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Amazing Grace

My son Caleb received a copy of the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” from a friend for his 18th birthday the other day. The whole family had a great time adding up how many films we’d each seen. I found that I have seen 789 of the 1001 movies I need to see before I die (many of them quite a few times). Apparently I will need to slow down, as at this rate I will run out of them before I am 60. Realizing that Caleb has already seen over 200 of them – this is a kid who was spellbound by the 5-hour version of Fanny & Alexander when he was 10 years old – was a nice affirmation of parental duty fulfilled.

While by and large I think the choices made by the editors are excellent, I do of course have a few quibbles. One filmmaker who is not represented in the book is Ariane Mnouchkine. She is of course known primarily as a theatre director, for over 40 years now the artistic director of Theatre du Soleil, one of France’s leading artistic companies.

I will post separately a note I wrote for Mnouchkine’s masterpiece, Moliere. It was through this 1978 film that I became familiar with her art and her troupe. It played for one week in Toronto in 1983, and I was there three of those nights. Since then I have seen the company perform two of its shows live; one, Tambours sur la digue in a hockey arena in a Montreal suburb in 2000 or 2001, the other, Le Dernier Caravanserail outside the Lincoln Centre in Manhattan in 2005. I simply have not experienced artists working in any medium who are as committed, refined, and masterful. I find it difficult to speak about their work in brief without gushing incoherently.

I acquired a DVD of the television version of Le Dernier Caravanserail over a year ago when it showed up on amazon.fr, but I found that I could not watch it until more time had passed from the experience of the live show. This week, I finally screened the film, 2 parts totaling 4½ hours.

Where to start? First of all, the material has an urgent relevance that makes even (especially?) most “politically committed” art look like vain posturing. It originated in the testimony of refugees from a range of European and Middle Eastern countries – primarily Russia, Chechnya, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq – regarding their experiences at home and in their journeys to find refuge in the EU and Australia. The stories are often unbearably sad, sometimes grotesquely violent and cruel, yet lit up by heartbreaking flashes of compassion and spirit. They are recounted as a series of vignettes. As for each of their productions, the company explores the material to devise its own, always hauntingly beautiful yet powerfully direct theatrical language. Against this aesthetic distance, it sets performances of incredibly psychological depth and detail.

Since Mnouchkine proved long ago with Moliere that she can direct a film better than 99% of those who have tried it, she clearly understands the useless of a filmed play that fails to reimagine itself for the very different medium. I found her solutions here brilliantly successful, and the film of Le Dernier Caravanserail even more devastating than the play. It succeeds in retaining the dazzling theatrical devices, while using cinematic elements (a controlled frame, naturalistic sound) for greater impact. The episodes, while remaining theatrical tableaux, play hypnotically onscreen.

This is a work with enormous power to awaken the viewer to one of the definitive human experiences of our times, that of the refugee. It is of course an experience we would desperately prefer to avoid confronting; an experience that it would be unbearable to confront without the grace of such generous artistry.

It took me a while to catch up with Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. I frequently feel with Egoyan that I am seeing a different film than everyone else; typically his films are celebrated and deprecated for what seem to me the wrong reasons. The fact that he is so good at articulating his intentions doesn’t help, because much of what he has to say is in some sense benign misdirection, geared to flattering the critics who represent his constituency.

I admire greatly Egoyan’s sheer mastery as a director, his ability to compose image and sound into richly textured aesthetic experiences. And while I deeply respect his intention to challenge his audience to question and reflect on narrative, I am also frequently vexed by the artificiality of his constructs. In his more recent work, he has seemed limited by his own artistic persona. Ararat was brilliant in finding a way to approach an historical atrocity without trivializing it, but came crashing to earth when the filmmaker seemed to be imitating his own earlier work; Where the Truth Lies was cinematically ravishing, but somehow quite naïve in its awareness of the particular narrative demands of its genre.

Others have observed that Adoration represents a return to his earlier films, which I did not find encouraging at all. But once again that strikes me as entirely wrong. I was delighted to discover that it is in fact a real step forward. Yes, all the obsessive Egoyan concerns are here. But, delicately, somewhat tentatively, they are infused with a new depth of feeling. The film strikes me as his most deeply personal.

Adoration has a remarkable theme that is profound and vital. It’s about how people project their own personal traumas onto collective ones. How hatred is passed on through false ideas and how false ideas are made real through belief. Like all of Egoyan’s films, it’s also about the fact that the truth is hidden and requires a personal struggle to discover.

Egoyan is the filmmaker as skeptic. Since storytelling relies on belief more than anything, Egoyan pushes his stories right to the edge between the credible and the absurd, and fragments his plot so that we will be engaged by a desire to understand, and in the process reflect on our own activity in making meaning. He wants us to question, not believe.

His persistent foregrounding, in almost all his work, of image-making technology is both metaphor (for the recessive nature of truth) and reflection (of the fact that we are watching a movie and that watching a movie is a process that invokes illusions).

Egoyan his distilled these concerns almost obsessively with each film, and yes, in some ways Adoration brings us back to his first film Next of Kin, which was also an adolescent quest for identity defined by a struggle towards and away from family.

The protagonist here is Simon, an orphaned adolescent. The mystery at the core of the story has to do with his parents’ death, and in particular his father’s role in it. Egoyan’s films have frequently focused on adolescents (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) and without exception have dealt with individuals trapped by traumatic experiences, trapped by the past. Usually these are private, familial traumas, although in Ararat it was a mass collective trauma (the Armenian genocide). In Adoration we get both, although the collective trauma never actually happened, and the film suggests that, in a way, all trauma is individual.

This may, still, be Egoyan’s most optimistic film. In spite of being critically celebrated, the word on the street about Egoyan’s work has always been that it is “cold,” indeed he has done as much as anyone to form the perception that Canadian cinema is chilly and perverse. But in fact the emotional distance in Egoyan’s films has always reflected a passionate and ultimately compassionate concern for human suffering, and that has never been more clear than in Adoration. One of the factors in the film’s warmth is the wonderful central performance from Dylan Bostick, radiant with a combination of sensitivity and inner strength. He warms the film up in a way that someone like Sarah Polley, for all her tremendous nuance as a performer, doesn’t do. Egoyan is also the father of a boy around the age of this character, and, as myself the father of a boy that same age (and also one a few years older) I was deeply touched by the film’s awareness of the acute ethical and emotional sensitivity that teenaged boys are capable of.

The other rap on Egoyan is that his films reflect Canadian government/institutional imperatives (i.e. Telefilm’s agenda) rather than what audiences actually want to see. It is true that from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, “create a cinema that is culturally significant and successful with festivals and critics, and financial success will follow” was the governing dictum of feature film funding in Canada (as a film festival programmer I was part of this system). Egoyan both crystallized this agenda (government agencies badly needed any kind of perceived success – unlike the private sector for which success ultimately is an objective business matter) and benefited from it with a career. But I must say, in a time when the Telefilm agenda has become a largely laughable attempt to imitate Hollywood success without anything like the system that can make that success happen (nor the ability to recognize, nurture and advance talent), the sincere and mature artistry of Egoyan’s work is lookin’ pretty good.

Indeed, while in many corners Egoyan was perceived to have lost his way after The Sweet Hereafter, there is no question that his expressive mastery has grown from film to film and he is now one of the most artistically mature filmmakers now working.

Watching The Getaway recently reaffirmed for me what a great artist Sam Peckinpah was. Somehow I had missed this film over the years, discouraged from watching it by its highly uneven reputation, and the fact that I find Ali McGraw to be a black hole who tends to pull a movie into oblivion. The film didn’t change my opinon of La McGraw, and in fact her vacuity pulls her co-star Steve McQueen badly into its orbit. In Peckinpah’s preceding film, Junior Bonner, McQueen was at his best and seems well in the groove of Peckinpah’s male characters, their brutality an expression of their sensitivity. Here he seems like the Steve McQueen of the unwatchably glib The Thomas Crown Affair.

But everything about the film besides its lead actors is beautiful. The fact that it works as a crime thriller in a relatively uncomplicated way is a bonus, because, though it is not among his great works, it is fully haunted by the ghosts that make Peckinpah’s work so revelatory. Peckinpah at his best treats subjects that are at the centre of American storytelling (the frontier, masculinity, violence) with a grace, depth and poetry that exceeds even Hawks and Ford (maybe that’s just a generational thing, though; too bad no one of my generation managed to surpass Peckinpah).

So excited was I by this, that I immediately ordered a copy of The Osterman Weekend, Sam’s last film, which I saw at Toronto’s Imperial 6 Cinemas on its initial release in 1983, and remembered as borderline unwatchable. But if The Getaway was this good, perhaps I had just missed the point on Osterman (at the time I had yet to see The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country or Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, now three of my favourite American films, only Straw Dogs and at much too young an age [14]).

I have this theory: that films from the 70’s have gotten better, and films from the 80’s have gotten worse. It’s remarkable how few exceptions there seem to be. Sadly, The Osterman Weekend is not one of them. Not only was it is as bad as I remembered, knowing Peckinpah’s work makes its badness more tragic. Not primarily because of the vast gap in quality between Osterman and his earlier films — well, except for Convoy and The Killer Elite, though I think it is worse — but because it is a kind of announcement of the annihilation of a great filmmaker. It depicts a world in which all the values that were both celebrated and mourned in his great works – and that ability to both mourn and celebrate at the same time has something to do with their greatness– have ceased to exist. Those values have been destroyed by vast institutions (within the narrative, the CIA and the mass media; while embodied by the film itself, 20th Century Fox and the cheesy producers [Highlander: Search for Vengeance, anyone?] who hired Peckinpah because he would work cheap and could do some signature slow mo). The “action” scenes come off as self-parody, which may have been inevitable given that the techniques of Peckinpah’s brilliant depictions of violence had already been absorbed by the mainstream which had fully inverted their meaning. The performances range from wooden to embarrassing, but what the actors have in common is an apparent cluelessness as to what kind of movie they are in and what they are supposed to be doing. Where Peckinpah’s great films were narratively spare, charting a linear trajectory as they accumulate mysterious depth, Osterman is not only cluttered to the point of absurdity but seems to deliberately void itself of narrative coherence as it proceeds (in spite of a screenplay by the wonderful Alan Sharp.) Where his previous films are preoccupied with the relationship between man and nature, and man and the community, in Osterman nature has ceased to exist (the film mostly takes place in an ugly house cluttered with video equipment, and the exteriors are largely barren) and the community has been rendered an abstraction by the mass media. In short, it may be that by 1983, the artistic construct known as the “Sam Peckinpah film” could no longer exist, not only because of Sam’s alcoholism, but because of history. (Alcoholism may have been only symptom, not cause.)

In any case, it seems like Sam, who had been given the kind of soul-breaking punishment Hollywood reserves for its most committed artists, had decided to offer a parodical reflection back at that world of its idea of what a commercial film is in the early 1980’s, in all its ugly, noisy, incoherent meaninglessness.

The saddest spectacle is watching auteurists try to justify the film’s brilliance, as though the subject matter was an artistic choice as opposed to the only job on offer, and as though it were an artistic testament rather than a self-inscribed grave marker.

It is true that the nihilistic ugliness of the film can be identified as a current in Peckinpah’s work as far back as The Wild Bunch. Part of what made Sam great as an artist was in the demons he confronted. In The Osterman Weekend, he shows us what ugliness is like without the artistry, since the world had no use for the artistry.

I haven’t yet listened to the commentary track by the redoubtable Seydor, Weddle, Simmons and Redmond, whose books I have devoured. Perhaps they will convince me otherwise. Nor have I watched the “directors cut” included, though I would bet dollars to donuts that it is just a more extreme version of everything I have stated above. Peckinpah spent 8 months editing the film before being fired, and I suspect he was just trying to leave them as big of a mess as possible.

Nothing is more poignant than a huge budget film maudit. I have a special place in my heart for films that, however great or flawed in execution, are at least trying to do something unusual, and are damned not for their failure at that, but for their failure to be a kind of movie they weren’t even trying to be, one much more ordinary, by viewers (typically including critics) who refuse even to acknowledge what is being attempted.

Heaven’s Gate is such a film, and one that proves my hypothesis that in mainstream filmmaking, if you don’t tell a story well, the better the movie is in other respects, the more it will be rejected. In other words, a crappy formulaic blockbuster’s deficiencies in story are accepted, presumably because the pleasures of spectacle redeem it, at least in the eyes of the paying public. And if it isn’t actually entertaining, that’s just business-as-usual. Whereas an artistically ambitious work with a deficient story is perceived as a sort of crime.

I projected Heaven’s Gate last night, first time I’ve seen it. And it’s true that, on a narrative level, it is flat and boring. It never actually develops in depth or complexity, even while it proceeds with exquisite slowness; a half hour’s worth of plot stretched out to 3 hours and 40 minutes.

Now, I am a screenwriting Professor, and plot is important to me. But movies can offer other pleasures than plot (after all Tarkovsky has even less plot than this, and I find his films pure pleasure) and there are things going on in Heaven’s Gate that seem to continue to elude the people who write about it, and I found the film occasionally dazzling.

Heaven’s Gate is clearly intended in the mode of Bertolucci or Visconti, concerning itself more with an evocation of its time and place, and even more than that simply with the human condition as a kind of swirling collective movement within which the individual struggles, with great difficulty, towards meaningful action. There is one amazing sequence after another, revealing virtually nothing about the characters as individuals but providing instead a panoramic sense of their community expressed through virtuoso camera choreography.

Like the work of those Italian masters, it is very specific in its historical setting (in this case, the Johnson County War in 1892 Wyoming), necessary given that the films’ subject is as much the idea of history as the specifics.

Unfortunately, Cimino may have studied Bertolucci and Visconti, and he has a team of craftsmen who can match his masters; but he simply lacks their understanding of how to integrate the large scale with the intimate. It’s the scenes with one or two characters in Heaven’s Gate that lie there, lifeless, creating empty space between the big scene setpieces which are concerned with large groups of people. It would have been better if Cimino had hired a screenwriter.

Beyond the script problem already noted, Cimino’s deficiency is apparent in the casting department. He needed actors with sufficient mythic gravity to anchor his archetypes, classic movie stars, so that we wouldn’t feel the lack of individualized character as an emptiness. He needed a Peckinpah cast (say William Holden and Robert Ryan), but of course the whole point of a Peckinpah cast (classic Peckinpah) is that its an elegy for its own immanent disappearance. And by 1980 those types were gone, at least if the characters were going to be under about 55 years old.

Instead he has Kris Kristofferson, who is blank and pretty and not convincingly soulful. (Yes, I know Peckinpah worked with Kristofferson three times, but take a look at how he used him for the sense of hollowness he projects, opposite the soulfulness of a James Coburn or a Warren Oates.) Christopher Walken who, while still far away from exploring the heights of ham that lie ahead, manages to place a neurotic veneer on a character with a neurotic core, resulting in a sort of black hole of neurosis, character who seems completely disconnected from his role in the plot. Only Isabelle Huppert, who is probably incapable of giving a bad performance (and she is at her most beautiful here) manages to strike some convincing notes,  though her character is basically Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller from Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There is zero chemistry between her and either of the men she is supposedly in love with.

Another obvious point that seems to have escaped reviewers is that, while Cimino’s screenwriting credit betrays the movie’s lack of a real screenwriter, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is the actual co-auteur. Heaven’s Gate’s look not only evokes what Zsigmond did for Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, both films are about their look as much as anything else. This is something American critics and audiences can’t abide. It equates with pretension, which I find a silly equation, since many movies have trite stories, and images can be rich with meaning and depth (and in these two films certainly are).

The film’s critical treatment is well summed up by Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert’s reviews, which are not only terribly negative, but carefully calibrated to do as much damage as possible. (Indeed the film’s initial reviews caused United Artists to yank it out of cinemas and cut it to half the length – cutting out the wrong half, since the film’s quality is in its pictorialism and not in its dramatics). I suspect this was as a corrective to their inflated reviews of Cimino’s preceding film The Deer Hunter (“the most emotionally shattering movie ever made” – Ebert), which, I hypothesize, was celebrated for the hope that its portrayal of heartland America coming to terms with the trauma of Vietnam portended the end of the 70’s, a decade Americans really wanted to end (ironically, given what followed).

(Note: I haven’t seen The Deer Hunter since December 1978 during its week-long academy-award qualifying run in Westwood. I remember how awed the sold-out audience seemed by the film’s sense of its own sociological importance.)

That Mr. Cimino, from the point of view of the film business itself, became, with Heaven’s Gate, the one to end the 70’s and take his own career down with the decade, is one of the strange ironies which are the currency of history.

As discussed on my News page, I was recently involved with the British Film Institute release of a DVD and Blu-Ray of the work of my mentor Dr. Don Levy.

I encourage everyone with a Blu-Ray player to buy the all-region disc. The DVD is also region-free, but it’s PAL so you need to be able to deal with that.

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). There’s also a fascinating piece by Henry K. Miller about the Slade School of Art, where Thorold Dickinson started the first University film program in the UK, and Levy (fresh from a PhD in Chemical Physics at Cambridge) was one of his first two students — the other being Ray Durgnat.

Herostratus DVD

It’s been a long road. When I first approached the BFI in 2006 about a DVD of Levy’s Herostratus (1967), no one was the least bit interested in doing anything with this important piece of their own history (the first feature film the BFI financed). Eventually there was a shakeup in the content department there, and  Jane Giles (Head of Content) and Sam Dunn (Head of Video Publishing) arrived. As anyone who loves cinema and is a DVD addict like me knows, the BFI has quickly become one of the most adventurous and creative labels around. They put Herostratus into their plans almost immediately, and, along with the disc producer Shona Barrett, have done a great deal to see that it’s done right.

(I won’t get into a misty-eyed gush here about how amazing it is to this old cinephile, to be living in days when a film like Herostratus, a film maudit if ever there was one, can get this kind of treatment. At Cal Arts, in the late 70’s/early 80’s, I programmed the public film series. I had a substantial budget to rent 16mm and 35mm prints — about three films a week — only most films that I wanted to show had no more extant prints. And when there were prints, your $50 rental got you 4000 feet of mercilessly banged-up celluloid.)

Even those who have a hard time with the aggressive and extreme Herostratus are beguiled by  Levy’s short films, and I’m especially happy that the BFI was able to include several of the most important ones. They are little jewels that still dazzle.

In case it helps convince you that you need this for your library,  or in case you want to read my essay without buying the disc, here it is:

***

Amidst the digital renaissance yielding up the fruits of the first century of cinema, “here is something completely new.” Until now, Don Levy’s 1967 Herostratus has existed only in a handful of 35mm prints, long ago faded to monochromatic magenta. Moreover, in spite of the bright flare of excitement the film generated among filmmakers and festival programmers upon its original exhibitions, its historical stature has faded as surely as the colour dyes in its emulsion.

Remarkably, the present release is the film’s first commercial distribution in any format. Given its concern with the psychic forces that manifest as history, perhaps Herostratus can only be properly seen through generational distance. The mistake then would be to see it merely as an artifact. If it is a kind of time capsule, it is one of enormous aesthetic refinement; its obscurity is a measure of its scientifically calculated transgressive force. Less time capsule perhaps than trauma capsule.

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.

In addition to the Europeans, (most apparently, Antonioni) Herostratus owes a debt to the works of American experimental filmmakers such as Brakhage, and Markopolous. But whereas their films were deeply, explicitly personal in frame of reference, Levy goes in the opposite direction. He laces his film with documentary material to claim an objective framework. Herostratus is not a confession, but neither is it an accusation. It is, or wants to be, a revelation.

Levy seeks to expose the neurosis that is exploited and sustained by social institutions. His intent is not to offer critique but simply to reveal the viewer’s wounds – the fear of death, longing for love, unfulfilled desire for meaning – the unconscious forces that are manipulated by advertisers, employers, entertainers, warmakers.

The film’s method is to traumatize its audience, and then to cauterize the wound with beauty. It is a uniquely gentle trauma, avoiding the safe horror of the Other, holding up instead a mirror. It wants to traumatize us not for the sake of sensation, but as a diagnosis.

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.

Yet, with a precision even an Antonioni or a Godard was unable to muster, the film prophecies the inevitable failure of the 60’s youth rebellion – at a moment when it had scarcely even begun: that it would be defeated ultimately not by an adversarial power structure, but by its own human weakness, its egotism and narcissism.

Herostratus dramatizes our condition as one of entrapment, implying that its own purpose, the purpose of art, is to make the trap known. “You can get out,” a voice (the filmmaker’s) shouts at the character Clio, named for the muse of history. Herostratus is a cry for catharsis, a need it proclaims, through negation, both narratively and formally.

Rejecting the linear structure of a traditional narrative, or the non-linear structures already being explored by European filmmakers, Levy employs cyclical patterns of structure more typical of non-western music. The overall design is that of a cycle: the end and beginning are fused, and the film’s time-progression is not primarily the unfolding of a plot line but the descent into deepening layers of meaning through the repetition and variation of visual and sonic imagery.

Where linear structures maintain their form through the tension between beginning and end, cyclical structures are defined by the tension between pre-existing opposites they encompass, and the way that tension is transformed while the opposites essentially remain.

The opposites deployed in Herostratus, both aesthetic and thematic, are extreme.  Warm colours carefully opposed to cool colours; bright slashes of light against frequent bursts of darkness; dialogue scenes drawn out to the rhythm of real life, sometimes painfully so, contrasted with non-narrative visual strands that erupt in durations under a second; all dialogue recorded live yet integrated into a frequently surreal soundscape (involving the same kind of network of cross-associations as the visuals); passages of utter silence against ferocious explosions of music and sound; documentary (newsreel) material interspersed with the most highly composed staging.

The film’s thematic concerns are equally polarized. Consider a sequence that occurs 77 minutes in. An unforgettable two minutes, in which a striptease is intercut with the slaughtering of a cow, provide a nodal point for two strands of images that (along with a half-dozen others) recur throughout the film, subterranean psychic currents periodically erupting into visibility.

One of the remarkable things about this sequence even on first viewing is the sheer aestheticism of even the carnage, which is just as carefully lit and framed as the stripping. This is crucial to Levy’s aim, which is to present not a document of an animal being slaughtered, depicting a stage in the industrial food process, as in virtually all other photographic slaughterhouse records  (Franju’s Le Sang des Bêtes being the magnificent paradigm). Levy is rather portraying something going on in the psyche, and the point is in the juxtaposition. The rending of flesh and the revealing of flesh, the inner contents of a dying body spilling out repulsively, the naked living form teasingly disrobed. Death and sex. Deathsex.

The intent is not symbolic.  The subject of the sequence is the attraction and revulsion it inspires, the mixture of beauty and horror; not the idea of the fusion of Eros and Thanatos, but the experience.

Outside of this 2 minute sequence, the slaughter imagery recurs only eight times in the film, on five of those occasions being less than a second in length, and none of the other three more than five seconds.  Images of the stripper are used as intercuts at five points outside of the main sequence. Even having seen the film multiple times, it comes as a surprise how minimal is the screen time actually occupied by these images (and how precise the intent of each repetition). Levy spent over two years editing the film, and the results testify to a scientific interest in the psychological effect of shot duration and repetition, among other elements of cinematic form.

Don Levy was in fact the rare hybrid of artist-scientist. After completing his PhD at Cambridge in Theoretical Physics, his most important short films were made as part of the Ancestry of Science series for the Nuffield Foundation for the History of Ideas. (Notably Time Is, included in this release, which reflexively reinvents what an educational film can be.) But all of Levy’s work – the majority of which, from the 1970’s and early 1980’s, remains unreleased – reflected both an extremely refined artistic sensibility (he was an exhibited surrealist painter) and a scientist’s interrogation of the medium: its complex physical and chemical dimension, its involvement with light and time, its engagement with the membranes of our senses.

Unlike most artists who have been concerned with these material and perceptual properties of film, Levy was also deeply interested in human behavior. His approach to the performances in Herostratus, and their narrative framework, owes little to either conventional film storytelling, or the minimalist posing then prevalent in European art cinema. 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.

But Herostratus was determined to be indigestible to the system. As such its negative, unearthed in pristine condition for this digital restoration, may represent the last true relic of an era that has been thoroughly absorbed by the institutions it portended to attack. If the counter-culture proved simply to be the R&D wing of the corporate mainstream, Herostratus carried a genuine poison pill.

The charge most commonly leveled against the film by its detractors is “pretentious.” The film’s ambitions are grandiose, it is true, and Levy occasionally overreaches; the inclusion of (a tiny number of) Holocaust and Hiroshima images, while carefully considered in terms of the film’s argument, overloads its artistic syntax. The use of footage of Allen Ginsberg from Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion now appears a misjudgment, encouraging a misreading of the film’s precise dialectics as 60’s folderol.

Yet no work that embodies such artistic and technical rigour merits such a dismissal. Has there ever been a film this marginal in terms of its budget and production resources that displayed such commanding visual control? Herostratus was made with a budget of approx. £10,000, its unpaid cast and crew taking public transit to reach shooting locations. Viewing the film in the digital realm offers an opportunity to study the astonishing rigour of Levy’s compositions and montage. For example, review the opening sequence of Max running through the streets. Note not only the architectural purity of the compositions and the remarkably delicate use of colour, but, within and between each of the dynamically mobile shots, the precisely contrived interplay of light and shadow. Such careful analysis begins to reveal the extent of Levy’s use of subliminal forces to affect the viewer.

The astonishing collaboration between Levy and his cinematographer Keith Allams is all the more remarkable for the fact that neither man ever made another feature film. Yet if the film’s visual and editorial virtuosity suggest a young filmmaker saying, “hey, see what I can do!” the images and the montage are always connected to its themes at the deepest level. Consider how, in a single, stunning, 360-degree pan, the camera evokes for us the reality of a lost life, a person gone from the world.

If the film’s method and artistic intent was generally rejected in its native land (and little seen outside it) its stylistic innovations were absorbed by a generation of British filmmakers every bit as much as by Levy’s students when he went to teach (from 1970) at the California Institute of the Arts. Herostratus has always cast its spell primarily on filmmakers. Until now it has been a well-kept secret; the BFI’s release of this digital restoration reveals one of the truly underground works of the cinema.

When I was ten years old I went with my parents and brother to the 5000 seat Fox cinema in St. Louis, MO., where we lived at the time. At least 4900 of the seats were empty, which I suspect was not uncommon. The attraction was a largely forgotten suspense/western called The Stalking Moon, directed by Robert Mulligan. I have no idea what attracted my parents to take my nine-year-old brother and I to it, but I don’t think they realized what they were getting into. It was not family stuff, full of brooding menace and more than a little violence, with a psychotic Apache brave trying to reclaim his white “squaw” (Eve Marie Saint) and half-breed child from Gregory Peck (playing his usual strong, decent, silent type).

What I remember more clearly was a trailer that preceded the film, waking me up to some of the thrilling sensations that cinema can provide, freaking my little brother out utterly, and throwing my parents into a quandary about whether to admit they had made a mistake, cut their losses and flee the cinema, or hang on and hope the main feature would be more suitable family material.

The trailer was for a British thriller titled Twisted Nerve. If the film is remembered at all today it is for its typically brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, which twists a jazz melody (heard within the film as source music) into something penetratingly weird, and weaves it with the protagonist’s creepy whistling of the tune. The theme had a second life when Quentin Tarantino stuck it in the Kill Bill mixmaster.

Chop Chop
Recently I finally watched Twisted Nerve for the first time, from a Region 2 DVD. Before I watched it, here were the things I still remembered from seeing the trailer in 1968:

-there was a hatchet in it, and it looked like the hatchet was used to kill a bunch of people, which was a new story concept to me at the time.

-it also had Hayley Mills in it, an actress I was familiar with from Disney fare I had seen on TV, and it looked like she might be a potential target for the hatchet, an idea with a potent transgressive charge (i.e. Pollyanna gets ax murdered).

-it was a young man doing the chopping, and he had his pretty face clawed nastily by Hayley Mills.

-it was the first time I saw a reference to an MPAA rating (“M”, for mature audiences).

-the trailer had a hyperbolic edge – it promised something really really scary.

I’m sure my parents’ distress only added to the pleasurable feelings I experienced in the discovery of this last point: that there were movies that existed solely to engage the energy of one’s fears.

A few years earlier, at 8 years old, I had decided to start reading newspapers, just in time to read detailed accounts of Richard Speck murdering 8 student nurses in one evening. This gave me a good dose of horror and for at least a week I was afraid to leave the house (it was summer so I didn’t need to go to school).

The Twisted Nerve trailer was my first taste of the horror genre, and the idea of deliberately evoking the sensation of things that you would ordinarily do anything to avoid seemed wonderfully perverse.  At ten I couldn’t analyze this sensation, but it cuts right to the heart of the genre’s subversive potential, its capacity to critique our complacency and lack of awareness, our absurd notion that we can control life and avoid discomfort.

At the same time that horror tore away such illusions, it offered a kind of magical protection from the ugliness it invoked, thus the opposite of the lurid newspaper accounts of Richard Speck raping and murdering eight nurses: the knowledge that it was all make-believe.

A few days later I delicately suggested that it might be worth a return trip to the Fox when the attraction opened, but my mother shot the idea down with the assurance that I was far, far too young for such things.

By the time I caught up with Twisted Nerve, 41 years later, my expectations had lowered considerably. It has little in the way of a reputation. It is the sole genre outing of the Boulting Brothers. (In fact, several years later, another parental moviegoing error revolved around another Boulting Brothers’ film, the desperately-trying-to-be-sexually-hip There’s a Girl in my Soup.)

Still I was a little disappointed by how little the film delivered on the promise of the nasty trailer. But then, to have a taste for horror movies is to be accustomed to disappointment.

Twisted Nerve was written by Leo Marks, best remembered for the screenplay of Michael Powell’s brilliant 1960 Peeping Tom (a film I actually did manage to see at a very impressionable age).  Twisted Nerve’s screenplay is a remix of the central elements of that earlier film: the protagonist is a young man with emotional problems rooted in family relationships, that turn him into a serial killer. In both films this protagonist shares a large house with a truly good-hearted young woman (Anna Massey in the Powell film, Hayley Mills in the Boulting), who is able to sense both the young man’s woundedness (although not its dark dimensions)  and his beauty. Also living there is the girl’s mother, in the first a blind alcoholic who senses the young man’s threat, and in the second a still-beautiful woman afflicted with sexual frustration who is successfully deceived by the boy. In both films the boy’s apparent innocence conceals a monstrous destructive capacity that the young woman herself is unable to see until it is almost too late.

Where the psychopathology of Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom is rendered with precision and coherence, rooted in the psychological torture he suffered at the hands of his experimental psychologist father, the mind of Martin Durnley, Twisted Nerve’s hatchet wielding psycho, makes little sense on either a psychological or dramatic level.

There is a rather patient and detailed setup, involving Durnley’s relationship with his mother, and a second identity he creates of a retarded boy-man, apparently to win the sympathy of the Hayley Mills character. And this seems to be connected intriguingly to Martin being babied by his mother. But it’s wrapped inside an absurd and apparently tacked-on idea about chromosonal abnormality. It appears as though a well crafted and wickedly subversive script was given a clueless rewrite that rendered it senseless, then directed by someone who had never actually watched a psychological thriller. Even the hatchet killing – only one! – makes minimal impact. For a while, as a drama the film strikes an appealing tone, sustaining the script’s jabs at British manners, but dissolves into a mess of incoherent motivation for its psychopath (are they really suggesting that he is killing people because his brother has Down’s syndrome?), and is further undone by the filmmakers’ lack of interest in the violent thrills dishonestly promised in the release campaign. Makes one appreciate Peeping Tom all the more for Michael Powell’s willingness to go all the way with the cruelty and violence of Marks’ vision.

That a trailer could somehow take such a mild film and turn it into something so terrifying and memorable says something about the power of editing, but perhaps even more about the impressionability of children. No doubt the horror film is a means to return to a childhood sense of terror. A promise not often fulfilled.

Welcome…

…to Amnonymous.

Much of my time is spent watching, thinking about,  engaging with the creative development of, and on occasion even making, film and television projects. Most of the rest is spent teaching others about how they might most successfully undertake such engagement. (Of course, as with all teachers, I learn as much from my students as they learn from me.)

This is a place where I can amplify my experiences. The act of writing is a source of insight for the writer first of all, at least I find it to be so, and I hope in the process I will throw off some light for you as well. Maybe you will even make it into a conversation.