Only in the 70s: An American Hippie in Israel (1972)
IN THE WAKE of Easy Rider, young filmmakers across America thought they could bandy out their own acid-flecked, “maaaaan”-laden approximation of the counter-cultural American Dream. They forgot – or were too stoned to notice – that Easy Rider, upon its release in 1969, both defined and demolished the entire movement in one fell swoop. They didn’t realise that the hippie reverie, in plummeting decline since the Summer of Love, was dead and buried. Woodstock was the final flash of glory; Altamont was the death rattle. Peace and love was trampled beneath the heels of Nixon and the 70s.
But, hey, The Man wasn’t gonna keep Amos Sefer down, no sir. Though he came late to the party and he wasn’t even American, he’d be damned if he wasn’t gonna get his slice of hippie pie, man. An American Hippie in Israel, his only credited and extant film, on which he was writer/producer/editor/director, has a touch of Bizarro-auteur class unseen before the emergence of Tommy Wiseau. Long thought lost and widely regarded as the worst Israeli film ever made, the distribution rights were picked up by the exploitation maestros at Grindhouse Releasing. A cult following quickly emerged, particularly in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of fans crowded ebullient midnight screenings.
Its cult bearing, for those few who have seen it, is undeniable. The film is a masterwork in how to make a catastrophe, a storm in a teacup of perfect, sumptuous awfulness. The plot is illegible, the characters are terrible, and baffling genre-bending elements add surreal mystique to an already incomprehensible piece. The camera work is stupefying and the editing is, somehow, worse. Sefer apparently rolled the cameras while tripping balls and edited it during the comedown.
American Hippie follows Mike (Asher Tzarfati), a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who absconds to Israel following the war. A self-described hippie who says things like “right on!” and “this is a real bad scene” compulsively, Mike is an angry soul who, it seems, The Man is determined to stub out. Pursued by unexplained machine-gun-toting mimes – really – he encounters three like-minded flower children and fosters the idea of creating a commune, “Without clothes, without governments, without borders.”
Finding a tiny island about 50 yards away from the main road, the four claim the spit of rock as their own, Mike happily proclaiming: “World! You’re so full of shit!” Their peace and love idyll of “WONDERFUL FEELINGS!”, however, is immediately interrupted by plastic sharks, goat theft and mounting personal tensions.
The film’s incompetence is monumental. Like, far out. It’s 95 minutes of discombobulated footage that, you’d think without already knowing, was filmed and assembled by an idiot alien who’d never seen human beings interacting, never mind watched a movie. The (catch)phrases spewing endlessly out of the characters’ mouths would be unbearably kitsch and “retro” had they not been written and acted with such strange conviction.
That’s the main part of American Hippie’s enduring charm: Sefer’s clear sincerity. He means every damn word, right down to the catalogue of far-out-isms that litter his screenplay. Images of Vietnam are interspersed with a lawnmower hacking down wildflowers. Mike directly addresses the camera in a monologue decrying the “Fools! Fools! Fools!” of the establishment. “MURDERERS!” he screams at the mimes, Tzarfati’s hilarious dub-work met only with grim, zombie-faced silence.
It’s difficult to pick out individual scenes – they’re all just so good – but the hippy-dippy bullshit is encapsulated best by an impromptu gig that Mike curates. Huddled into what looks like a large shed, he proclaims the purity of his utopic vision to the assembled throng of stoners and dropouts from the lectern of his own private Woodstock, joints and all. This mainly consists of him saying the word ‘freedom’ in various combinations, all while a Crosby, Stills & Nash rip-off folk anthem is strummed in the background.
The all-Israeli cast, god bless ‘em, mangles its entirely English script. Sentences like, “You will destroy yourself at your own hand,” are spoken verbatim, unconscious of the fact they make no grammatical sense. The women exist for nipple-related purposes and little, if nothing, else. The other male in Mike’s group, Komo (Shmuel Wolf), has a grasp of English that extends only so far as “wonderful feelings” and “freedom”.
This fact is later played to astonishing effect when Mike enlists his help to find the girls, who they have inexplicably lost on their 25 yard-long peninsula, the primary features of which are two large rocks. The two try – and fail – to communicate for five whole minutes, with both parties getting angrier as it goes, endlessly, on. Sefer even finds time to include a bizarre, Lynchian dream sequence in which Mike, armed with an enormous hammer, bludgeons bespoke men with tape recorders for heads.
A wonderful slice of artsy psychedelia, An American Hippie in Israel is a Kool Aid Acid Test for purveyors of so-bad-it’s-good, a hilarious film that’s so in love with its Important (read: obvious) Message that it’s blind to its vast wealth of flaws. It needs to be seen to be believed; I thoroughly recommend that you do. You too, can experience the WONDERFUL FEELIIINGS of a film that defies reasoned explanation.