"I'm going to commit suicide."
Don Levy's 1967 Herostratus is the greatest movie masterpiece you have probably 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 fourth century B.C., 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 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 documentary images that include London crowds which seem doomed to their anonymities, and 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: An 18-year-old Helen Mirren has a brilliant three-minute cameo in which (as a specimen of the ad tycoon's handiwork) she musters every ounce of carnality in her precocious arsenal to promote the purchase of rubber kitchen gloves.
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 cutting clearly influenced Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, made years later. In his beauty and transgressive screen presence, Gothard is kin to both James Dean and Malcolm McDowell. 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 conjures, it is clear this hero has been in over his head since birth, and so are we.
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Why don't more people know this film? It breathes the same ingenious oxygen as Bergman's Persona, Antonioni's Red Desert, Godard's Masculin féminin; it foretells Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Cammell & Roeg's Performance with equal vividness. Why isn't Herostratus already listed in the canons of best-films-ever?
Thereby hangs a tale as epic in its vexations as any that ever afflicted the later, buried works of Orson Welles. Suffice to say, thanks to Levy's family, colleagues and students from the California Institute of the Arts — where he was a beloved teacher until his death, in 1987 at age 54 — a new print has been digitally remastered by the British Film Institute and is ripe for your discovery at REDCAT. I was one of Levy's students in the early '70s; 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.
Don Levy's Herostratus screens on Monday, March 1, at 8:30 p.m., at REDCAT, 631 West 2nd St., L.A. redcat.org.