As a shrieking, bellowing Beethoven movement plays on reel-to-reel cassette, a fair-haired, handsome young man lies on a bed cackling insanely, ignoring his neighbour’s entreaties to “turn that bloody row down”. Soon, he will snap and destroy with his bare hands practically everything of substance within his room- smashing bedsteads, windows, walls, bookcases and paintings, and making more noise than recorded music ever could. As the actor- Michael Gothard in his first major role- embarks upon this odyssey of wanton destruction, we are dragged into his psychosis in a way we wouldn’t have imagined when, five minutes earlier, proceedings commenced in an admittedly abstract but comparatively restrained manner. To be fair though, I knew from the off that Don Levy’s Herostratus- the film in question- was never going to be an easy ride. Even for someone who likes his films served with a generous side-order of weird, it doesn’t make easy viewing- or indeed reviewing- material. But I had to see it…
Let’s backtrack: this film, regarded by those lucky enough to have seen it first time round as a masterpiece on the level of A Clockwork Orange, O Lucky Man!, Performance and suchlike, was, until its acquisition by BFI Flipside in 2009, considered “missing”, or “lost”. No-one of my personal acquaintance had ever seen it, and the majority of internet discussions seemed to be concerned with whether or not it was a horror movie (it isn’t, although its subject matter is undoubtedly dark and macabre, and much of the imagery was disturbing enough to encourage several members of the crew to walk out during filming and have to be persuaded back). As a result of its indeterminate genre, and the same curiosity that accompanies anything considered “obscure” or “underground”, a sizeable cult grew around the film, consisting predominantly of people who believed they would never see it. After such a build-up, surely any uncovering could only result in an anticlimax….
So, did it? Now I’ve seen it twice, am I disappointed? Certainly not.
Am I, on the other hand, confused and a little disturbed? Definitely. Levy’s 142-minute odyssey, which took seven years to complete, is as difficult as one would imagine- an art piece designed to unnerve, shock and provoke the viewer into at least some form of reaction, although exactly which viewers the Australian director was aiming at remains unclear, for, as the audio interview for American radio included among the extras explains, he had little or no time for conventional film-making or narrative structure whatsoever. Indeed, it seems he only gave Herostratus what linear narrative it has to “throw people a thread”. This attitude demonstrates not only a contempt for cinema audiences (and a feeling of intellectual superiority to them), but cinema itself, and possibly even humanity in general: it is this utter disgust, scornful and borne of hatred, which resonates more than anything else throughout.
It is therefore understandable why the world was not ready, even in liberated 1960s London, for such a film: it’s also easy to see why some have chosen to castigate its perceived “pretentiousness”. After all, Max (Gothard), its principal character, is the archetypal “angry young man” (there were plenty of them around in the early 60s), and not a particularly likeable one either: while sympathetic and handsome enough to court both the ladies and the gay audience, delivering several lines of caustic wit along the way, the overall impression that remains is of someone you wouldn’t want to be friends with, and indeed, in an eerie reflection of how the actor saw himself, he seemingly has none, taking ontological opposition to practically everyone that comes into contact with him.
His seething anger and resentment toward “modern day life” leads him to enter the advertising offices of Farson (played convincingly by respected character actor Peter Stephens, who eerily resembles a heterosexual John Savident) and his under-occupied secretary Clio (Gabriella Licudi) and offer to commit suicide in public: a dramatic gambit for sure, but one which seems vague, having little basis in his background (which we never know anyway). Rather than targeting one particular facet of society he finds reprehensible, he directs his broadside first at capitalism via the ad-man himself, before confessing to being “so bored with it all”. Farson, acting as his nemesis, will later take him squarely to task, sensing that under such nihilism lurks a simple desire for fame, luxury and recognition (not to mention a case of sour grapes at not having yet achieved it) and several of Max’s actions, such as agreeing to be housed in an elaborate studio belonging to Farson, his castigation of the executives on set (a re-enactment of Levy’s own discussions with the film’s financiers?) and his final knowing “wink” at salesman Pointer atop the roof from which it has been designated the act will take place, seem to confirm this. Therefore, not only does Levy urge us to understand his cry of vitriol (with Max representing his own alter-ego), but to view that as shallow and narcissistic. Talk about asking a lot of your public!! Then again, as pointed out earlier, he loathed and detested us. Well, not me personally- I wouldn’t be born for another seven years- but you get the point.
The question that keeps recurring is why? Brought up in considerable comfort in one a prestigious (if culturally empty) New South Wales suburb, he possessed a prestigious talent he was allowed to develop where so many are not. This in turn won him a scholarship to Cambridge University (which he also apparently despised, but more of that later): not bad going considering the poverty many lived in back then. Admittedly, as a depressive, I’d be foolish to suggest that privilege alone automatically makes you happy, but one can’t help thinking what other, less fortunate individuals would have made of the chances Levy was seemingly handed on a plate. OK, Herostratus transpired to be a 7-year, poverty-engendering labour of love for director, actor and cinematographer- but we should remember that it was ultimately his choice to embark upon it in the first instance.
Yet somehow, out of all this negativity emerges a work of great beauty. Gothard’s performance (though playing a fundamentally unlikeable person) is a revelation, a spitting, snarling yet suave diatribe on legs, and proof of what a performer can achieve when stretched to his outer limits (Levy would later admit Michael had at least “two breakdowns” during filming). Although I remain an avowed fan and devotee of his subsequent horror and fantasy career, it is unfortunate that the actor was never again gifted such a demanding role, although the greatest tragedy remains undoubtedly his real-life suicide by hanging in 1993, some seven years after Levy took the same path. The reasons have never been fully explained. Were both men clinical depressives? Did either struggle with homosexuality? Or, was there some kind of “pact” made at the time of shooting to which we are not privy, and which only those attempting greater understanding of the universe, possibly via the occult, could understand? We may never know, but the armchair theorists of NW1 and E8 will have a field day dissecting it. Interestingly enough, Max’s citation of boredom as an explanation for his act was more or less the same reason left by George Sanders in his suicide note in 1972 (shortly after starring in another suicide-themed movie, Don Sharp’s Psychomania), also echoed by Kenneth Williams’ ambiguous final declaration of “what’s the bloody point?” in the late 1980s….
True to form, Max ekes out a lone existence in a rented “pad” (although it’s never explained how, or indeed if, he pays for it) in a block of villas on Harrow Road, which look ripe for demolition and whose only other apparent occupants are the aforementioned nosey neighbour and a downtrodden Afro-Asian prostitute called Sandy. The newspaper-decorated walls and crumbling staircases of this abode, and the decaying, greying London it comprises part of, reflect neither the “respectable” vision of the capital presented by Butchers and the Danziger Brothers, the “kitchen sink” approach of the social realists or the “swinging” metropolis so vividly depicted by Levy’s countercultural contemporaries: in this spartan, moribund wasteland, there is no kitchen sink, and even if there was, it would be malfunctioning or hanging from the wall. Max is similarly unreconstituted: he dresses sparsely (if stylishly, befitting the day’s fashions) in white v-neck, jeans and slip-ons, looking as if he might have once belonged to some social “movement”, but offering no other evidence of affiliation with anyone or anything. Some might see this as a failing in the film, and yes, it would have helped if we saw more of a public reaction to the chief protagonist’s actions (without which, surely, we are viewing little more than the delusions of a nutter)- but on the other hand, to involve the populace at large (and thus negate the film’s inherent solipsism) would render it null and void.
Was this “London” really how Levy really saw his adoptive home? If so, maybe this is what prevents me fully embracing Herostratus, though my admiration grows daily: belonging as I do to a social group as yet unrecognised yet existing in large numbers, who reject “modernity” and long for a return the values of the 50s, 60s and 70s, I personally find it disheartening to see a film, albeit a great one, portraying the era as so stultifyingly dull, bland and unforgiving that the only way its “hero” (and I use the term loosely) feels he can gain recognition is to commit suicide, without even (as if that alone weren’t bad enough) the right to choose his own method, time and place of death, and with his last words written for him by advertising executives who read only commercial potential rather human issues into the event. Putting things into context, this was a time when London, rather than decaying, was believed to be the centre of the known universe: when the Beatles were shortly to release Sergeant Pepper, and the British film industry was at an all-time high. The idea, therefore, that a gifted filmmaker such as Levy saw only “nothingness” within is too much for some of us to contemplate, and both viewings have left me with a growing awareness of the Max that potentially exists within us all. Put simply, if it was all a lie, and the past was as soulless and bland as the present (possibly the worst era Britain has ever seen) then what else is left? Thankfully, this bleak view is redeemed by a compassionate, humanist perspective, which sets Levy apart from, say, the “radical” filmmakers of the Notting Hill Free School: there is no political bias here at all. Then again, given the film’s solitary mindset, it’s hard to see how there could be, except maybe of an anarchic (in the proper sense of the word) nature.
Furthermore, there are minor stabs at humour: references to “soap detergent”, a very deadpan delivery of the phrase “piss off” and a completely unexpected “duckie” all somehow find their way into the mix, while the “bad guys” (Farson and Pointer) are quite sympathetic, presented as officious and cynical rather than evil. Also, remember, Max approaches them in the first place, not the other way round: the downside is to this knowledge is that it gives us cause to ponder whether the artist is as shallow and dishonest as “the man”, thus inviting further feelings of despair. Does Max make his offer in the hope that his televised act will “shake people up” and force society to reconsider its attitudes? It’s easy, if one plays “devil’s advocaat”, to start off thinking so, but halfway through, by which time he has the spoils and attention (not to mention the girl) he so obviously craves, and his regret visually grows before us with each passing hour, you realise there may be less to him than meets the eye. Thus, the revelation that Clio’s affections (demonstrated in a love scene which, incidentally, goes on way too long) are no more than a sales pitch instigated by her employer, who is technically pimping her out, crushes him and returns him once again to genuine suicidal status, but will this be a permanent state? I shall reveal no more, save to say that the ending, whilst carrying a certain degree of predictability, is none the less effective for it.
For a picture so vocally dismissive of narrative convention (there are no credits, not even spoken ones in the style of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), Herostratus is, if one is a patient viewer (the lack of dialogue in the first five minutes, for example, may deter those with short attention spans) very easy to follow, and although circular rather than linear, with many tangents, it’s a far cry from the all-out experimentalism of Brakhage, Breakwell and Broughton (nice alliteration), and does share, whether Levy liked it or not, certain traits with “commercial” cinema. The visually appealing (though some may say technically pointless) appearance 55 minutes in of Helen Mirren, also in her first role, as a scantily clad girl vamping and pushing her breasts into camera whilst advertising rubber gloves, is no less salacious and erotic than the depiction of such characters in the exploitation pictures of Long, Miller and Shonteff: likewise, Licudi, (a fine actress with perfect diction whose shrieks of dismay and terror during the final reel are worryingly authentic) is portrayed as “top totty” throughout, even if cineastes would undoubtedly describe this as ironic. On the other hand, if the film’s creator intended the responses of each viewer to be determined by their own experience, then surely this is proof he succeeded in that aim. Similarly, the apparent (if temporary) loss of focus and pace halfway may have also been quite deliberate. Despite such experimentations, the much-vaunted influence of Eisenstein’s montage technique, mentioned by several experts in relation to Levy’s work, is in actuality barely present, and even if it was, one should remember that the great Soviet director was pretty linear at the best of times too.
Unsurprisingly if you know his life story, Levy’s most powerful and easily detectable influence stems from a far less celebrated source- Thorold Dickinson, his mentor and teacher at Cambridge, and a fine feature director himself, best known for his superb (and undoubtedly horror) adaptation of Pushkin’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES. There are recognisable similarities in the Australian’s use of space, his wide angle shots and even in his treatment of sound: sure, he employs distortions both aural and visual that Dickinson would never have attempted, interspersed with graphic scenes of (symbolic?) animal slaughter which, one might posit, provide the reasoning behind attempts to claim HEROSTRATUS as a horror picture, but they are mere add-ons to a technique which, whilst forward-looking, is steeped in history. Elsewhere, traces of Losey, Reisz, Lang and even Melies abound, though whether they were part of the game plan at the film’s inception in 1960 is unclear. In musical terms, the notion of a “soundtrack” is similarly anathema, with the exception of one striking sequence set to the sound of none other than Indo-Jazz Fusions by Joe Harriott- another perpetual outsider and thus a kindred spirit.
If Levy’s work betrays the influence of any of his actual peers, it is undoubtedly that of his friend Peter Whitehead: their admiration for each others’ work was mutual, and subsequently, several scenes from Whitehead’s Ginsberg vehicle Wholly Communion feature at irregular intervals in the narrative, and are used effectively, even if it is once more left to us to determine exactly what they represent. The beauty of true, untouched art? The power Max wishes he had? All are possible. Other directors using stock footage might veer uncomfortably close to Ed Wood, but it’s a testament to Levy’s skills that he makes these inserts, unnecessary though they may be in principle, flow seamlessly with the rest of the action. Ergo, the film’s most iconic image alongside the “offal” sequence, and the one chosen by Flipside for the front cover- the unnamed woman in head-to-foot PVC, who could suggest a variety of things from “human bondage” to the “plasticity” of capitalism (although personally, I don’t think the director would ever use such obvious symbols)- also seems at home here, even if her sporadic appearances have little to do with any perceived plot. Then again, as Levy states in the audio interview, his main interest lies in what he refers to as the “droplets of water” to be found in cinema, rather than the surface on which it lands.
Ironically, it’s within the short films contained on the disc, rather than Herostratus itself, that one may find a true understanding of the Antipodean’s muse. Ten Thousand Talents (1960) made at Cambridge and featuring, among the many narrators, the voice of fellow postgraduate Peter Cook, begins as a humorous look at university life, and to some extent remains that way- yet within minutes, Levy’s disdain for its confines once more becomes evident, and the description darker in tone, suggesting institutionalisation and death. Time Is (1964), by comparison, whilst treading a fine line between the educational and the avant garde (not that he was the first to do that- the GPO beat him to it by some 20 years) reveals an optimistic, almost childlike fascination with the universe and its functions, and suggests that its creator’s muse was at its most positive when dealing with his primary love- science. It’s therefore not surprising, though aficionados may bemoan the lack of any further feature-length pictures, that Levy devoted the remainder of his short life to teaching the scientific language of film: here, he could reach people who may have found the obliquities of his fictional work a stumbling block.
One can’t commend enough the remaster, here presented both in the original 1.33:1 shooting ratio and Levy’s preferred widescreen, and several months into their career, Flipside’s byword of visual quality goes without saying. The print is perfect, but considering the film hadn’t actually been viewed by anyone for decades, that’s as one might expect: where the package falls down, yet again, is in the accompanying booklet. Jane Giles and Henry K. Miller provide fine, informative summaries of Gothard and Levy’s lives respectively, making for repeated reading and (particularly in the former case) providing hitherto untapped insight into their subjects’ personalities- but the principal article, by Canadian film studies professor Anton Buchbinder, while proof of its author’s extensive knowledge, is very poorly written indeed. Run-on sentences and clumsy syntax (such as the appearance of the word “filmmaker” thrice in one sentence) occur with regularity, inferring once again that the employment of a proofreader was beyond the allotted budget. To be fair, Flipside aren’t alone in this- several publications I myself have written for have published substandard work, even to the point of altering some writers’ original content, and if anything, this is more symptomatic of shortcomings within the country’s economy than within the companies themselves, with many in the creative industries forced to cram in their writings late at night, often extremely tired and lacking in concentration, after coming home from jobs which actually pay their wages. Maybe Max had a point about the state of the world after all! However, as Buchbinder is a resident of Canada rather than the UK, he doesn’t really have the same excuse. Incidentally, just to ensure nobody accuses me of hypocrisy here, if you can point out any genuine errors, grammatical or otherwise, in this piece, I’d be happy to correct them…
It’s pretty safe to say that the everyday film viewer, even an everyday art film viewer, will never see another film quite like Herostratus: it stands alone in a field of one, the mission of an individual possessed by demons and motivations we shall never fully understand. Its construction, atmosphere, and ability, if only within its latter moments, to successfully capture the “poetry of London”, make it the epitome of a flawed masterwork- yet possibly one best viewed irregularly in order that it may be fully appreciated. And if at times its power becomes too much for you, remember- as Peter Stephens yells off-camera to Gabriella Licudi after her final, cataclysmic scream of anguish- “You can get out.”