Alexandra Oliver turns an appalled eye on An American Hippie in Israel
DUST OFF THE crossbow, heave the pool table against the front door and stock up on canned food. Measles is back. So is double denim. And now, for those of you who were too young or too unborn the first time, we salute the return and (courtesy of cult-film juggernaut Grindhouse Releasing) DVD/Blu-Ray debut of, An American Hippie in Israel, quite possibly the worst film to ever emerge from the Holy Land. The individual responsible for this mayhem was Amos Sefer, lifeguard, fisherman, electrician, stage actor and ersatz maker of short films. Following the 1972 release of American Hippie, he never made another film. No matter, as this is evidently an organism that cheerfully refuses to die.
I have nothing against hippies, even though I’ve personally never been one and I only dated one for ten minutes, twenty-odd years ago. Having grown up in the 1970s on Canada’s West Coast, I have to say that a number of sentimental switches get thrown in the back room of my consciousness whenever I see a Volkswagen bus or a liver-hued macramé wall hanging or pass the Naked Beer Seller Guy on Wreck Beach. That being said, I also get misty-eyed when I see brutalist architecture or plexiglass terraria or Pierre Cardin mini space-dresses or listen to Wendy Carlos cheerfully pinging and blooping and beeping away on Switched-On Bach. It’s an epoch thing in my case, rather than an investment in counterculture. I was happy as a small child in the early seventies. As a result, I tend to have an arms-wide-open policy when it comes to artistic output from that period. How could I not?
If one looks at films produced between, say, 1966 and 1976, it is an undeniable fact that this period of time was a wellspring for pictures that were shocking, disturbing, delicately-wrought, beautifully written. My hit list includes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Amarcord, Dog Day Afternoon and THX 1138. In many other films from this period, however, one catches a whiff of something unmistakable on the breeze: the heady freak fragrance of freedom. It pervades, regardless of genre. It could be a period piece (Franco Zefferelli carries the torch here, both with his wonderful Romeo and Juliet and later, the loopily disappointing Brother Sun, Sister Moon) or a vigilante movie (Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack and its successors), or even a science fiction picture (John Boorman’s bizarre but arresting Zardoz—the one with Sean Connery in a red mankini. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it). There are the numerous forays into explorations of religious ecstasy, as evidenced by Norman Jewison’s and David Greene’s respective adaptations of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell and, at the other end of the spectrum, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. There is the psychedelic travelogue; here I think to Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Barbet Schroeder’s impressive and moving New Guinea-based La Vallée. And then, for those who like more counter in their counterculture, there is the Total Hippie Movie. Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, Roger Corman’s Gas! and Roger J. Emory’s Sign of Aquarius come to mind. It is into all of these palettes, but especially the last, that the enthusiastic Mr. Sefer seems to have dipped his brush. While the picture is far from pretty, it is utterly and hilariously unforgettable.
Following the opening credits (projected against a series of stills of long-haired youth in various stages of nude frolic, along with an ominous shot of a steamroller crushing a flowerbed), we launch into the action. Eponymous Hippie Mike disembarks from an Alitalia jet freshly arrived from Rome, sporting a bushy ginger beard, bare feet, a squashed trilby hat and something that looks suspiciously like a bathmat. Having survived the harrowing trials of the Vietnam War, Mike has committed himself to Bumming Around. Why he has chosen Israel (curiously never referred to by name throughout the entire film) is uncertain, although he’s heard that it’s a Great Place. Mike makes his way to the highway, where he fortuitously hitches a ride with Elizabeth (Lily Avidan), a comely theatre actress. After a sinister encounter with two mimes in top hats and undertaker suits, Elizabeth takes Mike back to her swinging pad, where they drink coffee, indulge in wild and free hippie sex and then chase one another naked around the living room. Mike uses this time to lay out his motives and subsequent manifesto. The war has turned him into “a killing machine”! What now? They must build a new world. They must venture forth and seek their own.
And so they do. Into the streets of Tel Aviv they go, shocking the squares with their amorous antics, until they amass a mighty army of free-thinkers in caftans and beads and headbands who proceed, Pied Piper-style, to an abandoned warehouse. Here, they swig booze, smoke pot, copulate, sway to a (not entirely unpleasant) folk song performance by two silken-haired sylphs (Susan Devor and Fran Avni) and throw themselves into an orgy of shameless wild dancing to a convenient explosion of studio-produced Hammond B3 organ music. Most importantly, they crane in to hear the proclamations of Mike who, assuming a manly mantle of Manson-ness, posits himself as the leader who will take them to freedom.
Freedom manifests itself as a group decision to relocate to an isolated island and start afresh. What could possibly go wrong now? The Killer Mimes from the Highway return with machine guns and mow down everyone except Mike, Elizabeth and their new bosom pals, Komo (Shmuel Wolf, whose teeth seem to be patiently awaiting the advent of punk rock) and Olivia Hussey lookalike, Françoise (Tzila Karney). Bummer! Well, the show must go on. The quartet pile back into Elizabeth’s car and take off for Eliat, off the tip of which lies the aforementioned isolated island. They make two pit-stops, one at a supermarket for supplies and another at a Palestinian market for a live goat. The merry band continue on their way, whooping and stripping and necking and…and…then Mike falls asleep (“flakes out”) and has a dream. In his dream he witnesses the horrors that The Man has helped bring about: gluttony, hunger, rape, violence. And then, we are treated to the sight of our hero, messiah that he is, smashing two anthropomorphic computers in slow motion with a giant sledgehammer. He wakes up. The four arrive at their destination.
The hippies row out to the island (rocky, uninhabited, without vegetation) in an inflatable dinghy. They spend the evening around a campfire, eating, drinking, whooping (again), romancing and making stirring, ridiculous speeches to The World at Large. The next morning, Komo awakens, only to discover that the inflatable dinghy has drifted off and that they are all effectively stranded. Mike, alpha dog that he is, offers to swim to the other side, but is intercepted by two (plastic) sharks and is forced to turn back. Things go from bad to worse to way worse. The local food supply is limited to the occasional live limpet, and everyone finds themselves waning with hunger and waxing with rage. Mike and Komo engage in a maddeningly never-ending non-discussion in English and Hebrew (“I don’t get you, man!”). It all ends in a grimly drawn-out dust-up, in which the women are dragged off by the hair to their respective boyfriends’ man-caves and roared at, before everyone reconvenes to foam at the mouth and engage in some cranial rock-bashing. A heap of dead hippies and one confused goat are all that remain on the beach. Meanwhile, across the bay, the Undertaker Mimes look on with satisfaction before getting into Elizabeth’s car and driving away. Cue end card.
The awfulness of An American Hippie in Israel is quite unlike the awfulness of a blockbuster that has careened off the rails (Heaven’s Gate) or one in which appetites for cruelty are wholly and meaninglessly indulged (the Saw movies*, for example) or one where flamboyant staging, ludicrous dialogue and shock value are lumped together in celebratory, self-aware excess (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). This is kind of a poignant awfulness. Made in the period immediately following the Six Day War, American Hippie was the love child of an emerging industry that wanted to spread its plumage and the prevailing spirit (amongst the young, anyhow) of ant-imperialist, anti-Capitalist and anti-American sentiment. What works in the film’s favor? The locations are certainly compelling enough; there’s interest galore in the street scenes and the marketplaces and the rough, barren lunar loveliness of the Eliat coastline. It is the mechanics of the showing and telling where things go terribly wrong. Jacob Callach’s cinematography pays adequate homage to the street scenes and landscapes, but loses itself in goofy zooms, low-angle shots (wonderful for capturing all that buttock-jiggling), stoned close-ups and strangely-tinted filters for dream sequences. Layered on top of this is the sound editing; many of the actors were Hebrew speakers and had their dialogue dubbed into English. The stark, slightly robotic crispness of the dialogue and sound effects, coupled with the mannered, telegraphing intensity of a handful of obviously theatrically trained performers, lends everything a ham-fisted air. Much unintentional amusement is to be gained in the final fight scene with all its Neanderthal rock-heaving shenanigans, where (in a world after Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studios) we can imagine a soundproofed room full of bored actors in turtlenecks, grunting and hitting suitcases with meat mallets.
And then we have the screenwriting. Baruch Verthaim’s dialogue for American Hippie keeps it real with the vernacular of youth (“Right on!”, “flake out”, “bum around”, “Listen, baby!”) but knits such authentic gems (and earnest appropriations) together in a tapestry of stiffly formal and curiously “old-world” dialogue. Mike peppers his exchanges with phrases like “You’re very kind” and “The girls will go mad!”, making the viewer wonder if a page from Ibsen got itself slipped into the actor’s sides. Sometimes redundancy gets tossed into the mix, as when Mike rallies his hirsute troops to action at the warehouse party:
MIKE: Beautiful, just beautiful. You’re just beautiful people. Thank you. Thank you all for coming. Man, I assume that our outlook on 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. But we’re still living in an environment that strangles us. That’s why we’re not living the way we really 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?
Another star moment occurs when the hungry and desperate Françoise hurls herself at Mike on the beach.
FRANCOISE: We’re going to dry up in the sun. We are going to rot away.
MIKE: You’re going too far, baby.
FRANCOISE: Don’t give me anymore of your bullshit!
MIKE: Cool it.
FRANCOISE: Big shit!
MIKE: Shut your ass!
FRANCOISE: (Grabbing a giant rock and rushing at him) I HATE YOOOOUUUUUU!!!
The language in American Hippie doesn’t only suffer on account of the jangly mix of registers and the clumsy use of idioms, but also due to the “spoken word” moments, when people (okay, Mike) take the spotlight to point out everything that’s damn well wrong with everything:
MIKE: World...you’re so full of shit. You’re so badly contaminated that it’s impossible to find a corner free of smell!
Anaphora also gets a vigorous airing:
MIKE: A push on the button and we’re forced to run to our deaths! A push on the button and we shoot people! A push on the button and we’re turned into wild animals! […] You fools…stop pushing buttons. You fools….fools…fools!
Herein lies one of An American Hippie in Israel’s prominent and awkwardly drawn narrative threads: that of the mechanization of society and the destruction of joy, love and freedom that ensues. “The Man” (represented by the Mimes, the Dream Computers and (one might argue) the sharks, are evidently out there, ready to ruin the fun. Of course we’re also made aware that people already carry those mechanical triggers—removed from society (and forced to eat limpets), they’re bound to revert to their primitive instincts and turn on each other. Mike, the American intruder is a self-styled Messiah figure and forming a “community” is, for him, somewhat like shooting fish in a barrel; the hippies we meet along the way are, for the most part, dopey, dilettante-ish or just stoned. They’re not fighting The Man, they’re not building communities away from The Man and they certainly only have a vague idea of who The Man is. So what is the intention of this film? Is it pro-hippie? Is it anti-hippie? Or is it just an exploration of the best intentions gone hideously wrong? Lead actors Shmuel Wolf and Asher Tzarfati explain in the interviews included on the Grindhouse release how, at the time, they took the whole business very seriously. Forty-plus years later, the two actors are regular honored guests at local midnight screenings, which have garnered a phenomenal degree of cult popularity and which seem to have returned the old guard to a hitherto unpredicted outlet for communal joy. A push on the button and we all gape and gasp and laugh and laugh and laugh. Even if nobody wanted us to in the first place.
ALEXANDRA OLIVER's latest book is Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (2013).
*Correction: This article originally named the Human Centipede movies. But the author now thinks the Saw movies are much stupider and crueler. Furthermore, the originality of the first Human Centipede film, coupled with a bizarrely transcendent performance by German theatre actor Dieter Laser, places it above reproach.