- Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 (Disc 1); 1.33:1 (Disc 2)
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080p/24
- Audio Codec: English Mono LPCM 2.0 (48kHz/24-bit)
- Subtitles: English SDH
- Region: ABC (Region-Free)
- Discs: 2
- Studio: BFI
- Release Date: August 24, 2009
- List Price: £22.99
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(Screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG and thus are meant as a general representation of the content and do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)
The British Film Institute returns with another resurrected work from the archives for their Flipside series of forgotten films, issuing this two-disc release of director Don Levy’s difficult yet thought provoking Herostratus. Mirroring the historical Greek figure of the title, the film deals with an angry young man that has become disillusioned with society. Rather than burning down a building, this film’s protagonist, Max (Michael Gothard), decides to stage his own suicide and enlist an advertising firm run by a man named Farson (Peter Stephens) to help him promote it and make him famous.
Levy’s film does not unfold linearly, but, rather, it is interspersed with repetitive images that interrupt its narrative. If one is to define Herostratus as a whole it is the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness; violence and tenderness — the duality of the human psyche. In fact, looking further into Max’s very own Faustian deal with Farson, we are provided not only with a commentary on the overriding commercialism and lack of ethics in our own world, but confronted with the fact that Max’s own idealism has failed him. He has fallen prey to the very system that he is railing at, for although he has stormed into Farson’s office and hurled accusations about the decline of ethics in the world, what he has done by agreeing to sell his own suicide for a shot at fame is to admit defeat.
Herostratus’ duality is driven home most astutely in a sequence with a burlesque stripper that is spliced together with scenes of a cow being slaughtered. It is at once sexually provocative and repulsive. Shorter snippets of each scene recur separately throughout the film, but when brought together they result in a defining moment for Herostratus that becomes one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.
It took Levy three years to edit Herostratus. The film utilizes numerous clips of newsreel footage and other oddly staged vignettes cut into the story’s plot that result in a sort of wave-like or ebb and flow movement towards the film’s final resolution; moving forward, stepping back, moving forward again. It is precisely timed, but it can become rather tedious, a little pretentious and difficult. This is the epitome of “art house” cinema and is one of the most difficult films I have ever had to sit through, admittedly, but it was rewarding in the end. It is a filmmaker’s film, for certain, and in this context it becomes less surprising to learn that Herostratus has never seen commercial release — until now. After making the rounds at film festivals and causing a great buzz amongst the avant-garde in the late 1960’s, it quietly disappeared and faded into obscurity. Now, the BFI have given everyone with a Blu-ray player the opportunity to study this odd and technically proficient film. I’m sure this will be a boon to film students around the world.
Herostratus was originally shot at full-frame Academy ratio 1.33:1, but Levy intended the film to be projected in a widescreen 1.78:1 format. 35mm distribution prints were made with the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio maintained, but labeled with instructions to be projected with a widescreen matte.
The BFI have provided Herostratus in both 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 versions of the film in this release, both transferred from the original 35mm negative with the picture restored using HD-DVNR, MTI, and Phoenix restoration systems to remove dirt, scratches, warps, torn or missing frames and to improve stability issues.
This is the first commercial release of Herostratus on any format and as such it cannot be compared to any previous versions other than the original 35mm prints, which haven’t been seen since the 1960’s or the original negative. This release, although obviously cleaned up still suffers from visible blemishes throughout that can at times be distracting. Detail also varies widely, looking quite clean and sharp in some close-ups and swinging to soft and noisy in others. Blacks are occasionally washed out and full of noise and grain and other times rather stable and clean. The color palette for Herostratus is on the pale side, with flesh tones looking somewhat pallid.
Still, it’s very difficult to judge a film that has been missing in action for decades, but though Herostratus does at first appear to retain a film-like quality on this Blu-ray release, I’m inclined to say that perhaps, given the appearance of some softening of details and odd-looking grain and smearing, that it also suffers from some slightly heavy-handed digital processing to clean it up.*
*Editor’s note: I’ve since learned that the Herostratus transfer did not in fact utilize any DNR and that it has been confirmed that any issues with the image are strictly due to the photographic process and the film’s low budget. The rating on Herostratus has been adjusted accordingly to reflect that.
Herostratus has had its original English Monaural soundtrack transferred from a 35mm print to LPCM 2.0 at 48kHz/24-bit. Some processing was applied to remove aural artifacts such as hiss, pops, crackle, etc. The sound for Herostratus is a bit muddled and is not always intelligible. Dialogue is often lost beneath some of the louder sound effects and even with the processing applied to clean it up, there is some obvious crackle and clipping that can be heard.
The BFI have loaded Disc 1 of this release with a few of Don Levy’s short films and an audio interview with Levy from 1973 all adding to the value of this release.
The supplements available on this release are:
- Ten Thousand Talents (1960) (1.33:1; 1080p/24; 0:25.10) — Don Levy’s 1960 short film on Cambridge University.
- Time Is (1964) (1.33:1; 1080p/24; 0:29.33) — A 1964 short film by Don Levy on the subject of time.
- Five Films (1967) (1.33:1; 1080p/24; 0:07.59) — Five Films is a series of five vignettes each on different emotion.
- Don Levy Interview (1973) — An interview by historian Clare Spark in California, 1973 with Don Levy.
The Definitive Word
Don Levy had a PhD in physics from Cambridge and he is that rare hybrid of scientist and artist. This duality in his character is prevalent in the precise and removed lofty character of his films. Herostratus pushes the boundaries of what film can and should be, in much the same way Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad did. Although this Blu-ray release has its flaws, all serious scholars of film should still pick it up.