helen mirren in herostratus (1967)

A scene from the movie Herostratus (1967), directed by experimental filmmaker Don Levy.

The plot of Herostratus is deceptively simple: A young poet, Max (Michael Gothard), is sick of being poor, unemployed and feeling inadequate and unnoticed and trapped by society. After a few setbacks early in the film, particularly when it comes to paying the rent to a landlady he can no longer avoid, Max decides to commit suicide by jumping off a tall building. But Max decides to make a point of his death instead, and enlists the help of Farson (Peter Stephens), a successful public relations ad man, who helps him turn his suicide, conceived as a sacrificial act of protest against modern society, into a media circus.

Farson does not actually believe Max will go through with the suicide, and decides to let Max spend time at his studio, and its there that Max falls in love with Farson’s assistant Clio (Gabriella Licudi), with whom he shares his first sexual experience. Farson encourages their coupling, believing it’ll end in tears and the young man’s mental torment will be something he can further exploit, but then everyone finds out just how bad of a poet Max really is, and they encourage him to kill himself, for real, and Max realizes that his reactionary gesture is being seen by everyone as simply a cry for attention.

Depressed by this last futile attempt to make himself understood, Max goes up to to the roof but his suicidal jump is stopped by a man who happens to be working on the roof that day — but during their struggle, the worker falls to his death, and Max escapes into the woods.

Herostratus, it should be noted, is titled for the Greek poet who sought to immortalize his own name by setting fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, in the fourth century B.C. His name was later stricken from all records until it was discovered that Alexander the Great was born the night Herostratus committed his fatal act.

This was Don Levy’s first feature film after having attending on a scholarship at Cambridge University, where he began a PhD study in Theoretical Chemical Physics. At some point Levy withdrew from his science courses and began focusing on creative endeavors, including painting and playing jazz and filmmaking. He moved over to the London-based Slade School of Fine Art, where he made a series of short science documentaries, including his most successful film, 1962’s Time Is, which explored the theories and conception of time.

James Quinn, then director of the British Film Institute, had worked with Levy onTime Is, helping him secure a grant to finish the film. He then helped the director obtain the funds — from the BFI Experimental Film Fund — to make another short film, but Levy soon found his ambitions were exceeding the budget as it expanded into a feature-length production, with additional funding coming from the BBC. That film was Herostratus, and it took five years to complete, but it was largely met with indifference, and was not the spectacular success that Levy (and Quinn) had hoped for. After a handful of initial screenings, including its premiere at London’s Institute of Contemporary Artst, in April 1968, Herostratus was shelved and virtually forgotten.

Levy’s artistic filmmaking style — juxtaposing images of postwar urban decay and burlesque stripteases with carcasses hanging in an abattoir — met largely with indifference from the public and from most film critics, even though later critics have pointed out that he did have some influence on his contemporaries, including Richard Lester and Stanley Kubrick, especially on the latter’s 1971 film Clockwork Orange.

The few surviving prints of Herostratus show it to be a flawed yet highly perceptive dissection of 1960s idealism, seduced by the Mephistophelian deception of market forces and the empty promise of mass media celebrity.

Helen Mirren’s singular contribution (about 54 minutes into the film) as “Advert Woman” provides one of the few dark moments of humor in an otherwise very dark film. In the scene, she is wearing rubber gloves for the filming of a commercial which is supposed to be a statement about consumerism, but we know what the real product is: the camera lingers lasciviously (as it will so often in her later career) over her cleavage. Once she’s delivered her lines, Gothard scoops her up and carries her off set. The scene is barely more than three minutes long.

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