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on 31 August 2009
I watched the BFI Blu-ray edition of Herostratus (1967) last night
after having seen it only once before in a class I took as a freshman
in 1972 at U.C. Berkeley. The essays in the BFI booklet largely try
to defend Herostratus against the charge it is pretentious or praise
it for what it managed to do on such a small budget. I recommend the
film very highly even though I think it is fair to say that the acting
is often bad (either because bad actors were cast or because good
actors got bad direction), the editing generally poor (which is really
surprising because Levy, the director had worked as an editor for
twenty years), and the cinematography generally mediocre (there are
some stunning long shots). The film does not hold up very well when
measured against contemporaneous art films such as Antonioni's Blow Up
(1966) or Roeg's Performance (1970). Initially, Herostratus even
seemed a bit crude to me. But I stayed with it and saw that the film
really does have a very sophisticated narrative / editing structure
which builds up gradually and really takes off for the last third of
he film. One of the most interesting things Levy does is use
cross-cut editing first in a rather crude way (a couple have sex while
dead cows are butchered so that seemingly loving sex here equals a
meat market) but then returns to the sex scene and cross cuts it
differently. Some very briefly held shots recur and are gradually
juxtaposed and then superimposed to unfold a theme about love and
fame. There are some really interesting use of stills when the hero
is made to look like a Francis Bacon portrait (just recently saw the
Bacon show at MOMA in NYC). One can see the influence of the film on
Children of Men and 28 Days Later. So I found the film rather moving
in the end, and was saddened to read that both the director and lead
actor committed suicide. But I can see why it fell off the map, and I
can also see why I bought it after seeing it only once 37 years ago.
It is one of a kind, both cruder and more sophisticated than
contemporaneous art films. Even its BFI defenders don't really seem
to get Herostratus. (By the way, both discs played on my region Sony
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on 27 November 2011
At its best, which is not where it is enough, this is brilliant filmmaking depicting a side of the 60s we don't generally get to see, decidedly more punk than hippie and ferociously angry and alienated. The main character, Max, a short-haired, angularly handsome young man deranged by rage and dressed perpetually in white lives in a dingy bedsit covered in febrile black scrawls. At some point, like an English Iggy Pop, he rips into the walls and tears the place to pieces, then goes out to plan a spectacular protest suicide.

The flat trashing and a few other sequences are like passages from some genuine lost classic, one that could take its place alongside Performance and Easy Rider while actually looking more modern than either of them. I love, especially, the non-narrative shots of Max violently shaking his head and body, creating Francis Baconesque blurry disfigurements. The effect is both visually extraordinary and so simple you wonder why no one else in film history seems to have thought of it. I also think it's fascinating that both this film and Performance reference Bacon - and this one does it better.

Sadly, the lost classic status is undermined by some out-and-out badness: frequent, tediously repetitive resorts to standard-issue film-school artiness (the cover's dominatrix, prancing around King's Cross with an umbrella for no reason, passages of hum-drum psychedelia) and a script that is an amateurish muddle. In particular, it seems unsophisticated in its assumption that the advertising industry would want to co-opt the protagonist's suicide to defend high flown moral values, as if capitalism wouldn't happily sacrifice religion, traditional morality and the family unit to keep on flogging product -- a 60s counter-culture assumption that the most astute commentators recognised as fallacious even at the time. Or, if you like, a bit of hippy naivety putting the fly in the ointment of all that proto-punk nihilism.
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on 27 September 2009
When Max (Michael Gothard) decides that he's going to commit suicide, he won't just go. He visits Farson (Peter Stephens) the head of an advertising company and convinces him of the marketing potential of this event. Clio (Gabriella Licudi) gets involved in the process (even unwillingly), just because she's the secretary-assistant to Farson. What is Max looking for? Maybe a last moment of popularity he always longed for, but never had. Maybe the feeling of knowing that for at least a moment, many people will care for him. It's just about the ego: the ego that inspires all human action, the ego that could make the head of an advertising company and all the people that work there plan every detail for the suicide as if it was business as usual, because it's going to make good money or bring great reputation to whomever launches a successful marketing campaing around such an event. The ego that, ultimately, is bringing society to his demise...

HEROSTRATUS is a very interesting movie, but one that I find hard to recommend, since is not for all tastes. Main reasons:
-It's one of the most pessimistic movies I've ever watched.
-It's hard to have some kind of care (ironically) for the main character. That changes in the third act (I'm single-handedly dividing the story in 3 more or less identifiable parts) but by then it might be too late for some.
-Although the story is not strictly linear, by the end you may be able to put everything together (more or less). But meanwhile, you will be invaded with brief but numerous intercuts of scenes that sometimes represent a part of the story that is going to happen later or already happened, representations of thoughts or dreams, documentary material that at first seem to be completely unrelated to the story or unnecessary, etc. Around ten minutes before the first hour mark, and for periods that last some minutes, that documentary material goes on and on, and it may become too distracting or boring for mainstream audiences.
The funny thing is that some sequences of intercuts look like musical videos, but obviously made long before this format was formally conceived.

If you are into original movies, and think you can stand these issues, then you're in for a rewarding cinematic experience.

One thing is for sure: although the movie is not structured conventionally, its intention is not to throw an abstract idea or ideas subjected to the interpretation of the spectator. As revealed in an interview with the director (included as a bonus), his intention is to give a direct message, and try to transmit to the spectators the feelings of the main character, and make them a part of the whole process. Obviously, the director had a pessimistic view of the society, and wanted to nail it to as many persons as possible.

Two things impressed me the most:

a)If there's only one good reason to watch this movie, it's the superb acting from the main 3 actors, but specially from Michael Gothard. How he didn't have a good acting career with that impressive show, will remain forever a mystery.
The appeal of the acting goes beyond. It's evident how behind the performances there was a controlling director trying to get the best results he could get out of them, in order to represent his ideas. The reactions are natural, and very convincing when pain, anger and frustration are expressed. And one can't help but be amazed, once you know that all the people involved worked almost for free, just for the love of the project. This kind of dedication and its results are pure art.
The camera sometimes functions like if it's inside an actor's studio, filming a rehearsal. It's part of the "experimental" feeling that the movie has in some instances (in other instances there are fantastic camera shots and composition of scenes that also show great mastery of the medium). There are two major scenes, with the participation of the three main actors, that could have easily been filmed in a stage performance in a theater. And in direct contrast with the fast intercuts presented in some parts of the movie, in other occasions the camera remains fixed on an actor, while he/she's having a conversation. This technique allows us to appreciate even better the work of the actors, their expressions and reactions

b) This is the first time this movie has been released commercially. This fate is unfair, taking into account what Amnon Buchbinder writes in the first essay that comes in the included booklet: "Herostratus must certainly rank among the most influential of unknown films".
Free from any prejudice that this statement may create (since I didn't read it beforehand) I only have to agree. There's no way somebody can watch Herostratus and not be reminded of movies like Stanley Kubrick's "A clockwork orange" or Alan Parker's The Wall. In the case of the former, at least in one more way than just visual or conceptual: There's a scene in which the main character Max is eating a breakfast served by Farson. It's at this moment (if not before) that it becomes clear that his expressions and his manners, must have been a direct influence on Malcom McDowell's Alex. And of course, without movies like Herostratus, directors like David Lynch would have never existed.

BLU RAY PICTURE QUALITY: Amazing, for a movie this old. But enemies of the grain, beware: there are lots of it, since (thankfully) the restoration didn't include the hateful noise reduction, which allows the movie to retain a very cinematic look, full of detail.
In this regard, one thing is important: disc 2, as an extra, includes the movie in its original aspect ratio of 1.33.1, what is normally called "full frame". The main feature in disc one is 1.78.1, intended to fill the whole widescreen tv set. The explanation for this is that although the movie was filmed in a different aspect ratio, it was intended (by the director) to be showed in widescreen, so instructions were given to project it that way.
So, if you watch disc one, you are watching the movie as it's supposed to be watched, except that since it was filmed differently, it had to be zoomed in. In this way, some issues completely natural for a movie this old, and less noticeable in the original full frame transfer, become more evident in the widescreen presentation, namely the normal grain of the movie and heavy noise in dark scenes. So, unless you think you're not going to be distracted by these things, go ahead and watch the movie in disc one. But I highly recommend to watch it in its original aspect ratio.

And I also recommend this: watch the movie, and then hear the 38 minutes interview with the director. It will enhance your appreciation and understanding of the movie, and probably will make you want to watch it again as soon as possible.

Finally, I must add that the blu-ray is REGION FREE.
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on 31 May 2010
This is a brilliant film, and the lead actor, Michael Gothard turns in a very visceral, sometimes heart-breaking performance, as a young man who sells his planned suicide to an advertising company.

Given how reality TV seems to be going, this seems remarkably prophetic.

The story is long, and is told in a very non-linear way, with scenes from history cut in, so if you want everything handed to you on a plate, this is not for you - I look forward to watching this film a second time to get the most out of it.

What happened at the end came as a complete surprise, which I won't ruin.

The film comes with a booklet with extensive notes about Herostratus, the other short films, and both the Director Don Levy and the star, Michael Gothard, both of whom tragically took their own lives years later.
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on 24 June 2011
This forgotten artifact of British art-house cinema, has been resurrected (like so many other forgotten British films) by BFI's Flipside releases. The release marks it's first commercial distribution since its release in 1967. The film had made quite an impact at the time with - particularly - other film makers and film critics, when the film was exhibited at festivals. In one publication Herostratus was described as "the great white hope of British art cinema'. Directed by Australian born film maker and physics graduate, it has a powerful and prescient message about fame and greed, and the dangerous, dark aspects of marketing and advertising. Like the film itself, director Don Levy, has fallen into obscurity. I had not heard of him until I read of this release (in fact I had never heard of this film until this time).

Max (Michael Gothard), is a struggling poet. He is agonised by society around him, and like Travis Bickle in the later film Taxi Driver (1976), he foments a distinctive hatred whilst holding up alone in a disheveled flat in a distorted, crumbling London. But unlike Bickle, Max's ideas are motivated by fame. He proposes to a marketing executive, Farson (Peter Stephens), an offer he cannot refuse. Max will publicly kill himself by jumping off of a tall building, and the advertising company can own this commodity, and do whatever they please with it. The machinations of the marketeers begins, as they attempt to come up with adequate exposure for the death-as-entertainment, subversive performance art piece. The silence that preceded Max's encounter with Farson, is perfectly highlighted in a line from Albert Camus, in his book 'The Myth of Sisyphus': An act like this (suicide) is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. As the workings of the sadistic minds of advertisers is quietly taking place in the background, Max begins a relationship of sorts with Farson's secretary, Clio (Gabriella Licudi), with devastating consequences.

As a commodity, Max is used, humiliated, and displayed as despicable for his desperate attempt at using his death for fame and immortality. The title of the film is taken from a character from ancient Greece who wanted immortality; which he gained by setting fire to the Temple of Artemis. The film is most certainly relevant today with our wealth of deluded people, hungry for fame with no substance. Fame has itself become a commodity: We are in an age of fame that is hinged on one act; one single moment. And like the fame that Max is attempting to gain, it is also very fleeting.

The films technical brilliance is in its editing, a process that took Levy two years to perfect. Levy approached editing like science (he did have a PhD in Experimental Physics). The film is littered with subliminal images. Short sequences of static shots, obscure imagery, and images of animal slaughter. The latter of these are often used to juxtapose with images of a female stripper. The snippets also seem to appear, not just as fractured images of a deranged mind, but also almost synonymous with televisual adverts themselves. Almost self contained. In one, a very young Helen Mirren (uber-MILF) seduces the camera and its audiences, stating that you want her. The use of jump-cuts and long takes is reminiscent of the then new European movements, mostly evoking some of the work of Godard and Antonioni.

It's an interesting piece of forgotten cinema. As with many art-house films of this type, it is highly pretentious. But it is watchable pretension. It's idea does not really carry throughout the film, and it could have gone in more interesting angles. But this could perhaps be just an opinion from today's perspective: Marketing has certainly become more all-pervasive since the late 1960's. As a closing statement, it is ironic that later, both Don Levy and Michael Gothard ended their lives by suicide. The film remains though, and is at times visually arresting. Classic? No. But as an artifact of British '60's cinema, it is a delight.

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on 13 April 2011
Finally the BFI has managed to issue an excellent DVD package, with a truly stunning print (necessary given the vivid tonality of Levy's film), alongside great 'extras' that include a revealing (audio only) interview with the director.

For contemporary audiences of commercial cinema it's unlikely Herostratus offers an easy viewing experience, being laboured, mannered, unevenly paced - basically highly idiosyncratic. Nonetheless this is a film that holds to its internal narrative logic. What it finally offers the audience is hard to say - a vision of dystopia, the impossibility of destiny? Who knows, but it's worth making the effort if, for nothing else, to see Helen Mirren sexing it up in a parody of advertising, well before her Prime Suspect rise to fame.
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on 10 November 2009
Excellent for its time. Disturbing yet true. Michael Gothard excellent. Shame he did not go on to be more successful and memorable to all. I was surprised how good it is and surprised it has been kept out of public availability for so long. More classic than some of the other classics of the 1960s.
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on 2 December 2016
This is the 60s lost generation, this so captures the mind set of the whole of the 60s i was aged between 5 and 15 a heady time to grow up in !
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on 29 September 2016
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on 23 January 2015
De nouveau, une excellente édition de ce remarquable éditeur anglais! Ce film atypique, très rarement vu, nous fait découvrir Michael Gothard dans son rôle, sans doute, le plus singulier d'un jeune homme désespéré (voulant mettre en scène son suicide comme un show).. Ce bel opus bénéficie d'un traitement royal et nous est proposé constellé de suppléments passionnants. A recommander sans hésitation aux aficionados: avec BFI, nous sommes toujours dans les hautes sphères de la qualité!
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