Thursday, July 13, 2017


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 na├»ve 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 and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point), shore it up with the technical polish and nuanced 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 1960s 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 underground films and symbolism-heavy anti-war allegories. Utilizing avant-garde techniques of experimental filmmakers, 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. Such earnest, student-film level of subtle metaphor is likely one of the reasons why the film was never able to find an American distributor.

Mike (Asher 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 how so many of the Flower Power Generation believed the road to individual freedom required a tour guide, a map, and other like-minded individuals. Like a Scout troop.
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 nor "Power to the People" fist pump throughout the entire film); he's simply a guy who just 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 named Elizabeth (Lily Avidan) who drives a ginormous convertible and has a thing for hairy strangers. She invites her scruffy pick-up back to her parent's 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 an ominous-looking 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?  So many possible interpretations, so little time.

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. Indeed, her "play the hand you're dealt" attitude perhaps explains why, after one brief afternoon of flower-child proselytizing and naked frolic, she's ready to abandon her life of material comforts ("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 (Shmuel Wolfe), whose indignantly retreating hairline makes him appear to be a little “mature” for all this nonsense, and his bi-lingual, clearly out of his league girlfriend Francoise (Tzila Karney).
As per the latter observation, when our duo becomes a linked quartet, one is made instantly aware that certain conventions persist even amongst those most vehemently committed to the unconventional. The women are both young, slim, and in no way challenge the traditional Eurocentric beauty standard; the men, on the other put it charitably, don't exactly pose a threat to Joe Dallesandro (underground cinema's male pin-up) in the looks department. 
As an interminable folk song wails on the soundtrack (courtesy of Fran Liberman-Avni and Suzan Devor, both of whom 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 his unfamiliarity 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
Those unversed in hippie communal celebratory rites will be surprised to find this simply means lying around listening to folk music, drinking, smoking pot, screwing, and engaging in spastic eruptions of  "Laugh-In"-type dancing (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. Yes, Hippie Mike has at last found what he’s been searching for. At the point where it looks like we might have to endure yet another folk song and more graceless dancing, the sudden reappearance of the zombie chorus boys (this time brandishing machine guns) 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 happens (well, to be fair, they do fuck some more, but maybe that's just out of grief).
After an appropriate period of mourning for all their friends lost in a violent massacre (a period of 3-minutes by my count), our four sun-baked Don Quixotes decide to forge ahead with their plans to 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'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 and difficult to watch, but every once in a while, celluloid dross can reveal 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

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 with this film became a writer, director, and producer 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
Several decades later in 2010, with the help of YouTube and a host of bad film enthusiasts, The Hitchhiker was resurrected, renamed, and a cult film was born. An American Hippie in Israel had its Los Angeles theatrical premiere in 2010, but my first opportunity to see it came when it aired on cable's Turner Classic Movies network 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 could find fault with so much dated, Flower Power grooviness emanating from screen? 

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 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, and 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. Sometimes 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 happy surprise or excitement, or an expression of astonishment and disbelief. It's also an all-purpose term of confirmation and acknowledgment, suitable for even banal questions like “Would you like some coffee?” 
Flake Out: To bow out. To excuse oneself. Or, 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 it means friend, pal, or 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. 
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. 

Director Amos Sefer died in 2007 before he could see his only feature film become a cult success. 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.
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     2009 - 2017