Friday, March 30, 2012

Don Levy | Herostratus

burning up
by Douglas Messerli

Don Levy (screenplay and director, based on an idea by Levy and Alan Daiches) Herostratus / 1967

Levy's 1960s masterful film, Herostratus, is, as critic Amnon Buchbinder has noted, "among the most influential of unknown films." Its method of imagery shows up in numerous European and American movies, from a broad range of directors including Antonioni, Kubrick, Godard, Resnais, and Ashby. Yet none of these can quite match the raw intensity and, at times, overreaching pretensions of Levy's powerful work. It was his only full-length film, clearly synthesizing all of his concerns—scientific, psychological, political, and artistic—of his short life. Levy committed suicide at the age of 55 in 1987.

      Although this film certainly does have a narrative, it would seem almost pointless to talk about plot. The film begins with a handsome young man on the run (Michael Gothard as Max) and ends with a similar scene, Levy's structure being, a bit like Hitchcock's Vertigo, circular. It is as if Max were living out his terrors as in a nightmare, never able to escape the endless pattern of disgust and desire.

     Dressed throughout the film in white, Max is for most of the work, a kind of virgin hippie, a man whom he himself describes as being at the bottom of the scrap heap. His dreary little room, its walls covered with newspapers and other ephemera, a doll hanging by its neck on rope, parallels his own inner state, a kind of empty rebellion that cannot seem to reach expression—much like the angry young men of Britain's late 1950s and the later drugged out hippies of both England and the US of the decade when this film was made. He is, in part, trapped by the social extremes of the age—extreme wealth and painful poverty—controlled by large institutions who use erotically laden psychological effects to sell their goods (even the orange latex gloves attached to the film's model, Helen Mirren) to the populace at large.

     His anger is best expressed by Levy through Max's mad ax-swinging revenge on his landlady as he maniacally destroys his own habitat. Yet he is unsuccessful even at that. He is, simply put, a failure at everything. Presuming himself to be a poet he writes absurd love poems while never having engaged in sex. As his nearby tenant, Sandy (Mona Chin), observes he is unwilling even to express his own mind, to chance engagement with the universe. The advertising executive Farson puts it best: he has created nothing, done nothing, been nothing. In short, he is no thing but an agent of the world in which he lives.

     In Greek history, Herostratus was a young man who, seeking notoriety, burned down the Temple of Artemis, a lavishly constructed tribute to the goddess of the hunt, the wild, and childbirth, by King Croesus, a building that was recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When captured, Herostratus not only admitted responsibility for the arson, but proudly proclaimed to have accomplished the act, hoping to gain attention. The authorities executed him, and, in an attempt to condemn him to obscurity, forbade the mention of his name under penalty of death. Nonetheless, we know his name today through the historian Theopompus's Hellenics.

     Max is burning up inside, perhaps, but puts nothing to fire in the world. With ax in hand, rather, he visits the offices of Farson, proposing a bold idea to gain himself attention: he will offer the rights to his own death, a suicide by jumping from a high building. The very fact that Farson actually considers this proposal reveals the extremes to which he and his society are willing to go to make money, his readiness to sell life itself, a theme repeated throughout Levy's film through highly artificed, somewhat surreal images of overdressed models and, in particular, scenes of a dancing stripper spliced together with images of the slaughterhouse, the carcasses of dead animals juxtaposed against the body of a living temptress: meat against meet. Even Farson's cold-hearted secretary-lover, Clio (Gabriella Licudi), wants nothing to do with Max's proposal, but nonetheless, is enticed into the project by sexually rewarding Max a final dinner and his first sexual encounter with a woman.

      The full level of Max's naivety is revealed when he falls in love with Clio, determined now, for the first time, to cling to life. Farson's revelation, however, that her love has been paid for by him, not willfully given, and his lies about her reactions to the hesitant boy's sexual skills, sends Max over the edge, a psychological reaction that, however, is not matched by his suicidal jump. Instead, Max accidentally kills a rooftop photographer, who falls trying to save Max from what appears to be an attempted jump.

     The "accidental murder" sends Max—representing a kind of tragic mix of James Dean and Malcolm McDowell—on the run once more; but this time we know that he has no place to go, that the run will lead only into homelessness and death. The actor who played Max, Gothard, himself committed suicide in 1992, at the age of 53.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2012

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