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Sunday, September 15, 2013

An American Hippie In Israel (1972) review


Asher Tzarfati (Mike), Lily Avidan (Elizabeth), Schmuel Wolf (Como), Tzila Karney (Francois)

Directed by Amos Sefer

"...World, you're so full of shit..."

The Short Version: Mike the Hippie's rage against the machine that is industrialization and the war in Vietnam ultimately overflows with bitter irony and contradiction by the time this dubbed Israeli film comes to its delirious close. The barely there plot concerns the title hippie attempting to cultivate an isolated culture of free love and passivity with other hippies that doesn't go as planned. Occasionally preachy and heavy-handed, Amos Sefer's bizarre (to put it mildly) movie is bereft of budget, but gets high on social subtext; and a way-out, if poverty-stricken visual style. More ROCKY HORRIBLE than ROCKY HORROR, HIPPIE has recently become a minor cult phenomenon in its native Israel after years of being on the shelf. Recommended only for 70s curiosity seekers, hippie enthusiasts, and lovers of obscure movies few have heard of and even fewer have seen. 

Mike is a former soldier in Vietnam who has resigned himself to wandering the world in search of a place to form a hippie commune free of rules and modern contrivances. Following him on this journey are two mysterious, top hat wearing, zombie-like characters dressed in black. Eventually Mike finds his island paradise, but this magical utopia ends up being a false vision.

One of the fascinating aspects of 70s cinema is the sheer number of films produced; and the variance in quality and audacity. There was a ferociousness in many movies (particularly of the low budget variety) that has never been duplicated no matter how hard today's filmmakers try to recreate that feeling. It was an angry decade and hundreds of films oozed hate and violence often used as an excuse to make a political statement. HIPPIE is one of those movies; at least it wants to be one of those movies. 

The violence in the film (among other things) is sloppily rendered, and at times, laughably exaggerated. It's difficult to tell from one minute to the next if this disorderly approach was due to financing, or done intentionally as an artistic touch. The brutality -- such as it is -- is limited to two sequences. The rest of the time, the film revels in sex, drugs and folk music -- hammering home the dissatisfaction with Vietnam, corporations, government and those who actually work for a living at regular intervals. 

The director's message is ultimately stamped 'return to sender' during the last twenty minutes. He designs characters symbolic of the typical 'love generation' variety, but exposes their latent hypocrisy during the literally neolithic conclusion. This perceived existence free of life's constraints proves to be nothing more than a mirage. Prior to that, Mike and his growing commune plan to strut their way on over to some isolated island where they will live their lives outside of society's burgeoning dependence on materialism and the financial splendor of capitalism.

However, the shadow of industrialization and progress follows Mike wherever he goes; represented by two sinister, yet comically adorned men in black with pale complexions who carry machine guns. At approximately seven minutes in, we see the first of a few appearances of these two silent characters who remain in constant pursuit of our title traveler.  

Embittered by what he saw, and was forced to do during the Vietnam War, Mike merely wants to lose himself in his rock and roll and drift away. The irony of all this is that Mike, nor none of his followers ponder the possible outcomes or consequences that turning their backs on modernity will bring. The conversation of how they will survive when left to their primal devices once they reach the alleged island paradise is never broached. But they never actually plan on completely severing ties with modern day conveniences anyways. 

Needless to say, only four of the naive happy-go-lucky bums make it to the barren atoll during the climax. Earlier during a hippie shindig, the two silent assassins gun down the room full of slackers and spongers in what is possibly the directors interpretation of a flower child My Lai massacre.

"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."

It's during this final stop on the hippie itinerary where the artistic flourishes are most glaringly apparent. Not long after reaching the island, the raft they used to get there inexplicably disappears (the last scene reveals what happened to it). The raft was their last vestige between the modern world and this new primitive one. Adding to this problematic situation, hungry sharks make their presence known, successfully preventing them from swimming back to shore. Bear in mind there's no sign of vegetation -- only dirt and rocks. From this point forward, a noticeable change in the personality of the four societal outcasts takes hold. 

Peace and love give way to war and hate. Dialog is dispensed with, replaced by grunts and groans. The four split into two groups and rather quickly regress to a caveman mentality. To paraphrase Mike from his fourth wall speech, buttons are pushed and everybody turns into murdering animals. This was the sort of savage, detestable human behavior they proclaimed to abhor and desire to escape from. Turning on each other, they next turn their attention to the lamb they bought earlier at an outdoor market. The innocent animal tragically ends up as a literal sacrificial lamb once the four crush it to death while battling over who gets to eat it.

On the whole, Sefer's quasi arthouse endeavor is a relatively poor movie. Dialog is frequently clunky, and there are long stretches that are painfully padded with scenes of hippies walking, singing and dancing. It does have some nice photography. Some of the 'in the moment' sections of the film add much to the pictures local flavor. Its strongest suit are its predilection towards making a statement; and particularly its revelation at the end that a hippie utopia is little more than a pipe dream.

The new Blu/DVD three disc set from Grindhouse Releasing is a staggering achievement for such an obscure motion picture. There's an incredible amount of extras found here. It's entirely possible more money was spent on this magnificent presentation than was spent on the movie itself.

After a decades long shelf life, AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (1972) has now become a midnight movie cult hit in its native country. There, it's lovingly referred to as the worst Israeli movie ever made. Seeing it on these shores it's quite evident it's not a technically good movie, but it has curiosity value for lovers of rare films and vintage 70s curios. The amount of attention afforded its US DVD debut will likely entice new viewers to see whether the film is ready for local cult status, or be resigned to a digital desert island akin to the one the hippies lay claim to in the film.

This review is representative of the Grindhouse Releasing limited edition 3 disc Blu/DVD combo.


sammarlia said...

In your review (which was great, by the way), you said that the last scene reveals what happened to the raft. I didn't see that in the version I watched. The two mimes get in the car on the other side of the water and then the movie abruptly ends. Was there something more in the DVD release at the end that explains what happened to the raft?

venoms5 said...

Hi Sammarlia. No, you saw it all. I was being vague. I was alluding to the two hitmen who have obviously (to me, anyways) removed the raft without saying they made one last appearance at the end. Thank you for stopping by and the kind remarks.

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