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Herostratus: reviews

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Jan. 1st, 1970 | 04:01 pm

Mosk – Variety, 17 January 1968

Don Levy, for his first feature pic, which took about three years to make, does not lack ambition. His theme is the revolt of a young poet failure against the so-called system and general world corruption. But he does not keep it simple, blending stock footage, subliminal cutting and a mixture of melodrama, sentimentality and violence. All of which makes this somewhat overdone, overlong and repetitive …

Michael Gothard has intensity and should emerge a promising new young actor. Others are effective in their more stereotyped roles via Gabriella Licudi as the hard-boiled woman and Peter Stephens as the embodiment of the so-called Establishment.

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The Times, 27 April 1968

In a lengthy review of "Herostratus", the hero is described with classic British understatement as: "... rather well played by a newcomer Michael Gothard."

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Kine Weekly, 25 May 1968

Don Levy’s experimental feature … represents a considerable technical achievement, especially in relation to its low budget. The visual qualities are excellent, with striking colour effects. The narrative is intercut with all kinds of imagery, ranging from gruesome, nightmarish symbolism to newsreel clips of world events. But although these images often have a haunting quality, they become increasingly irritating, obscuring meanings instead of elucidating them. In fact, despite many gaps in logic, the film works best at its narrative level and as a fairly straightforward allegory about the conflict between the individual and society.

The performances – Michael Gothard’s engaging, self-centred Max, Peter Stephens’ ruthless and complacent Farson, and Gabriella Licudi as the cool and beautiful Clio – are lively and convincing. But nothing emerges from the extemporised dialogue that would not have been more effective with a written script.

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Michael Armstrong – Films and Filming, June 1968

The performances are so good that I cannot even start to criticise them. Michael Gothard’s Max is one of the most exciting performances from a young actor I have seen for a long time. Peter Stephens as Farson is superb. He makes the character both detestable and tragic … while Gabriella Licudi’s Clio is so rich in depth and understanding, so sensitively played that the glamour-shell which so many beautiful actresses have imposed upon them, cracked fully to reveal an actress whose emotional range and expressive means are as highly charged as they are broad.

All three performances are continually bursting from the screen only to be held back, strangely enough, by the impositions of the film itself; held back by the film’s editing style …

All the dialogue was improvised. I thought about twenty percent was scripted due to the firmness with which it is played … I find watching any improvised scene that one is aware, continually, of the poor actor’s mind working … The actors in this film almost defeat this obstacle …

The film is strange in that it’s basic fault, I feel, lies in conception and initial working methods … the basic problem with the film’s resultant distortions is that Levy applied too much conscious thought to his conception.

Full review:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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Jean Delmas – Jeune Cinema, November 1968

"Farson cares for Max as one cares for stock before slaughter; he even services him with love. Farson's "secretary" Clio, who has first refused, is finally subdued by her employer, and allows herself, despite herself, to be seduced. She will make love in service, and give account of it to her boss, who wants to use it to humiliate his subject.

... through the interaction between Farson and Max, creates a confrontation between two worlds of terrifying impact. Two types of man: the impassive shark with empty eyes and ample double chin, and against him a boy exploding with vitality and insolence ...

Between the two there lies the strange fog of impossible communication, as between two totally different biological species. "You resemble more and more the corpse you will be," says Max. But the other answers him: "what is the use of your honesty and freedom?" What indeed? For in a society that can consume anything, even suicides, there is still some merchandise that will not sell (like honesty or integrity) because no one wants it.

What drives Max to suicide is despair at the indifference of others, rather than the quest for glory of the first Herostratus. 'I am doing it because no-one gives a damn. I will look down at the people passing in the street. All of a sudden someone will see me up there and they will say to themselves, "He mustn't jump!", and they will forget about themselves for a minute, and think about me.'"

Full review

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Dick Richards - Daily Mirror, 21 August 1970

"Experimental, but fascinating."

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Richard Whitehall, 1972

"Under the greatest of difficulties, Levy has produced a dazzling film d'auteur quite unlike any other British film ever made. Long takes, through which the actors improvise brilliantly, alternate with clusters of staccato, sometimes subliminal imagery as Levy explores the ramifications and resonances of his theme: the revolt of a young failed poet against the horrors and corruption of society, and the means he takes to make his protest known."

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John Rusnell Taylor – The Times

"… Tremendously ambitious … it would be difficult to imagine anything farther from the norm in British film-production …It is brilliant and it is faintly repellent, but repellent because it means to shake us up … shot spectacularly in colour, and edited with complete assurance …"

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Peter Lennon – The Guardian

“'Herostratus' is one of the most successful films with experimental intent that I have seen for a long time."

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Kenneth Tynan – The Observer

"The photography is superb, daubing the screen with images of alienation."

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Patrick Gibbs – The Daily Telegraph

"The central idea is to criticise the ambivalence of our ‘competitive’ society."

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Kevin Thomas - LA Times

"The key to Levy's success is his utterly inspired, exhaustive use of the camera's resources to allow us to experience the feelings of his tortured hero. Indeed, rarely has the camera, backed by extraordinary acting, been used to give such objective form to a man's inner anguish. The world of HEROSTRATUS is cold, stark metallic, expressed with an imagery as succinct and evocative as anything in Antonioni at his best.

Counterpointing it is the hell of the poet's imaginations, juxtaposing slaughterhouse eviscerations with the glamorous, dominating temptresses of the advertising media. At the same time, HEROSTRATUS is the timeless story of a youth's coming of age – of both his philosophical and sexual rites of passage. The lovemaking sequence is one of the most profoundly beautiful of its kind ever filmed."

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La Libre Belgique

"‘Herostratus’ is without doubt one of the great films of the year ... One does not know what to admire most in this film. The direction, the sets, the acting or the scenario. The psychological truth of the principal characters, the intensity of the dramatization, the handling of the actors and the originality and vigour of the cinematographic style are perfect."

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Pierre Apruxine – Arts and Artists

"‘Herostratus’ rises far above the experimental and directly ranks among the masterpieces of the Seventh Art."


Richard Mayne – The Critics, BBC

"… a fantastic assault on one’s visual sensibilities … I was absolutely engulfed by this film and would like everybody to know it."

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Lorenza Mazetti – Via Nuova, Rome

"… this disturbing piece of work … which rides so close to the quick … plunging us … into the neurotic world of impotence and frustration lived by the young today …"

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Margaret Hinxman – Sunday Telegraph

"… terrifying and moving …"

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Molly Plowright – Glasgow Herald

"… the most astonishing film of my experience – right on the frontier of cinema as we so far know it … the visuals are more beautiful and the content more terrible than anything else I have seen, and the steady stare into the human mind makes the Godard and the Losey look like the fumbling side glances they actually are."


Also Out - The Guardian, 22 August 2009

"The visually impressive Herostratus is a more arty and oblique affair that takes its own sweet time telling a tale of a poet, the great Michael Gothard from Ken Russell's The Devils, who markets his planned suicide into a media event, diluting the "purity" of taking one's own life. A young Helen Mirren also stars. The extras are particularly fine, with short films and interviews scattered amongst the three titles, all given the full restoration treatment."

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LA Times

"In this coruscating work, Michael Gothard astonishes as the eponymous young poet who hires a PR firm to turn his planned suicide into a media spectacle. Bursting with psychological and aesthetic urgency, Herostratus proved as prescient about the failure of the ’60s counterculture, as it was inspirational for the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg."

Full review

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Amnon Buchbinder - You CAN Get Out: Herostratus Now, 3 September 2009

"The finished copies arrived in my hands yesterday and I have to say the BFI did a really nice job! From the striking and perfectly emblematic cover (featuring Don’s widow, the remarkable Ines Levy who collaborated with him in a variety of ways, including appearing in all his films and playing a number of visually striking roles in Herostratus), to the booklet which not only covers all of the films on the disc but offers a touching piece about Herostratus‘ lead, Michael Gothard (never mind the small number of really good films he did, like Ken Russell’s The Devils; try watching a piece of crap like Scream and Scream Again and see how the film comes to life when Gothard appears).”

Shooting on Herostratus commenced on August 20, 1964 and took place over the following 8 months. The great wave of post-war cinema was at its artistic peak on the continent, but UK filmmaking had yet to take the same kinds of bold artistic directions.

Indeed: both narratively and formally the film depicts the meeting of shabby and dreamless post-war Britain (embodied in the desolate apartment that Max demolishes in the early scenes) and the generation that seemed to arrive at the very moment the film was being made. In the same manner it marks out the transition from the serious British filmmaking that preceded it (earnest kitchen sink realism) and that which followed (psychedelic dislocation a la Petulia, Performance, etc.).

Described during its making by one publication as “the great white hope of British art cinema,” pillaged for ideas by several films shot after it but released before it – not to mention many others made subsequently — seen by virtually every filmmaker then working in the British film industry when it was the opening exhibition at London’s ICA cinema in May 1968, Herostratus must now certainly rank among the most influential of unknown films.

Clearly this is a film by, as well as about, an angry young man. It is a young man’s film in both its urgent desire to hold the world to account for its wrongs, and in its own virtuosic ambitions.

The film’s dramatic scenes occasionally have the awkwardly protracted feel of acting workshop improvisations. Yet something very calculated is going on. Levy is seeking to induce a psychological state in the audience through the witnessing in his actors of a deeper emotional reality than we are accustomed to.

Levy’s actors are surrogates for his audience, undergoing a traumatic initiation. The goal, which one senses is both personal and artistic: to find what it takes to escape the trap.

Ultimately, neither Levy, nor his heartbreakingly gifted lead actor Michael Gothard succeeded. Levy took his own life in 1987, Gothard in 1992.

Nevertheless, the film remains: an act of faith in its audience. That we are willing to relearn how to watch a movie; that we will accept severe psychic disturbance and then examine our own response. This is a faith which distributors were unable to share. There was a feeling that if only Levy would cut the film down to a more “reasonable” length, it might be possible to sell the thing."

Full discussion

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Wonders in the Dark

It was a striking face. It was a visage first glimpsed when he played the puritanical Felton in Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies … Such was my first acquaintance on film with Michael Gothard, but others followed, most famously as the maniacal witchcraft specialist in Russell’s The Devils. He seemed made for Russell, and yet I have always felt, at the back of my mind, that there was something untapped, a missed opportunity somewhere.

It was then I heard of Herostratus.

Gothard plays Max, a young man in his early twenties, a virgin, who has slowly drifted into depressive madness up in his flat with what could only be described as schizophrenic décor. One day, after a fit of vandalism in his apartment, from which he is evicted, he goes to an advertising agency executive and offers him a rather strange proposition. He announces that he intends to commit suicide, and offers the boss, Farson, the opportunity to market it or otherwise as he sees fit.

… it’s impossible to think of another film, so unseen, that has been so influential to other filmmakers. Russell, yes, but also Kubrick, Roeg and even Danny Boyle, with its shots of a deserted almost apocalyptic London in the early hours looking ahead to a celebrated sequence in 28 Days Later. Some may think of the plot recalling Capra’s Meet John Doe, but it’s to Faust one really looks for inspiration, and what an original twist it is, for here the Mephistopheles is not the seeker of the soul but the recipient of one offered up. The contract not for several years’ good luck or eternal youth but for going ahead with the proposal and jumping from the roof of the company offices opposite St Paul’s.

Even the casting of a splendidly oily Peter Stephens seems deliberate, with his features more than resembling those of legendary Mephisto Emil Jannings (fair mention, too, to the enigmatically seductive Licudi, whose face Levy seems intoxicated by).

Back it always comes to Gothard, though, and that sequence in the flat, for one quickly becomes aware of the parallel to Kubrick’s depiction of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The same insouciant capacity for destruction, the same angry pose, the same love for classical music and both characters’ fates centring around a decision to commit suicide. Then think of Gothard, for though it’s impossible to see anyone other than Malcolm McDowell as Alex, Gothard could have been him a decade earlier, if Burgess’ novel had been filmed soon after it was written.

Here was a special talent, a live wire, capable of going off into orbit if uncontrolled (as in The Devils) but with a dangerous, cadaverous anarchy, hypnotic from the opening shots of him running through the streets like Tom Courtenay’s Colin Smith a few years earlier. Sadly, his talents were channelled into wrong areas and he lay neglected like a real-life Withnail, killing himself at 53.

It’s a film ripe with promise, with hope for a new path for British film, and yet in the end all its achievements are by proxy.

Full review

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Jesse P. Finnegan - Foreign Pick: Film Comment, Mar/Apr 2010

“Utterly luminous, occasionally brutal, it concerns one angry — or possibly mad — young man (the gifted, ghoulish Michael Gothard), who offers London’s biggest ad agency the chance to "handle" his public suicide … Now, recovered after 40-odd years, Herostratus seems less like a lost artifact than a votive offering, left purposefully to be found by a future generation of audiences.”

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BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, 1968

"While the title of his film suggests a critical attitude to its hero ..., Levy's techniques betray a strong affinity with him. Max expresses his rage and contempt for society by smashing up large pieces of it with an axe. Levy attacks it with equal vigour, making analogies (inevitably through inter-cutting) between a stripper's body and the carcasses in an abattoir, between sex-oriented advertising and Hitlerian rhetoric ...

Max, expressing himself only through destruction, becomes the embodiment of the society he despises and rejects; trapped within it, he is - as Farson tells him - good only for "tearing down other people's work". His destructiveness is contagious. He causes the photographer's death and turns Clio into a mirror image of himself, making her conscious of the trap she lives in. Yet the camera uncritically caresses every muscle of his body ...

Still, despite its all too obvious faults, Herostratus remains a passionate, exhausting and disturbing film. The photography ... has an occasional poetic beauty - particularly in the sequence beside the railway bridges where Max finds a child nursing a doll in an abandoned van; and there is some remarkable use of colour, notably in Max's room, all black and white except for the colour of his own skin and the pink plastic flesh of a hanging doll."

Full review

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Ian Jane - Rock! Shock! Pop!

"The plot of the film follows a young man named Max (Michael Gothard) who finds an advertising executive named Farson (Peter Stephens) in order to convince him to have his impending suicide broadcast as a sort of protest against where society is going. Max intends to jump off of a skyscraper and he wants everyone to see it.

As Max and Farson go about setting this all up, Max falls for a woman named Clio (Gabriella Licudi) and of course, Max then changes his mind about all of this, but by this point it’s too late, he’s set the train in motion and now he has to ride it out.

This is a film set in the unfortunately all too real society in which its various citizens care only about themselves. The world that surrounds Max has lead to his understandable narcissism and jaded view and his suicide is initially thought of as his way of essentially flipping us all off on the way out.

Bits of stock footage and symbolism hint at a time when the world wore a more united front but by the time it all comes around to our protagonist, it’s obvious that all of that has changed and not necessarily for the better interests of anyone. This is a subject and point of view that’s been exploited plenty of times since and quite often with better and more interesting results than Levy manages to accomplish here, but you’ve got to give the film credit for getting there before the likes of better known and more popularly embraced filmmakers like Herzog and Kubrick.

It’s interesting that Gothard, who hung himself in 1992 after a long battle with depression, plays the suicidal Max. It’s also interesting that the film is titled Herostratus, named after the ancient Greek fable in which a man destroys the most beautiful temple in the land in hopes of achieving fame only to wind up executed, his name forbidden to be uttered even after his death."

[Presumably the interest in the title lies in the relative obscurity to which Michael Gothard has been consigned since his death.]

Full review

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Slarek - Cine Outsider

"The real surprise is that despite of the film's experimental structure and Max's air of self-importance, we actually start to care for him and his fate, thanks largely to a captivating central performance from Michael Gothard and the shifting balance of power, as the destructive, cocksure and playful anarchist of the early scenes is transformed by big business into a ineffectual commodity whose only purpose is take his own life at the prescribed place and time.

So browbeaten and humiliated is he by then that he keeps the appointment, by which point he has become a figure of pity, shuffling around the rooftop and huddled against the cold while unfeeling marketing man Pointer prepares his camera and barks at him to jump from the chosen side.

This is one of those scenes that CG would nowadays have neutered, as actor Michael Gothard stands and even struggles with his fellow performer Antony Paul close enough to a genuinely lethal drop to catapult my stomach into my mouth and make me wonder all involved had taken leave of their senses."

Full review

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Ithankyou - Don Levy Hero! 25 January 2011

"... Herostratus ... must rank as one of the true, and most challenging, classics of 1960s British film. The film uses an unconventional narrative structure, mixed with beautifully judged sound and cinematography, to create an assault on our senses and our complacency: as a society and as individual viewers. The film's main actors Michael Gothard and Gabriella Licudi, gave their all and it shows in the unflinching honesty of the film."

Full review

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Other reviews:

20 August 2009 review on Movie Talk by Peter Fuller

February 2010 review on The Celluloid Highway


Thanks to Tzaratango and Belsizepark for finding many of these reviews.

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