Herostratus (1967)

Director: Don Levy

How odd: not only have all the films I’ve watched so far this month been from the BFI’s Flipside range, all of them have been budgeted at £10,000 or less… Mind you, all of them have also had markedly different ambitions for that amount of money; unlike Messrs Milligan and Monger, Australian-born Don Levy was out to make an Important Artistic Statement on 35mm. The DVD booklet presents him as an interesting character, born in Bathurst, moved to the UK in the mid-50s (you know, like most Australians of that era) to do a PhD in “theoretical chemical physics” (which I don’t suppose most Australians did then), got involved in Cambridge University’s film society, and eventually made this kind of extraordinary film. Taking its title and inspiration from the historical Herostratus, the film tells the story of a young man who decides to commit suicide and hires an advertising agency to promote the event. It’s kind of like Meet John Doe but in reverse or something. That’s putting it very baldly, and Levy wouldn’t appreciate me boiling the film down to its plot like that (probably not the Capra comparison either); I know, because he says as much in the interesting (if slightly self-impressed and precious) 1970s interview included on the DVD, that describing the plot doesn’t really describe the film. Though the interviewer chides him gently (and reasonably) for his reluctance to actually talk about the plot, I can understand his objection in this case, cos the flat plot outline really doesn’t describe the film. From the very outset, Herostratus announces its own “difficulty” in fairly emphatic fashion; it’s very much a piece of 60s high modernism, quite obviously rigorously controlled on the technical level (right down to details of the colour range and soundtrack), and the manner of presentation really is a vital part of the overall experience of the film. Although Levy does a pretty impressive job of hiding the film’s budgetary limitations, however, that very treatment of the narrative material is, I think, open to debate; the technical subtleties are not matched by Levy’s symbolism, and the film’s evident determination to be an Important Artistic Statement frequently results in a general heavy-handedness (particularly when it comes to the film’s length; not a lot really happens to justify the film running 142 minutes). Still, whatever its flaws, Herostratus is intriguing stuff that I suspect might grow on repeat viewing.

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