(published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems, with a different version appearing as a podcast for MovieMail in 2009)
Conceived in 1962, shot between August 1964 and June 1965, assembled into a final edit in 1967, given its premiere in May 1968 when it was the first film shown at London’s ICA cinema, and unavailable on any home-viewing format until its release on DVD and Blu-ray 41 years later in 2009, Herostratus now looks like a key film of the 1960s – though you would be well advised to leave any Aquarian age preconceptions about the era at the door. If the film has a totem it is Francis Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat, while its signature sound is a raw and desperate scream that is only sometimes silent.
The film (which takes its title from the fame-seeking man who sought to immortalise his name through the destruction of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) is ostensibly about a young poet, Max, who offers his suicide to a marketing agency as an act of protest against modern society. However, this is only half the story. In his only recorded interview about the film with Clare Spark in 1973, Levy said that the film – he calls it a documentary in fact – was edited together to form ‘a network of resonances’, with its narrative set like ‘jewels in a necklace‘. Indeed, as much as its story, the film is composed around the rhythm and punctuation of sounds and silence, emotional resonance, colour, the flashes and repetition of scenes from elsewhere in its narrative cycle, and even the gestures and movements of its characters.
It begins with the exhausted Max, seen in snatches of running through streets and across waste ground, fetching up in his cheerless room in a dilapidated house next to a main road. The room, scrawled with layers of broken slogans, pasted flyers and cut-up thoughts, is an extension of himself. It is irredeemably stained and even appears to be rusting – with this colour echoed by a low winter sun catching and reddening Max’s blond hair. Throughout, traffic drones and buzzes by. The few of Max’s thoughts that do surface through this noise are pounded into submission by the sporadic sound of a trench rammer, working on a site somewhere in the distance. As Max looks at himself himself in the mirror, flash frames slash through his own self-pitying sighs and the film’s linearity, showing us glimpses of his fate.
He then embarks on an exhilarating, axe-wielding bout of cathartic destruction in his room, which he leaves with axe and tape player in hand to seek out ad-man Farson, or ‘Fars’ as he calls him, to sell him his death. ‘I am going to commit suicide’ he says to him. ‘My congratulations,’ replies the icy-eyed Farson, calling his bluff. ‘Why do you want to commit suicide?’ he asks Max. ‘I’ve got a headache,’ he replies.
Soon, Farson and his hatchet-man Pointer are outlining their plans for Max’s jump from a building. They need to give him a ‘good selling image for the general public’. ‘What do you think I am, a box of detergent or something?’ says Max; ‘As far as we’re concerned, you are,’ replies Farson, who adds that they feel, on consideration, that the best time for a jump is on a Monday at a quarter to two ... to help people get over their ‘black Monday’ feeling. ‘They’re dying for something to happen,’ says Pointer, without irony.
Sensuality is never far from the grotesque in Herostratus. A striptease is juxtaposed with scenes from an abbatoir, while Max, now in Farson’s studio bed, spends his time cutting and collaging magazine pictures. Breasts are served on a silver salver, a woman eats hair, and in a Family Circle treatment of the Francis Bacon theme, a houswife’s head with large upside-down lips emerges from a roast joint of lamb. The comparisons with Bacon are here made more explicit as disturbing time-lapse collages of Max’s distorted face are created and held in moments of brief and terrible silence. All of these scenes, together with the archive footage of the century’s obscenities, make Max and Clio’s bodies on the bed, surrounded by an inky blackness, all the warmer and more precious, and the blue-white morning fog that Max steps out into all the colder.
Clio is bought, Max is betrayed – or perhaps just gets what he deserves by offering his life to a ‘Human Crapology Machine, selling it to the native’ (as he describes Farson). What Max is blinded to by youthful egotism is that ‘human crapology machine’ applies as much to self-pitying poets placing themselves voluntarily on ‘the scrapheap of humanity’ as it does to cynical ad men looking for new material to exploit. For all Max’s youthful posturing, it’s seen-it-all ad-man Farson who runs the game: ‘You've been doodling on water ... go through with it … achieve something’ he says. His predatory circling of Max on the bed as he reduces him to a fame-seeking failure is bracingly cruel.
There are only two credits in the film; at the beginning, the title, and then at the end, that very word. It seems appropriate for a film that, as Levy said, ‘scoured the truth of ourselves’ during its making. Neither Levy nor his cinematographer Keith Allams made another feature. Gabriella Licudi, whom Levy describes as being ‘busted’ after the film, gave up acting in 1974, Don Levy took his own life in 1987, Michael Gothard took his in 1992.
Herostratus is important today because it helps to explain some of the peculiar energy of the age. It provides the psychological mortar behind such films as Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) – filmed after Herostratus, released before it – with Michael Gothard a close cousin to David Hemming’s photographer (even down to the blond hair and white jeans). It shows how revolutionary energy and liberating, youthful destruction is underpinned, and eventually undermined, by vain, attention-seeking egocentricity. It’s a brilliant, if depressingly clear-sighted premise that, especially in the light of Max’s involvement with advertising, resonates in our own fame-hungry, image-greedy age.