Thursday, July 13, 2017

AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL 1972


She asked me why. I'm just a hairy guy.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court -1949
An American in Paris 1951
An American Werewolf in London 1981

To this contradistinctive cinema canon of culture clash colonists, quixotic visitors to strange lands, and vagabonds on physical/spiritual journeys of self-discovery—I add a new title: An American Hippie In Israel. The timeless story of one man’s dirty-toenailed quest to find a pot-hazed Shangri-La where one can live “Without clothes, without government, and without borders!” A lost film, rediscovered. A vision of a simpler, sweatier world long past. A top contender for worst film ever made. So, of course, I love it.

Take the naïve idealism of San Francisco's Summer of Love (albeit, four years after the fact), cross it with the inept earnestness of Ed Wood, Jr. (after one too many screenings of Easy Rider - 1969 and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point -1970), shore it up with the technical polish and solid performances of Manos:The Hands of Fate (1966), and you have a pretty good idea of the myriad pleasures awaiting those who choose to throw a good 95-minutes to the wind to go “thumb tripping” with An American Hippie In Israel.
Asher Tzarfati as Hippie Mike
Lily Avidan as Elizabeth 
Shmuel Wolf as Komo
Tzila Karney as Francoise
An American Hippie In Israel is a has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed, late-to-the-party artifact of the ‘60s counterculture movie revolution sparked by The Trip (1967); actualized in Alice's Restaurant (1969); documented in Woodstock (1970); Hollywoodized in Butterflies Are Free (1972), and musicalized in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).
Movies devoted to “The Gentle People” (hippies, flower children, peaceniks, the Love Generation) showing us both the light and the error of our ways through symbolism-heavy anti-war allegories. Utilizing avant-garde techniques borrowed from experimental films; these movies celebrated the counterculture philosophy and proffered bohemian alternatives to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, imperialism, and knuckling down to "The Establishment."
An American Hippie in Israel opens with the image of an unmanned steamroller crushing a field of wildflowers while news footage of the Vietnam War is intercut over the sounds of bombs and machine gun fire. This student film level of subtle metaphor is likely one of the reasons why the film was never able to find a U.S. distributor.

Mike (Tzarfati) is a disillusioned Vietnam vet hailing from New York who travels the world in search of a better way of life. A bearded Dorothy Gale, if you will, on a quest to find his personal somewhere over the groovy rainbow: “I’m looking for a place far away from everything. A place where I can live with a bunch of people who think like me. Without anyone telling us what to do.” Of course, what Hippie Mike's actually describing here is a cult—a fact not at all helped by his resemblance to Charles Manson—but I've always found it curious that so many of the Flower Power Generation believed the road to individual freedom required a tour guide and a map.
And now, a Public Service Announcement from Hippie Mike

After bumming around Europe for a few years, Mike arrives in Israel looking for all the world like a lycanthropian Janis Joplin: barefoot and resplendent in floppy hat, dirty bellbottomed jeans, love beads, and sheepskin vest. But we soon learn that, as movie hippies go, Mike is one of the good ones. No anti-hero or rebel without a cause, he. For although he has a considerable ax to grind when it comes to society as a whole—“World, you’re so full of shit. You’re so badly contaminated, it’s impossible to find a corner free of smell!” —he’s a hippie conspicuously lacking in political convictions (not a peace sign flashed or "Power to the People" fist pump throughout the entire film); he's just a guy who wants to do his own thing, man.
Sure, he's a bit of a windbag when it comes to spouting off about his philosophy of life, but his credo is basically live-and-let-live, and he's quite the affable, easygoing sort. It's nice to know that even though the Vietnam War turned our hippie hero into a self-professed “killing machine, it doesn’t prevent him from thanking the flight crew with a smile as he disembarks his plane, or helping a lady with her luggage at the airport. He’s just that kind of a hairy hippie guy.

As Mike hitchhikes to Tel Aviv (the film allowing just enough drivers to pass our hero by to hammer home its man’s-inhumanity-to-man themes) he ultimately gets a ride from a comely redhead in a ginormous convertible who invites her scruffy pick-up back to her parents’ home—“They’re abroad at present” —for coffee and a quick bout of hippie hanky panky. But not before narrowly missing getting into an accident with a black Ford Fairlane driven by two gray-faced men in black suits and top hats. 
Described in various sources as everything from murderous mimes to "the painted men";
to me these guys look more like zombie gangsters. Or, given their top hats,
the ghosts of aging Las Vegas chorus boys past

Just who these gentlemen are and what they want is a mystery, but Hippie Mike recognizes the pair immediately. Accusing them of harassing him and chasing him all over the world, he calls them “Shithead” and “Scum of the earth before threatening the silently glaring pair with physical harm —“Next time I see you, I’ll bust your ugly faces wide open!”

Were they a hallucination? An acid  flashback? A costume shop metaphor for The Man always hasslin' the hippies?  Hmmm...

Oddly enough, neither Mike’s violent outburst nor the overall bad drug trip weirdness of her run-in with Messrs. Shithead and Scum of the Earth seems to concern Elizabeth very much. Her "play the hand you're dealt" attitude perhaps explaining why, after one brief afternoon of flower-child proselytizing and naked frolic, she's ready to abandon her comfortable life ("I'm an actress!") and join Hippie Mike on his quest for an elusive Utopian paradise.
Mike mansplains freedom to Elizabeth while putting his dirty feet on her sofa

What follows next is a kind of Hippie’s Guide to Tel Aviv as Mike and Elizabeth gambol about the city in a montage of self-consciously free-spirited breeziness that for a time was a staple of every self-respecting counterculture film. In due time the duo’s spiritual carefree footin’ draws the attention of two more like-minded souls: the lanky, non-English-speaking Komo (Wolfe), whose indignantly retreating hairline makes him seem a little “mature” for all this, and his bi-lingual girlfriend Francoise (Karney).
As our duo becomes a linked quartet, one is made instantly aware that certain conventions persist even amongst the most vehemently unconventional. The women are both young, slim, and in no way challenge the traditional Eurocentric beauty standard. The men, on the other hand...to put it charitably, don't exactly pose a threat to Joe Dallesandro's status as underground film's reigning male sex symbol.
As an interminable folk song wails on the soundtrack (courtesy of Fran Liberman-Avni and Suzan Devor, who also appear in the film) Mike continues to pick up followers like bellybutton lint, becoming the Pied Piper of the granny-gown/headband set. Undeterred by being wholly unfamiliar with the city, he leads a caravan of Tel Aviv’s hippiest hippies to a seaside warehouse (a communal crash pad outfitted with posters, pillows and “found object” art) for a far-out afternoon Be-In.
The Age of Aquarius took a little while to reach Israel
For the unversed in hippie communal celebrations, this simply means they lie around, listen to folk music, drink, smoke pot, screw, and "Laugh-In dance" (aka: indiscriminate wiggling, arms in the air, eyes rolled back in their sockets). Freedom! Freedom!
After thanking everyone—“Beautiful, You’re just beautiful people”—Mike gives yet another long-winded speech about freedom before it’s suggested they all join forces and establish an alternative civilization on an isolated island approximately 12 miles out of town. Hippie Mike has at last found what he’s been searching for. At the point where it looks like we might have to endure another folk song and more "dancing," the sudden reappearance of the zombie chorus boys (brandishing machine guns, yet) comes as something of a welcome intrusion.

You’ll have plenty of time to ruminate on the symbolic significance of the subsequent machine gun massacre of these harmless, peace-loving hippies (remember that steamroller...), because once the commune’s only survivors—our original quartet—embark on their road trip to their island paradise, nearly 15-minute minutes transpire during which absolutely nothing else happens. (Well, they do fuck some more, but maybe that's just out of grief.)
After an appropriate period of mourning (3 minutes), our four sun-baked Don Quixotes
decide to forge ahead with their plans and establish a free, topless society of their own 

If the first act of An American Hippie In Israel was to establish Hippie Mike’s freedom-seeking objectives; its second act, a “road movie” that takes the term WAY too literally (Mike & Co. buy supplies and visit an outdoor bazaar where they purchase a 4-legged cousin of Mike's vest); then act three, when our foursome finally achieve their goal and set up their own civilization, is when reality confronts idealism.
And it does so with alarming dispatch.
Declaration of Independence
With their color-coded swimwear making them look like contestants on the oldest Survivor episode ever, our emancipated quartet revel in their newfound (short-lived) freedom. 

I won’t divulge how the film's final act plays out, but given the amount of time devoted to the redundant and undramatic road trip, what ultimately transpires feels incredibly rushed. In a turn of events likely meant to provide an ironic or twist ending, the idealistic message of the film's early scenes (suggesting life holds an alternative to the oppressiveness and violence of civilized society), takes an abrupt, totally out of left field detour into not-exactly-profound nihilism (man is an irrepressibly violent animal).
Perhaps it's a commentary on the death of idealism or a bellwether metaphor for the demise of the whole hippie revolution; but the events play out with such speed and lack of nuance, they have the effect of contradicting all that came before.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
What's not to love? I mean, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.
The world is full of brilliant comics, satirists, and parodists; but try as they might, no one as yet has ever been able to intentionally capture the special magic that is the truly awful film that fails to recognize itself as such. I've an enduring affection for ambitious, ill-conceived, overly-sincere movies which attempt to balance a surplus of  pretentiousness with a shortage of money and an absence of talent. In most cases these films are merely bad, but every once in a while, celluloid dross reveals itself to be pure gold.
Hippie Mike's Silver Hammer
What's a '60s movie without hallucinatory imagery? Mike has a dream in which he wields a large silver hammer against two figures with reel-to-reel-tape players for heads. Between them is a globe painted like a chessboard upon which are pawn figures resembling soldiers. Trippy? Yes. Ludicrous? You bet!

An American Hippie in Israel is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed, some might find watching it without benefit of an audience or sans the sarcastic input of those Mystery Science Theater 3000 robots (a treatment this film cries out for) an impossible task. But being both a child of the '60s and a fan of so-bad-it's-good cinema, this movie had me laughing from beginning to end. Even when I wasn't quite sure what it was I was watching.
There's no quicker route to absurdity than solemnity; and never is absurdity as entertaining as when a film tries to be profound and deep while reducing a cultural phenomenon to its most superficial components. Everyone involved in An American Hippie in Israel is clearly taking it all very seriously, but just as clearly one is left with the impression that no one really knows what the hell they're doing.  Or saying!
Someone should tell Francoise the world doesn't like to be scolded


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
An American Hippie In Israel is a no-budget, muddled, sun-baked (and altogether half-baked) make-love-not-war hippie allegory that is the triple-threat brainchild and feature film debut/swansong of independent filmmaker Amos Sefer—sometime actor, lifeguard, electrician—who managed to write, direct, and produce without actually being good at any of them.
Shot in (mostly dubbed) English and released briefly and inauspiciously in Israel in 1972 under its original title Ha-Trempist (The Hitchhiker), Sefer's film, despite ample doses of market-friendly nudity and violence, disappeared into obscurity after failing to land a U.S. distributor. (You know a movie is bad when even the cheapo exploitation houses like Screen Gems and American International won't buy it.)
The Stepford Hippies
With the help of YouTube and a host of bad film enthusiastsThe Hitchhiker was resurrected, renamed, and a cult film was born. An American Hippie in Israel had its Los Angeles premiere in 2010, but my first opportunity to see it came when it aired on TCM sometime in  2014. I'd been looking forward to seeing this oddity since journalist Joe Meyers wrote about it in his column, and it didn't disappoint. The film is currently out on DVD/Blu-Ray, and has become a cult sensation on the Midnight Movie circuit in Israel.
An American Hippie in Israel has become a new classic for me. I've seen it at least five or six times now and I keep finding new things to gasp at and enjoy. The film is mercilessly padded-out for length; the actors to a one are all endearingly awful (Hippie Mike's voice is dubbed by Israeli-American actor Mike Burstyn); the production itself has that delightfully cheesy look of those early Andy Warhol films; and from a strictly nostalgic viewpoint, who of my generation can find fault with so much dated, Flower Power grooviness emanating from screen? 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
To the untrained ear much of An American Hippie in Israel’s dialogue sounds like a drug-fueled hummus of non-sequiturs with a side of adjective/adverb salad. If it sounds tin-eared and a little forced, it's because what you're listening to is not really  normal conversation, but a 30-something screenwriter’s take on the colorful, comical, counterculture dialect of the North American hippie. To better enjoy your brief visit to Amos Sefer’s vision of Israeli hippiedom, here’s a brief glossary of terms used in the film.

Bad Scene: An American Hippie in Israel is nothing if not a motion picture comprised of nothing but bad scenes, but as expressed by our hippie hero Mike, a “bad scene” means to be faced with an unpleasant or unlucky occurrence. A negative twist of fate.
Beautiful: A term of approval and approbation applied to persons, places, or things. Sometimes simply a declaration of an emotional state (See: Wonderful Feeling).
Cool It: Stop making a hassle, slow your roll, mellow the fuck out.
Dig: To understand, comprehend, or empathize. Often posed as a rhetorical question preceding endless reams of hippie mansplaining.
Do Your Own Thing: To live life as one chooses. To be yourself, not follow. No button pushing.
Don’t Sweat It: Don’t worry, overthink, or trouble your mind. Don’t get excited. The more dismissive cousin of “cool it.”
Far Out!: An interjection of surprise or excitement. Also an all-purpose term of confirmation and acknowledgement (suitable for banal questions like “Would you like some coffee?”) and expressing disbelief (for example: having one’s mind blown).
Flake Out: To bow out. To not contribute. Not to be relied upon. As used by Hippie Mike, to take a snooze.
Man: A multi-purpose word. When peppered throughout conversation, it is the hippie equivalent of “like” and “y’know.” Can be used as an expression of joy, surprise, or exasperation. Most often means friend, pal, individual. Most dreaded, when preceded by a capital “The” denoting The Establishment.
Outtasite: Wonderful, terrific, fantastic. Sixties antecedent to mid-‘70s “Dyn-o-mite!”
Pad: Home, domicile, living quarters. Wherever one lays one's sheepskin vest.
Right On!: An emphatic yes. An affirmation, as in certainly; of course; most definitely; and, you said it, brother. Also, an enthusiastic exclamation of excitement meaning wonderful or great.
Turned On: Varied meanings, but most often referring to being high on drugs, or sexually excited. As Hippie Mike uses it in the film, it’s a term meaning being very much in the moment, keyed up and attuned to sensations. Feeling very much alive, alert, and happy. 


BONUS MATERIAL
Director Amos Sefer died in 2007 before he could see his only feature film become a cult success. But, happily, Asher Tzarfati (Hippie Mike) 73-years-old, and Shmuel Wolf (Komo) 83-years-old, are still with us. They appear on the special edition Blu-Ray, and both get a kick out of their late-in-coming notoriety and display a healthy sense of humor about participating in a movie they thought was long forgotten.
Links:
The movie trailer that started it all.
TV Interview with Shmuel Wolf and Yaniv Edelstein (the man who spearheaded the film's resuscitation). English closed-captioned.
What are we waiting for? Let's get on down there where we can live and be free! Free! Free!
Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. I've never heard of this gem before, but it sure sounds like the bee's knees! Thank you for your commentary on it, I laughed out loud several times.

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    1. Ha! This movie really as a "love at first sight" experience for me, Callie.
      It’s hard to put my finger on precisely what degree of artistic ineptitude in a movie makes it insufferable, and how much turns it into “lightening in a bottle” bliss; but “Hippie” is just my kind of Good/Bad movie. Certainly a movie that takes me back to my Haight/Ashbury childhood, but it’s not a movie I’d recommend to most (which to me is what really defines a cult film. Not this post-Tarentino-era thing of everybody checking in with each other on whether or not its “cool’ to like a certain move).
      Thank you so much for reading this, and I’m doubly pleased if you got a chuckle or two out of it!

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  2. Thanks for the fun read. You, sir, are outtasite. I dig you. I daresay Shmuel looks much better as an old man. I immediately thought of a male Rossy de Palma.

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    1. My appropriate response should be Right-On, loulou
      But I was always as uncomfortable with sixties slang as these actors appear to be. Even at a time when you could say such things aloud without anyone giggling.
      And how cool of you to bring up two points identical to thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw the film--I too thought of Almodovar's Rossy de Palma when I looked at Shmuel, and marveled that indeed old age agrees with him. How remarkable for a man to actually look handsomer in his 80s than in his 30s!

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    2. well.......handsome is kind of a stretch, let's go with 'robust'.

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    3. Ha! On the contrary--to live to be 80-plus, have your wits about you, a sense of humor about yourself, and to have left your face and body alone, aging gracefully into what one is (as opposed to what passes for faces in the face-lift addicted USA)--well, that seems like the textbook definition of handsome to me.

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  3. Ken, I envy this being your milieu, with your San Francisco roots, growing up with flowers in your hair and all that...so romantic! Must see this film, as I too am a hippie at heart!
    -Chris

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    1. Ha! I do wonder how my parents took the whole hippie thing. i think I lucked out in that I was just young enough to be dazzled by all the superficial surface style (flowers, love beads, peace symbols, decals), but I don't have a strong memory of how adults responded to hippies lying all over the city with their incense and rainbow candles.
      A movie like this reminds me that there was a great deal of idealism behind all the "stuff," and that in its earnestness, it was perhaps a little comical and corny. I'm sure I idealize a lot of it, but if I had to be a kid in San Francisco, I guess I couldn't have picked a more exciting time. Thanks, Chris! hope you check the film out sometime...but consider yourself warned!

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  4. Thanks for posting this and for inspiring me to move it to the top of my To Be Watched pile. I have a fondness for movies like this where the director is passionate about something and wants to make a movie realizing his vision but just doesn’t have the skills, or even a clear understanding of his own concept, to bring it off. Having worked on a number of creative endeavors over the years (plays, bands, writing) I know how hard it is to bring any artistic project to life. Where someone gets the drive required to get a movie like this made is a mystery to me. It’s easy to snark about a project like An American Hippie in Israel, and I would have been the first in line with the jabs in my younger days, but now I have nothing but respect for anyone who can pull off something like this.

    One interesting aspect of a movie like this is that even when the final result is not what the director intended, the effect can be mesmerizing. On the one hand you get ham-fisted images like the steamroller crushing flowers, a particularly on-the-nose metaphor for the modern world crushing the Flower People. And then you get things like the dream sequences, the two Ghosty Men and the sharks that feel genuinely surrealistic because the director has so little control of his vision that his subconscious is making its way directly onto film with no mediation. And the scenes on the island, with the spooky blend of desert desolation in the middle of a lake, are eerie and otherworldly. The ending is genuinely chilling and for me the lack of set up made it even more horrifying.

    That being said, much of this movie is risible and it is very hard not to hoot at a lot of the scenes. The color coded bathing suits, the hippie dancing and the dialogue are all too easy to mock. And there are more than a few tedious spots, mostly involving driving and nattering on about freedom. And I’m with you on the interviews. Asher Tzarfati comes off as a bit skeevy but Shmuel Wolf is charming. He really grew into his face and losing his hair was a good thing for him, appearance-wise. I love how he explained that he had long hair because it was the style at the time but that he wasn’t a hippie. And then he got wistful, and a little bit shy, at the memories of playing a hippie for a few weeks. This is a movie that I will watch again but I’m not sure that I know a single person I can recommend it to. It’s an odd one, that’s for sure.

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    1. Hi Michael
      Thanks for contributing another perspective from having had the "Hippie in Israel" experience. I particularly like you appreciation for the director's obvious enthusiasm and belief in what he was doing, and the way his sincerity mitigate the his not-always-successful results.
      From the days of Ed Wood, many a low budget feature I think would benefit from a little less "auteurism" and a bit more delegation of duties. I worked on a musical many years ago where the director wrote the book, the songs,and the lyrics. He was just too close to it all, only had himself to answer to, and the show suffered from not having someone able to tell him that he was losing his way and straying from his theme.

      In regard to this film, I agree with you in that Sefer's vision my be unchannelled and unfocused, but his obvious belief in what he thinks he's trying to say puts a lot of interesting things on the screen he was probably not at all aware of (I'm just glad they abandoned that original ending).
      With all you relate about your own experience watching the film, I suspect that had "American Hippie" been released in '67 or '68 (when none of the dancing, idioms, or attitudes would have been so amusing), even with it's faults, I think it would have had a better reception. By 1972 hippies were appearing on The Partridge Family and the Mansons had really knocked the boom off the daisy.
      Your non-cynical attitude to the film is very refreshing and very much in tune with what lingering affection people have for movie like this. You can laugh at the dated trappings and technical shortcomings, but if you're creative at all you always have to respect that sincerity will always be the riskier venture, artistically speaking. And when someone (even someone marginally talented) believes in themselves and what they are doing and are not trying to pull the wool over our eyes...trying to say and do something they think is relevant. Well, you're right, you have to respect that. Even as you laugh.
      Such a pleasure to read your thoughtful take on the film and the sensitive perspective you chose to take. Very refreshing, and perhaps enough to convince a few more readers to give this film a try. We both are in the same boat in recognizing it to be a difficult film to out and out recommend to people. Thanks, Michael!

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  5. I'm pretty certain that I enjoyed your delightful writeup more than I would the movie. Definitely it's bringing back memories of Head, and, The President's Analyst.

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  6. Thanks for reading this, Allen.
    As much as I like it I'm also fairly certain the adventures of Hippie Mike are not exactly your bag, man. I've never seen The President's Analyst, but HEAD was a curio that went straight over mine. Reminds me of another forgotten rock group psychedelic film from 1970 called "The Phynx" a real oddity, that one.

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    1. The Phynx. Now there's an insane movie. I can't tell who the satire is aimed at. Is it Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, pop music, Albania or what? It's a mess and it should be more entertaining, even on a train wreck level, than it is. Definitely worth at least one viewing because it may the ultimate What Were They Thinking? flick. I'm not sure if it's worth it, but I'd love to read one of your reveiws on it.

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    2. You nailed it- "The Phyynx" is so unfocused in its satire it makes "Myra Breckinridge" look like "Dr. Strangelove."
      I watched it primarily for the lineup of Old Hollywood guest appearances, but left feeling it fell somewhere between that Sonny & Cher film "Good Times" and a very weak episode of "The Monkees."
      Mainstream studios trying to capture the essence of "Psychedelic cinema" created quite a few head-scratchers in its time. Because the film is so little-known, it might be fun to write about. TCM resurrects it once in a blue moon (that's how I saw it). Thanks, Michael

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