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'The Experimental Psychologist': review of 'Herostratus'

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Sep. 1st, 2009 | 09:00 am

The extracts below are from a review of 'Herostratus' by Stuart Heaney, published in 'Sight and Sound' magazine, volume 19, issue 9, in September 2009.

"… This is the 1960s as you’ve never seen them before – the myths demystified before they were even crystallised. Its themes mirror in disturbing fashion the subsequent troubled lives of its principle cast and crew, not least Levy himself.

… The Nuffield films served as Levy’s film-making apprenticeship, enabling him to appropriate the documentary form for poetic ends. The same formal tension between the objective world of historical and institutional forces, and eruptions of the personal subconscious, lies at the heart of Herostratus, which recycles fragments of newsreel footage and juxtaposes them with dramatic scenes and fractured hallucinatory images. The effect of interfacing these different strands is to map the subconscious forces that formed Max’s psyche … Max’s only solution to the problem of finding meaning in his life is to sacrifice his physical form for a transcendent, infinitely reproducible electronic image.

… Levy’s intent was to induce a transformation in the film’s audience via a heightened emotional reality. In his notes accompanying the film, Levy cryptically referred to “a special form of improvisation … exploiting the subconscious”, but although he did not reveal the specific technique he used to direct the actors, it was clearly psychotherapeutic in intent. The performances were all improvised on scenarios and suggestions provided by the director-therapist, sometimes with disturbing results. Levy referred to “peculiar events” that occurred “both during and outside filming”; occasionally crew members refused to work owing to the intensity of the experiences being filmed.

… Levy wanted to deprogramme his actors, the better to reveal to the audience the programming within themselves through witnessing the actors’ experiences … The crucial moment that foregrounds this strategy occurs in the closing scene of the film, evidence that Levy may have been using some form of primal scream therapy, inducing trauma in the actors … Convinced they have provoled Max into committing suicide, Clio becomes hysterical. As she leans against a blank wall she wails, “I can’t get out!” Levy’s strident voice can be heard offscreen, replying, “YOU CAN GET OUT!” The whimpering of Clio-Gabriella is the last thing we hear as the image cuts to black."

For all the critical accolades heaped on Don Levy for 'Herostratus', it is perhaps fortunate that he did not make more films, and trap yet more vulnerable young actors in his amateur psychology laboratory.

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