PRINT April 2010


Don Levy's Herostratus

MORE THAN FORTY YEARS after its premiere at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1967, Don Levy’s Herostratus has been given a second chance at recognition, if not at the fame that is, ostensibly, its subject. The British Film Institute, which originally put up most of the minuscule budget for the ambitious 35-mm feature—seven years in the making, according to its director—has digitally restored and issued it on DVD.

Born in Australia, Levy began making films while he was at Cambridge doing a Ph.D. in theoretical chemical physics. His thirty-minute Ten Thousand Talents (1960) is a scathing and hilarious satire of the British class system as institutionalized at his alma mater. Shot in grainy black-and-white scuffed up to resemble aged prints of 1920s Surrealist films and edited with quicksilver intelligence, it displays an astringent sense of the ironies that can be achieved through juxtapositions of image, voice-over text, and music. What distinguishes Levy’s film from other wry satires of the day are the undercurrent of anger perceptible from beginning to end and the personal references, which are all the more striking for being so fleeting: a newspaper headline reading ARABS STILL SAY NO JEWS, a young man lying dead on the floor while a woman in voice-over natters on about the frequency of “self-slaughter” among Cambridge youth.

Self-slaughter is the central concern of Herostratus, which Levy shot between 1963 and 1965, after making several other shorts and doing a stint at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, which by the mid-’60s was a locus of British experimental filmmaking. The term is from Hamlet, and the noble Dane’s ambivalence about ending his life feeds Levy’s narrative as much as does the legendary Greek whose name the film takes. In the fourth century BC, Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, seeking fame; as punishment, his name was stricken from all public records. Levy’s Herostratus is a poet named Max (Michael Gothard) who plans his suicide as a way of waking people up to the commercialization of society and the emptiness of their lives. To this end, in a gesture laden with contradictions, he enlists a heavyweight publicist to insure the largest possible audience for his final act.

If Levy drew on the visual and editing strategies of the European avant-garde of the ’20s for Ten Thousand Talents, for large portions of Herostratus he employs the saturated color and chiaroscuro lighting of the American avant-garde filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, as well as their implicitly gay psychodramatic trance-film structures. As those two filmmakers often did, Levy focuses his film on a single highly eroticized male figure, whose fractured psyche is mirrored in an editing scheme where action in the “real world” is constantly broken by eruptions of the unconscious in the form of violent, visceral, and free-associative imagery. In the film’s most notorious sequence, footage of a psychedelically lit stripper is intercut with that of a cow being disemboweled, this being putatively what is going on in Max’s mind as he is stretched out in bed either dreaming or masturbating. When he has sex in the same bed with the piggy publicist’s femme-fatale factotum, a Monica Vitti look-alike, frequently photographed as Antonioni photographed Vitti, with her back pressed against a wall, images of the women in the film and of the bloody abattoir break through into his consciousness. Herostratus’s unexamined, rampant misogyny—its compacting of all its female characters into one demonically seductive presence—has dated very badly. Only the teenage Helen Mirren, as another stripper, this one in a rubber-gloves commercial, has enough power as a performer to resist Levy’s machinations.

When Levy is bad, he is horribly sensationalist (e.g., his deployment of documentary images of Nazi concentration-camp victims and Hiroshima corpses as shorthand signifiers for how barbarous are the times in which we live). And yet the ambition of Herostratus still compels. Levy wanted to make a film that would liberate the psyche. In that, he was loyal to the Surrealist project, but he was also part of a ’60s notion of achieving catharsis through “acting out,” as in R. D. Laing’s psychotherapy, in the radical theaters of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski, or in drug-fueled spectacles like the Beat-poetry marathon documented in Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion (1965), from which Levy appropriates several clips. More interestingly, on a formal level he tried to fuse avant-garde and dramatic-narrative film forms. There is as much of Cassavetes (in the extended, nakedly emotional exchanges between the leading actors) and Antonioni (in the vast, near-empty interior and exterior spaces) as there is of Anger and Markopoulos (in the depiction of interiority and taboo eroticism). Levy’s borrowings are often strained and heavy-handed, but his attempt to pull together threads of what remains the most innovative and daring period in the history of cinema yielded a unique if ungainly work of art.

Given the highly stratified world of cinema, then as now, the hybridity of Herostratus did not play well. The film screened at the 1967 international experimental-film festival at Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, but Michael Snow’s Wavelength took the grand prize. Despite some excellent reviews, Herostratus failed to achieve a significant release in art cinemas, where audiences accustomed to Godard and Antonioni drew the line at Levy’s assaultive psychodrama. Levy never made another feature, although he did make short films and videos during the seventeen years he was associate dean at the California Institute of the Arts. He committed suicide in 1987.

Herostratus, which screened at REDCAT in Los Angeles in March, was recently released on DVD by the British Film Institute.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.