In spite of many British films in late 1960s playing along with the optimistic idea of the counter-culture, free loving dream, several films from era stuck out for their adherence to the harsher reality of late 1960s, urban life. This is a trait often more associated with the early 1970s, in particular, where all the ideals came crashing down, creating films such as Get Carter (1971), Deathline (1973), Frenzy (1972) and Deep End (1970). It can, however, be argued that this pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic, trend in British cinema had started earlier and there’s no better argument for the case than Don Levy’s 1967 film, Herostratus.
What Herostratus and all of the previous films mentioned have at their core is death and this is linked explicitly to the topography of the London landscape in particular (in Get Carter, on the other hand, it is Newcastle). An angry and frustrated poet decides to make a statement by hiring one of those typical, trend-obsessed marketing companies to turn his planned suicide by jumping into a mass-market spectacle. It soon becomes apparent though that attention for such an act comes at a cost far greater than death itself; Herostratus shows the viewer that the seed that germinates into death in the 20th century is the greed of corporate culture.
In Levy’s only feature film, he seems to obsess and juxtapose between two very separate worlds; that of this Brutalist and unflinching urban landscape, and the manufactured world of studio sets for the marketing corporation that the film is about. Whilst the studio scenes have a sense of theatricality about them that makes them seem almost surreal, it is in the filming of, a still dilapidated, London where Levy really shines as a visual and thematic director. Even from its opening shots, the obscure, chameleon-like characters are surrounded by crumbling concrete, buildings left to rot, and the ironic smoothness of the money driven new build high-rise offices.
More so than simply the textural aspects of 1960s architecture, Herostratus very deliberately seems to contrast the scurrying nature of ground-level city life with the calm, almost cathartic sense of daydream in the heady heights at the tops of such buildings. In its opening moments, Max the poet is seen running frantically through these desolate streets, almost out of control and trying to escape from the pressure of everyday life, of the failure of his creative work and, ultimately, himself. These shots seem explicitly framed in the high walls of side streets, implying an image of a rodent running desperately through some experimental, man-made maze. It’s a motif that is returned to throughout the film and evolves as Max gradually garners things to actually run away from.
The very frame of the actor playing Max, Michael Gothard, also seems pivotal to the themes of height. His tall stature lends itself well to flailing around the empty London streets as well as to the death-defying casual wandering to the edge of the buildings later in the film. It is at these heights where Herostratus really comes into its own, away from its excited cutting between Helen Mirren, Allen Ginsberg and scenes from 20th century atrocities. This is because of the clarity of vision that such a viewing point can bring, both for the character and viewer.
The colours are a murky shade of blue with city mist melting away the other Brutalist boxes that have shot up. As Max edges closer to oblivion, St Paul’s lies in the background, almost mocking him of his country’s history as opposed to his position on a bland, nameless building. From the beginning, he is wearing all white, like some tormented angel that has already fallen far before his newly intended fall. He seems to be designed like a Brutalist building itself: sharp cheek-boned corners, empty eyes and windows sticking out from the Gothic excesses of empire that still linger.
At the end of this road is death or at least its shadow upon the weed-ridden paving stones. This sadly also applies to outside of the film’s reality which shows the power of the ideas behind Herostratus. At the age of 55, after teaching for many years in the California Institute of the Arts, Don Levy took his own life for reasons unknown. Five years later, at the age 53, Michael Gothard would hang himself having suffered severe depression for some time. Both acts seem born out of frustration but perhaps most ironically is that its dummy-run in 1967 asked too many questions of 20th century society; the concrete, far from being the zoned landscape of derelict humanity, was simply progress to the deluded.
Herostratus screens at Liverpool Small Cinema on Thursday the 2nd of April at 7:30. Tickets are £3 and available here.