"I'm going to commit suicide."
Don Levy's 1967 Herostratus is in all likelihood the greatest movie-masterpiece you have never heard of. A young poet (Michael Gothard) decides to commit suicide, but strikes a demonic bargain with an advertising tycoon (Peter Stephens) to give the deed maximum publicity. The tycoon's assistant (Gabriella Licudi), prized by the firm for her "diamond-hard" heart, either falls in love with the poet, or has been moved into position by the tycoon - to guarantee the young man's mental torment on his climb to the big jump. This notion of a "publicized suicide" echoes the Robert Riskin-Frank Capra film Meet John Doe, but Levy is not an artist interested in "plot." The poet's quest for a public death is instead a melodic line, used the way John Coltrane subverted Rodgers Hammerstein to explore his own deeper inventory of My Favorite Things.
Herostratus is named for the Greek poet who destroyed the Temple of Artemis in the 4th Century BC, hoping to secure his immortality. (His name was stricken from all records until it was discovered that Alexander the Great was born the night he committed his fatal act.) The fable Levy unfolds in his contemporary London is an escalating series of richly layered confrontations: between the poet and a prostitute upstairs; between the poet and his landlady; and (as despair goads him to manic heights of inspiration) between the poet, the malicious tycoon and his enigmatic assistant. These mix with a glittering assortment of black white documentary images: Allen Ginsberg reading; London crowds that appear doomed to anonymity; Hitler at his podium, grinning in a shiver of gratified ego.
The implied point is "life as advertisement," of civilization as our self-made hell of self-promotion - but the whole is shot through with humor: 18 year old Helen Mirren has a brilliant three minute cameo in which (as a specimen of the tycoon's handiwork) she musters every ounce of carnality in her precocious arsenal to promote the purchase of rubber kitchen gloves.
Earlier in the film, embarrassed and badgered by his landlady, the poet smashes up his room to surges of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis - a wildly beautiful moment whose explosiveness, choice of music and ecstatic, razzle-dazzle fast-cutting clearly influenced Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, made years later. In his beauty and transgressive screen presence, actor Gothard is kin to both James Dean and Malcolm McDowell. His siege upon the advertising world is peppered with lively banter, but the compositions and cross-cutting which advance his semi-erotic power struggle with the tycoon and his muse contradict their words, and form the film's true line of suspense. (Stephens, as the tycoon, has a doughboy face offset by marvelously lethal eyes.) The young poet may fleetingly believe himself to be in charge of his destiny, but amid the dystopian slums and Cold War futurism of the London that Levy so passionately conjures around him, it is clear this hero has been in over his head since birth, and so are we.
The overall texture of the film is so rapturous in its visuals, so jewel-precise in its cutting, that to discover it forty odd years after is to wonder: Why don't more people know this film? It breathes the same ingenious oxygen of Bergman's Persona, Antonioni's Red Desert, Godard's Masculin-Feminin. It fortells both Clockwork Orange and Cammell Roeg's Performance with equal vividness. Why isn't Herostratus already listed in the canons of best-films-ever?
The surest answer is in the mysterious nature and singular dedication of its Australian born writer-director Don Levy (1932 - 1987). Originally a scientist (he held a rare Doctorate in Physical Chemistry) Levy supported himself prior to Herostratus by directing commercials and industrial films. Although he completed the principal photography between late 1962 and early '64, the film was not released until 1967 because of the lengthy ordeals of post-production. Cutting the film, technically, on begged and borrowed equipment was one giant hurdle - and even that was dwarfed by the task of locating the soul of the finished work, of honoring its most truthful rhythm with a jeweler's attention to each frame. It was too avant-garde to attract a ready backer, so Levy used his own money. He was briefly hospitalized for starvation while finishing it. By the time it emerged, matters of style and content that had been well ahead of the curve when he started were lost in the wave that was then carrying Blow-Up and Weekend to their garden-spots in Valhalla.
Levy taught at The California Institute of the Arts from 1970 until his death. He was a wonderful teacher - I was one of his students - and he cleverly drove us all mad by posing discussion questions like "What is Sanity?" (That led to three years of endless bickering in class, by my count.) Most of us had never seen Herostratus for the first years we knew him - there was no 16 mm print - but when we did (a gang of students contriving to borrow a pair of 35 mm projectors, one memorable weekend) our astonishment was indelible. We already cherished Don as a great mind, but his personal aura of privacy now became heroic - especially as he was so soft-spoken in relation to what he'd done, and so generous with each of us.
After a single showing at the Los Angeles Filmex in 1972, Universal Studios approached Levy about distributing Herostratus - but there was a catch. The film runs two hours and 23 minutes; they wanted him to cut about 25 minutes out. He refused. The pace of the film is its vertical challenge - especially in its climactic third - but this is so inseparable from the vision being embodied, so entirely in the character of what Levy is dramatizing, that it was a moral test of his character that he refused to tailor it.
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And so it is now that his family, former students and CalArts colleagues are bringing this masterwork to light after decades of effort. They've made a DVD deal, and with the aid of the British Film Institute, used HD-CAM technology to restore the film's original pristine color for a fresh premiere at REDCAT.
I'm in the lucky position of having grown old with this movie, and cannot recommend it strongly enough. Herostratus the poet may have been condemned to anonymity, but the film need not be. See for yourself.
Herostratus screens at REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, on Monday, March 1 at 8:30. More information at REDCAT.org.
Editor's note: A shorter version of FX Feeney's story appeared in the February 26 print edition of the LA Weekly. That story incorrectly stated that REDCAT was screening a print of Herostratus, as opposed to projecting from HDCAM. We regret the error.