Saturday, May 16, 2015

An American Hippie in Israel

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

An American Hippie in Israel (Box Office Spectaculars, 1972) Director: Amos Sefer. Writers: Amos Sefer (s/p), Baruch Verthaim (English dialogue). Cast: Asher Tzarfati, Schmuel Wolf, Lily Avidan, & Tzila Karney. Color, 95 minutes.

There’s an old proverb that a bad penny always turns up. It also applies to movies, as we shall see ahead. This 1972 film disappeared shortly after completion for want of a distributor. It sat on a shelf, and for a time was considered lost. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a firm named Grindhouse Releasing somehow discovered the film and released in on DVD and Blu-ray. It also appeared in a few select theaters that specialize in cult classics. TCM brought it to television for the first time on December 28, 2014, at the appropriate time of 2:00 am.

This is truly one of those movies that must be seen, for no amount of word-of-mouth can truly describe or do justice to the awfulness on the screen. The film has all the hallmarks of a crap classic: terrible acting and dialogue, rotten camera work and editing, and lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, even though the violence is of the cardboard cartoon variety.

As the opening credits roll, we see a steamroller with no driver rumbling along and squashing flowers in a field to the sound of small arms fire. Immediately we discern that we’re not watching a mere movie. No, we are witnessing Art.

After the credits end, we cut to an airplane carrying a man (Tzarfati) in a white rabbit-fur vest and bowler hat. He disembarks in Tel Aviv, collects his meager luggage and begins hitchhiking along the highway. He doesn’t get far before a redheaded vixen (Avidan) in a white convertible picks him up. She’s Elizabeth, he’s Mike, and they exchange small talk punctuated by such probing questions like, “Are you a hippie?” Of course he is. They don’t get far before they find two mimes dressed all in black standing in front of a car parked across the road. Mike tells Elizabeth that he’ll handle it and proceeds to have an argument with the mimes, a rather one-sided argument, as they don’t speak. Apparently they’ve been following him all over the world. Returning to the car and his ride, Mike tries to explain them to Elizabeth, who tells him she’s an actress and invites him in for coffee when they get to her parents’ place.

Now comes the “get to know you” scene, where Mike explains himself to Elizabeth. Seems he served in Vietnam and he’s bitter about it. "I killed with my bare hands. I was like an animal. That's the way I was taught to behave. I was ordered. I was forced to do things I didn't want to do. They turned me into a murdering machine." The longer he goes on the more he sounds like Sam Kinison’s crazed history professor in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, Back to School. Before he bores her to death, Elizabeth comes up and plants a hot kiss on him, ostensibly to shut him up. This leads to the obligatory sex scene. Afterward, she walks around with him looking for fellow hippies for Mike to preach his ideas of communal living.

And, of course, they find them a whole bunch of them – and he leads them in a hippie parade through the streets that ends in a hippie hoedown in what looks like an abandoned warehouse, complete with bad music and dancing while Mike gives them his spiel about materialism, the Establishment, capitalism, and whatever else enters his empty mind. As Mike and Elizabeth are digging the scene, one of the hippies suggests an isolated island where they can all go to start their very own free society. 

However, just as the party is getting started, the two mines in black show up again and machine-gun the crowd, killing everyone except Mike, Elizabeth, and two of the least attractive hippies in the crowd, Komo (Wolf) and Francoise (Karney). Everyone else is dead, although not one of the victims bleeds. (Guess they couldn’t afford the cost of stage blood.)

The survivors act as if nothing happened and take off in Elizabeth’s convertible for the utopian island paradise, stopping off on the way to make love, then drive around in circles for no reason. They stop to pick up a bag of groceries and a goat. They drive, and drive, and drive. Francoise takes off her top while Mike “flakes out,” dreaming that he’s fighting in slow motion against two people dressed up like tape recorders.

Soon they arrive at the paradise. To get to the island they have to take an inflatable raft past the phoniest sharks I’ve ever seen in a movie. What a place; it’s a rock in the ocean, no plants, no wildlife, no nothing. And these dummies are going to live there by themselves? They celebrate their arrival by doing an awful dance, stripping off their clothes (natch), and enjoying a wonderful dinner of canned food by the fire as night come forth. They proclaim their love for one another and how full of shit the world is.

Ah, but then comes dawn. They waken to discover that not only their boat is missing, but also the goat as well. (Maybe he took the boat.) Mike tries to swim to shore, but is turned back by the phony sharks. They’re stuck. They get hungry. Tempers flare and soon the bonded foursome is at each other’s throats. They form outposts at different ends. At the finale, they come together to stage a fight right out of Monty Python. (Think about the housewives staging a reproduction of the attack on Pearl Harbor.) The women get into a topless catfight while Mike has in intense argument with Komo, who only speaks Hebrew, which is okay because Mike only speaks English. The goat suddenly reappears and the four fight over it, literally squashing it between them. At the end there is only one hippie almost standing. Watching the goings-on are the men-in-black, who get back into their car and drive off as the movie thankfully ends.

The great thing about this movie is its total pretension. From Mike’s speech to Elizabeth to the final fight, director Sefer is trying to convince us of something, but what it is we don’t know. Were it not for the total seriousness of the film, it would be unwatchable. Instead, the pretense, combined with the low budget effects and the laughable plot, place this film in the category of “so bad it's good.” Right from the beginning, when we see the steamroller crushing flowers to the background noise of small arms fire, we know we’re in for a treat. As Mike, Tzarfati is so over the top he’ll never come back down, although we really can’t blame him given the dialogue and soliloquies he’s given, especially his speech about serving in Vietnam.

The hippie hootenanny scene is also a riot. They get together, people begin giving speeches, eventually everyone pairs off to make love, and suddenly the men in black show up and machine gun the lot. The reaction of Mike and his three friends is priceless. They simply act as if this is an everyday occurrence and take off for the promised island in Elizabeth’s convertible without a thought of who the men are and why they gunned everyone down.

And who are the men in black and why are they trailing Mike? Director Sefer never takes the time to explain it to the audience; a simple sentence would suffice. Are they representatives of the Establishment sent to ruin Mike’s good times? Dressed as they are with the mime make-up, they might have been sent by Marcel Marceau for all we know.

And the ending on the island: Is this Sefer’s version of Lord of the Flies? Is he trying to tell us that while we can escape from society we cannot escape from our own violent nature? Is he on the side of the hippies or the men in black? Is he really this bad a filmmaker?

As an actor, Tzarfati is in a class by himself. Not since Dudley Manlove in Plan 9 have we seen such hysterical histrionics. He’s so eager for an audience during his speech to Elizabeth in the beginning of their relationship that he actually breaks the “fourth wall” and speaks directly to the audience. And he’s so direct, so blatantly sincere to the point of laughter. (I’d love to see him hawking a veg-o-matic on an infomercial.) I don’t know if Sefer planned it this way; as it occurs only once in the film I tend to think it was the result of plain incompetence rather than a pointed message. But then Sefer is arty, and perhaps he intended to break the fourth wall all throughout the film but simply forgot. A lot of plot points are merely disregarded during the course of the film, which helps account for its unusual charm. Every time we think the film is going one way, it simply weighs anchor and inexplicably heads off in another direction.

As Elizabeth, Avidan’s idea of acting is to take her clothes off. (The same for Karney.) The best of the bunch was Wolf, because he only spoke Hebrew and I couldn’t understand him.

An American Hippie in Israel proves that there are good points to be had in a bad film as long as it’s entertaining. It’s the sort of film that leaves unprepared audiences gobsmacked, and ever since its rediscovery it has become a popular “midnight matinee” feature in Israel and remains proof that the truly great bad movies are ones that take themselves seriously. 

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