The Australian film-maker Don Levy was one of a rare breed of artist-scientist. His first film, a satirical short about student life at Cambridge, was made while he was studying at the university for a PhD in theoretical physics. Later he made educational documentaries on scientific subjects for the Nuffield Foundation before moving to California in the 1970s to teach film studies. Herostratus, his only full-length feature, stands apart, as one of the most bizarre British films of the 1960s.
The title comes from Greek history. Seeking eternal fame, Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The outraged Ephesians brought him to trial and sentenced him to death, forbidding anyone to mention his name thereafter. One chronicler, Theopompus, defied the edict, which is how the name comes down to us. Legend has it that, on the very night of the arson attack (July 21, 356 BC), the future Alexander the Great was born in Macedon. According to Plutarch, the goddess was too preoccupied with Alexander’s delivery to save her burning temple. There was an irony here that appealed to Levy, as he told interviewer Clare Spark in 1973: “during his lifetime Alexander burned down thousands of temples… but nobody ever said his name should be struck from the records.”
In the film, ‘herostratic’ fame is given a contemporary twist. Amid the building sites and rising office blocks of a bleak post-war London, an alienated young man (Michael Gothard) vows to commit suicide. Fittingly for this media-savvy age, he resolves that his end will be a public act cutting through the false consciousness of late capitalism. So he crashes his way into an advertising agency and persuades the campaign-hardened executive (Peter Stephens) to take him on as a client, his suicide being the ‘product’ they will bring to market.
The ideas anticipate Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, first published in French in 1967. The “spectacle”, Debord argued, is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, a point of degradation at which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”.
Recounting the plot gives little idea of the film’s dream-like character. Scenes are structured “contrapuntally” (Levy’s word); the colour balance on the original filmstock was carefully contrived to evoke moods. This is Art, with a capital ‘A’, which may explain why, challenging as the film’s contents were, actors were keen to get on board. When the British film industry was turning out generic pap like the Carry On series, the prospect of a home-grown arthouse movie must have been enticing indeed. However, the filming, which extended from summer 1964 to spring 1965, took a huge toll on those involved as Levy, by his own admission, drove his cast to confront unwelcome truths about themselves. Gabriella Licudi, the lead actress, suffered a breakdown during filming and retired from the business not long after.
The resulting film gives a vivid idea of what it would be like to crack up mentally. Gothard’s derangement is expressed both as outward violence – in one frightening early scene he trashes his rundown bedsit to the sound of loud choral music – and in inner turmoil, as intercut images flit across the screen, suggesting the randomness of uncontrolled thought.
Although Herostratus had limited public release at the time, its impact on industry professionals is undeniable. Alex in A Clockwork Orange, clad in white jumpsuit, is a clear descendant of Levy’s self-harming hero. A surreal animation sequence anticipates Terry Gilliam’s contributions to Monty Python by several years.
If you’d asked anyone watching this in 1967, when the film had its British premiere at the ICA, which of the participating actors looked like a future Oscar winner, I doubt anyone would have given the right answer. Conversely, if you’d told them that within 25 years both the director and the male lead would commit suicide, they’d have been sad but not surprised.
Mirren’s contribution (from about 54 minutes into the film) is barely more than three minutes long and seems to form part of a broadbrush critique of consumerism (or ‘commodity fetishism’, if we want to get heavy). To its credit, the scene also provides one of the few moments of humour in an otherwise very dark film. The ad agency is, one supposes, filming a commercial. Rubber gloves are the product, but sex is what sells, regardless of the product, and the camera lingers lasciviously (as it will so often in her later career) over Ms M’s mountainous cleavage. Once she’s delivered her lines, Gothard scoops her up in a fireman’s lift and bundles her off set, Mirren protesting loudly. Trust me: it makes slightly more sense in context, but not a lot. It would be interesting to know how she became involved in this project, which fell somewhere between her second and third years with the National Youth Theatre. It’s unlikely that she looks back on her first screen appearance with any great affection. When she was on Frank Skinner’s comedy chatshow a year or two back, Skinner sneaked a clip from her rubber-gloves routine into the middle of the interview. She reacted by mock-headbutting him.