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Levy, Don (1932-1987)

Director, Editor, Writer

Main image of Levy, Don (1932-1987)

Perhaps the epitome of the Renaissance man, Dr Donald Levy was a prodigiously talented polymath who started out life succeeding in everything to which he set his highly inquisitive mind. Yet towards the end of his life his ambitions turned to failure and he died in relative obscurity, where he sadly remains today.

Born in Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia, Levy showed an early aptitude for science and athletics. A scholarship took him to Cambridge University to do a PhD in Theoretical Chemical Physics, but he was soon drawn to creative activities. He quickly attracted attention for his remarkably diverse talents as painter, jazz musician and prime mover of the university Film Society.

He gravitated to London's Slade School of Fine Art, where his science background won him his first opportunity to make professional films for the Nuffield Foundation, for which he made a series of short science documentaries, the most successful being Time Is (1963), an inventive exploration of humanity's changing perception of time, cleverly explored in a time-based medium.

While still prolific at the Nuffield Unit, he secured a grant from the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund to make a short film inspired by the legend of Herostratus, who reputedly burnt down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus with the intention of achieving immortal fame. Adapting the legend to the present day, the film was to be a critique of the failure of postwar values manifesting as selfish fame-seeking.

But funding fell short of Levy's vision, and shooting was frequently interrupted as cast and crew-members, working for little or no pay, were forced to take breaks to earn a living. Eventually the film's producer, former BFI director James Quinn, personally financed its completion in 1967, five years after its initial conception. Despite being well received in Europe, when it was finally premiered at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, Herostratus met indifference in Britain. The few surviving prints show it to be a flawed yet highly perceptive dissection of 1960s idealism, seduced by the Mephistophelian deception of market forces and the empty promise of mass media celebrity.

Disappointed with Britain, in 1968 he accepted a post as visiting artist at Harvard University. In 1970, he began teaching at the newly formed California Institute of the Arts, alongside the more classically-minded but similarly maverick director Alexander Mackendrick. Like Mackendrick, Levy found great fulfilment in his new role as teacher and mentor.

For the remainder of his life, he conducted experiments with moving image work, particularly with video. Unfortunately, none of these projects came to fruition and finally, frustrated by his thwarted ambitions, Levy took his own life in 1987. Five years later, Michael Gothard, who played Levy's Herostratus, would do the same.

Stuart Heaney

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Thumbnail image of Herostratus (1967)Herostratus (1967)

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