Monday, March 9, 2015

An American Hippie in Israel (1972)

          Incredibly, the canon of ’70s cult movies continues to grow, because every so often some enterprising soul rediscovers a “lost” cinematic oddity and unleashes the thing upon an unsuspecting public. Such is the case with the deeply strange An American Hippie in Israel, which was produced by an Israeli film company in the early ’70s, discarded, and then revived in the 2010s for DVD release and the midnight-movie circuit. An American Hippie in Israel ticks nearly all the boxes required for cult-flick status: dialogue so ridiculous that it’s immediately quotable; a nonsensical story told with great intensity, as if the filmmakers thought they were making something profound; actors who seem to exist outside the normal spectrum of human experience; rebellious themes about the challenges faced by boundary-pushing individuals; and a steady stream of verbal and visual non sequiturs. In sum, An American Hippie in Israel unfolds like a drug experience, with self-contained pockets of weirdness passing through the frame, to the accompaniment of painfully earnest lyrics repeated ad nauseam on the soundtrack by twee folksingers.
          The movie opens with Mike (Asher Tzarfati) sitting on a plane as it heads for Israel. Barefoot and wearing a squat hat, scruffy facial hair, a fur vest, and dirty jeans, he’s a foreigner’s slightly skewed vision of a hippie. Immediately upon arrival in Israel, Mike hooks up with redhead Elizabeth (Lily Avidan), who offers him a ride in her car. Then another vehicle blocks their path, and two men emerge, both dressed like old-time gangsters and wearing weird Kabuki makeup on their faces. Mike berates the men into withdrawing, and then says to Elizabeth, “I think they want my life.” “But why,” she asks. “That’s exactly what I don’t understand,” he replies. And so the die is cast, because An American Hippie in Israel is all about peculiar shit happening without explanation. Despite having just seen that Mike is a target for dangerous-looking men, Elizabeth sleeps with him—instantly becoming a hippie herself—and then abandons her home and job in order to wander the countryside with her new lover.
          During a wordless montage set to overbearing music, Mike and Elizabeth meet Israeli hippies Françoise (Tzila Karney) and Komo (Shmuel Wolf), who take Mike back to their beachfront commune as if he’s some counterculture messiah. After a concert thrown in his honor, Mike delivers a whopper of a speech: “You’re just beautiful people. Man, I assume that our outlook in life is the same, and that’s why we lead the same kind of life. Because that’s how we want to live. All this is good for us. We’re still living in an environment that strangles us. That’s why we’re not really living the way we want to live, and the way we really could live. And I mean an absolute free life in an absolutely isolated place far away from this civilization and culture of violence. Therefore, men, let’s get organized, and find a place in which we can live as we see fit—without clothes, without governments, and without borders. Got it?”
          Naturally, the hippies respond by shouting “Yeah!” and then commencing an orgy—until the weird gangster guys show up with machine guns and kill everyone in the commune except Elizabeth, Françoise, Komo, and Mike. Their reaction? Casually leaving a roomful of corpses and hitting the road in their quest for a place to be “free.” Free from what, you ask? That’s anybody’s guess. Unbelievably, the movie gets even weirder after that point, devolving into a Lord of the Flies-type story about characters turning on each other in the wilderness—because the hippies encamp themselves on a tiny island surrounded by killer sharks. All the while, the scolding Greek-chorus folksingers warn us that “someday they’ll have to pay for taking time to play.”
          An American Hippie in Israel arguably reaches its apex/nadir with a long scene of Mike and Komo “discussing” possible solutions to the shark problem—Komo, who doesn’t speak English, keeps rambling in Hebrew while Mike, who doesn’t speak Hebrew, repeatedly says “I can’t get you” as he spirals into pointless anger against his friend. Indeed, every scene in American Hippie in Israel is stunningly confusing or repetitive or stupid, if not all three, so that’s why, when viewed from a certain ironic perspective, the movie is magical in its awfulness.

An American Hippie in Israel: FREAKY

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