’s various deficiencies. It seemed like a film which could really only have been made by a younger person not yet so jaded or cynical to the reality of life as to move on to more constructive endeavors. I’m still comfortable viewing Herostratus as pretentious and confused. It’s like optimism and pessimism no longer apply. I’m less sure as to whether that’s such a bad quality, and I’ll fully admit that this is not the sort of movie you watch once and understand everything that’s taken place. The fact that there’s almost nothing out there written on this film, aside from the polishing by Amnon Buchbinder, means you have to watch and make your own opinion. It also, clearly, means that I have to watch and make my opinion before then sharing it with everyone trying to determine whether Herostratus is worth all of those recession-era pounds or dollars. My honest opinion as of now is that it isn’t. This is a long, unfocused film which can be excruciating to watch at times. That it might also be important or influential isn’t quite enough to sway my opinion. Some might enjoy it, but I have to admit I didn’t.

The Disc

Regardless of my opinion as to how well the intricacies of Herostratus work, I’m ecstatic to see the BFI make the film available to the greater public, many of whom undoubtedly will appreciate what Levy was doing more than I did. It’s being included as a Flilpside title, spine number 004 and available on both DVD and region-free Blu-ray. The latter, reviewed here, is a 2-disc set with the film in the intended widescreen (1.78:1) aspect ratio as well as 1.33:1, which was how it was shot. Levy apparently always wanted Herostratus shown in the wider format. Worth noting is that the BFI used a slightly thicker, flat-spined case to house the high-definition release. The cover, too, should be addressed since it does potentially mislead consumers into thinking there’s a Feuillade element akin to Judex or Irma Vep when the character pictured is barely in the movie and seems to represent some sort of phantom dread for the protagonist. I like the sleeve quite a bit; it’s just not very indicative of what to expect here (not that any image alone would quite capture Herostratus).

The BFI had the luxury of going back to the original negative to produce a high-definition transfer for this release. Disc 1 contains the 1.78 widescreen version while the second, single-layered disc has a 1.33:1 presentation. Some mild damage, including a few instances of vertical lines and various specks which at times resemble dark-colored bugs moving around the frame, can still be seen. Detail lacks the wow factor of, for example, the simultaneous Flipside release for Man of Violence. There are also a number of shots intentionally out of focus, but maximum clarity can be seen at times, even allowing the viewer to notice the ruddiness of a certain performer’s skin. Colors are muted in general, with Levy favoring blacks, whites and greys, but the few instances of, for example, blood look strikingly red. You’ll also notice a steady amount of grain kept in the picture. Overall, and keeping in mind there’s no other release of Herostratus for comparison, this transfer is quite good, definitive really.

Audio for the film can be a tricky matter. Any problems presented by the English PCM mono track can’t be considered fatal. Dialogue remains uneven at times, particularly in the more intimate scene between Max and Clio where the volume goes down quite low. You might notice a small hiss or other unwanted noise occasionally. But the film is audio-dependent in much the same way it relies on visuals for an almost subliminal effect in audience behavior. Lots of strange noises smuggle themselves into the action and this was Levy’s intention. The track is modest in terms of modern technical prowess, but I’m not sure how much better it could have sounded. If you need to turn on the subtitles, they are in English for the hearing impaired and white in color. Cheers to the BFI for also including subtitles with the extra features, helping this viewer/listener enormously.

The most amount of light shed on Herostratus would seem to come directly from Don Levy himself, in a lengthy audio interview (38:22) conducted in 1973. Levy is very patient, though still not revelatory, with interviewer Clare Spark. He spends several minutes outlining the plot of the film as well as making clear how dissatisfied he is with approaching Herostratus from a narrative-driven point of view. He refers to it as having elements of documentary, as sharing its structure with a musical piece, and, indirectly, likens the effect of watching it to undergoing some sort of experiment. In fact, Levy seems to go out of his way to differentiate his film from a fictional movie with a linear plot. No matter that it actually is, that the effects Levy was looking for have come and gone. I see Herostratus more as a protest on an empty street.

A collection of Levy’s short films further occupy disc one. All are in high definition and pillar-boxed to accommodate a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “Ten Thousand Talents” (1960, 25:10) is the black and white student film Levy made which cheekily deals with Cambridge University. It includes the voices of multiple narrators, including Peter Cook. “Time Is” (1964, 29:33) attempts to deconstruct how we view the concept of time. It almost feels like a teaching tool for particularly ambitious students. You can also make a quick connection with some of the ideas behind Herostratus, with the same scientific-minded level of inquisitive thought guiding this short. Finally, “Five Films” (1967, 7:59) is, indeed, a quintet of short works, each with title cards and credits. They have names like “Punulse,” “Malaise,” “Catharsis,” “Point of Noon,” and “Black Ice.” The BFI’s booklet contains a bit more background information on all of these.

Speaking of which, those who cannot get enough of cow slaughter imagery will be delighted to open the case to reveal bloody organs being removed from a bovine victim on the BFI’s Herostratus booklet cover. Open it up and you’ll get to read a well-written and passionate, if unnecessarily argumentative, lauding of the film by Amnon Buchbinder. It’s followed by five pages of information on Don Levy’s time at the Slade School of Fine Art, which was Britain’s first ever university film studies department and headed by director Thorold Dickinson. Press quotes on Herostratus, dated May 1968 of all times, are given a single page in the booklet and followed by credits for the film and short biographies of its creator and lead. This takes us to those brief write-ups on the short films and the usual (and welcome) notes on the particulars of presentation and transfer.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t much address in my review the things Herostratus and its creator Don Levy apparently wanted to convey, which involves, as I understand it, something along the lines of the audience being willfully submitted to certain emotions in a different way than we’d see in the traditional narrative. Hence, the use of montage and various insertions throughout the film which are intended to provoke emotional responses in the viewer. This can be tied into the exploration of and repeated attack on the ego, currents which are intended to run through Herostratus almost like a form of electroshock treatment. You can slightly grasp some of these ideas on an initial viewing and then get a better hold through the supplemental material included by the BFI, but one gets the feeling that to fully understand and appreciate Levy’s work you’d have to become nearly as obsessed with it as he must have been. That’s a lot to ask and it’s a price I have no intention of paying for the pleasure of being a glorified lab rat.

Other reactions will certainly vary, and it’s difficult to go against the grain, but those anxious to see Herostratus for themselves can feel confident knowing that the BFI once again managed to dust off something largely unseen for a stellar presentation. It might be the work of a maniac, but, for some people, Don Levy will be their kind of maniac. Not mine, unfortunately.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 25, 2009

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