Feb 11, 2013



After a number of months of procrastinating, I finally got around to seeing an ostensible holy grail of epic arthouse cinema, Herostratus (1967) directed by Australian auteur Don Levy (Time Is, The Belt and Suspenders Man), but rather unfortunately, at least as far as I am concerned, the seemingly sacred cinematic affair did not live up to its rather rich reputation as a lost masterpiece of experimental filmmaking, though I cannot say I was left bored to tears by its certainly sordid and psychodramatic celluloid storytelling. On top of being nearly impossible to see for over four decades due to being hidden away in studio vaults after being only screened a sparse number of times upon its initial release, Herostratus has the delightful distinction of featuring Helen Mirren in her first screen role as a satirical goddess of flesh-flaunting advertising, but the oftentimes seedy and salacious yet audaciously artfully stylized cinematic work also has more sinister secrets in its bleak back story. Centering around a young and restless Londoner suffering from an ample amount of angst and existential crisis in post-WWII Britain who, in the supposedly divine, self-immolating spirit of the Vietnamese Thích Quảng Đức Buddhist monks, decides to commit suicide as an impotent form of political protest (or so he says), but not without giving himself immortality by broadcasting his self-slaughter for the whole world to see, Herostratus would prove to be a piece of life reflecting art and art reflecting life as both the star of the film, Michael Gothard (Curtis Harrington's Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, Ken Russell’s The Devils, Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce) as well as director Don Levy would commit self-slaughter in subsequent decades after the subversive socio-politically conscious cinematic work's release, thus adding an acutely accursed character to this curious celluloid feast. More of a torrid metaphysical ‘trip’ than Performance (1970) co-directed by Donald Cammell (who would also commit suicide after a lingering, lifelong obsession with death) and Nicholas Roeg, Herostratus may very well be the starkest and most striking yet curiously cryptic cinematic depiction of Swinging London ever made directed by a seemingly unlikely individual who earned a PhD in Theoretical Chemical Physics before becoming one of the most artistically ambitious yet transitory film directors of his zeitgeist. Filmed over the course of a five-year period on an unbelievably low budget ($25,000.00) with help from the BFI Experimental Film Fund for what was only supposed to be a mere avant-garde short, Herostratus ended up being an uniquely uncompromising, innately inauspicious, and feverishly foreboding 142-minute cinematic epic of the exceedingly eccentric that expresses the empty emotions of an era engulfed in end times flavored self-worship and superfluous stardom, malicious materialism, and needless narcissism. 

 Taking its name from the ancient arsonist who, seeking a sort of immortal notoriety via senseless destruction of beauty, burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in ancient Greece, Herostratus follows a scrupulously spasmodic and determinedly destitute 23-year-old poet/virgin named Max (Michael Gothard) who decides making a sardonic media spectacle out of his own self-obliteration will be the way to obtain some sort of postmortem fame and possibly even spark a national revolution. As someone who adamantly believes that no matter how hard a person works in life, they still end up, “a decomposing lump of flesh in the ground,” it seems rather odd that mad Max is interested in posthumous fame of any sort, especially when he will not be around to enjoy it, but I guess giving up one’s life is a small price to pay for those that no longer have the energy to push on. In the timeless tradition of Goethe’s Faust, Max makes a deranged and dubious deal with an exceedingly effete and unflatteringly plump, fat cat media advertising devil named Farson (Peter Stephens) to become a 'marketed martyr' of the postmodern age, thereupon romanticizing suicide in a Cobain-esque fashion. Taken somewhat seriously for what seems to be the first time in his markedly miserable life, Max is treated like a seminal Superstar where he participates in prime time TV interviews and photo sessions, but more importantly, the would-be-famous fellow finally loses his virginity and falls in love for the first time. Farson’s young and gorgeous assistant Clio (Gabriella Licudi) is apparently ordered by her rather roly-poly bastard of a boss to give Max the time of life, so naturally the clever yet oversensitive blond boy, whose curious claim that he will stoically commit self-slaughter for adoring audiences seemed decisively doubtful from the start, second thinks suicide because, after all, he’s “scared of heights” and gets “dizzy.”  Farson and his advertising goon Pointer (Antony Paul) – a psychopathic poindexter who treats the perturbed poet like the latest innovative product from a prominent clean supplies company – do not like Max’s reasons for wanting to kill himself because, “they’re far too personal…negative,” so they decide to give him, “something positive, something altruistic and idealistic that the public will look up to and they’ll respect,” to commit Anglo-Saxon seppuku to or so the loyal Television viewers of London are told. When the big day comes, Max is more than a tad bit reluctant to jump off the roof for televised audiences, even after Farson reveals that Clio does not really love him but was only ordered to fuck him, so things go absurdly askew when an initially antagonistic yet ultimately altruistic man attempts to save the suicidal star’s life, thus resulting in a struggle between the two and the wrong man falling to his death from the roof. With more reasons than ever before to commit suicide, miserable Max, now on the brink of total emotional breakdown, scampers back to the proletarian ghetto from whence he came, once again failing in the game of life, but this time at the expense of an innocent individual who dared to care in a technocratic dystopia of deluded dreams and industrial decay. 

 Although he never goes through with the deadly deed, it is quite apparent from the start of Herostratus that Max is on the verge of some sort of mental malfunction and potential self-destruction as a sad and sorry sod who lives in squalor and cannot even convince a sexually ambiguous Asian girl (the heterodox character, who literally battle cries for warfare, being most likely an allegorical representation of the West's meddlesome involvement in the Vietnam war)  to abide his dandy and devilish charms. Featuring a schizophrenic celluloid storm of inter-spliced black-and-white stock-footage of Nazi concentration camps, the apocalyptic atomic bombing of Hiroshima, bloody communist revolutions, and false promises from President Truman regarding the United Nations, Herostratus depicts a failed post-WWII Britain full of growing urban decay and perverse poverty where the guiding philosophy among the collective populous is personal gain at any cost, including self-abasement. As Max explains to Clio during their wild night of romance in regard to his grand objective in committing suicide, “In a day’s time, I’ll be on top of the building. In the heart of London. High, high building. People down below in the street, busy street. Scurrying crowds of people. Someone will notice me up on the roof. See me standing there ready to jump. Then they’ll all begin to notice. Suddenly the street gets slower and slower, and they all stop and they’re all look up. “Don’t jump, don’t jump!” That’s what they’re all thinking. They’re forgetting themselves for a minute and they care about me. They care that I’d just throw my life away down into the street. Then I’ll jump.” Of course, things do not work out exactly as planned, although a man does attempt to stop him, but nothing changes for the better in dreary London, not for Max nor anyone else, thereupon leading the viewer, myself included, to rationalize that Herostratus is a cinematic work of patent pessimism and daunting despair.  Naturally, it should no surprise that many film critics believe that Herostratus had an imperative influence on Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). As Farson told him before his disastrous day of suicide, Max is, “The monumental flop of all time” and a “futile nothing” whose sincerity, freedom, and hope has never gotten him anywhere, especially in a society that puts a particular premium on material gain and superficial social prestige over merit and creativity.  After all, every society gets the art it deserves or at least Don Levy certainly seemed to think so, but, unfortunately, only a few individuals, including British auteur Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, Superman II), took notice of Herostratus; a heated, heretical, and hermetic celluloid indictment of a spiritless capitalist system fundamentally grounded on perverse plutocratic principles that inevitably sire social alienation and collective mental illness, hence the skyrocketing popularity of antidepressant drugs in the contemporary Occidental world.

Featuring experimental cinematic still shots of macabre melting bodies inspired by Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon, footage of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg from Peter Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion (1965), and an idiosyncratic and oftentimes entrancing editing style inspired by the Soviet montage theories of Jewish Bolshevik filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, Herostratus is a hysterical yet hypnotic hodgepodge of high degenerate art of its time. Needless to say, pedophiliac poofer Ginsberg’s megalomanical performance poetry has aged less gracefully than the beat, Beat poet’s physical appearance would over the next couple of decades. Of course, many segments of Herostratus, including various random appearances by director Don Levy’s wife Ines as a phantasmagoric lady of death in black leather with a matching umbrella who haunts Max’s mind, as well as a psychedelic burlesque show mixed with a bloody bovine being brutally slaughtered, are scenes that work just as well today as they probably did upon on the film's initial release. Describing the film himself as, “an intricate network of emotional references,” Don Levy surely assembled an epically erratic and unsettling celluloid experience (or 'trip') as opposed to a standard linear film, even if a discernible and rather simple story lies in between. A rare arthouse artifact from Britain, Herostratus is certainly worth seeing, but falls somewhat short of being a neglected 'lost masterpiece.' Still, the fact that the film is relatively unknown and even less seen (despite being available for the first time ever in home entertainment format via BFI’s beauteous restoration of the film on DVD/Blu-ray), on top of the fact that both the director and star would later commit suicide, is evidence enough that Herostratus’ major and most potent theme – that we live in a society that does violence against the individual, especially the ‘sensitive’ and once-sacred artist type – has only become more relevant as the decades pass. 

-Ty E

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