‘Horrendous’ Israeli ‘70s film becomes a cult favorite

By
January 9, 2011 01:51

"An American Hippie in Israel" has midnight screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, drawing crowds that shout along with the dialogue.

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An American Hippie in Israel

american hippie in israel 311. (photo credit:courtesy)

Showing that shlock trumps taste, nearly 100 people crowded the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Friday night for the midnight screening of the burgeoning cult film An American Hippie in Israel.

The 1972 film – surely one of the worst films ever made in Israel, or beyond – has been appearing at midnight on the first Friday night of the last four months, and has evolved into an Israeli cult event on par with the midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the US, albeit one still in its infant phases.

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As a result of its new-found popularity, the film is also set for a limited US release later this year, following its acquisition nearly a decade ago by US company Grindhouse Releasing, which specializes in cult and “exploitation films.”

The company’s theatrical director, David Szulkin, said the film has received very positive feedback after two previous showings in Los Angeles, and that the company plans to release it in US theaters and on Blu-ray disc this year.

The film bears all the hallmarks of a classic cult movie: terrible dialogue, worse camera work and editing, and heaps of gratuitous nudity and violence.

This wreck of a movie is also benefited by the all-Israeli cast’s awkward mangling of the all- English script, which is at times both blindingly naïve and completely nonsensical.

Filmmaker Amos Sefer (an actor who left Israel for the US after making the movie, his only attempt at the craft) also didn’t skimp on ham-fisted symbolism, in particular the opening segment, which depicts a steam-roller flattening a patch of wildflowers, interspersed with Vietnam battle scenes showing bullet-ridden corpses covered with maggots in shallow jungle graves. But despite – or because of – its shortcomings, the film is also undeniably hilarious and enjoyable to watch.

The movie centers around New York native Mike, the hippie (played by Asher Tzarfati), who, fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam, lands in Israel one sunny morning clad in a white rabbit fur vest, bellbottoms and a bowler hat. He links up with some Israeli flower children and they skipacross the city, eventually making their way to Eilat to build a utopia far away from the rat race.

The love fest predictably soon turns into a bloodbath, and floating plastic sharks prevent the crew’s escape from the coral island south of Eilat. Throughout the movie, Mike is hounded by a duo of menacing mimes in black suits and zombie make-up, whose motives are unknown but whose methods are murderous.

The monthly midnight showings were engineered by Yaniv Eidelstein, a 32-year-old Tel Aviv resident who hunted down the film after finding a trailer for it online in 2007.

“In 2007 I found the trailer of the movie on YouTube. It didn’t have any details, it just said An American Hippie in Israel – but I recognized the actor Shmuel Wolf from the trailer. So I found him and asked him about the movie, and he started to tell me the story.”

Eidelstein, who has been called the movie’s “evangelist,” told The Jerusalem Post that after hunting down Wolf (who plays the supporting lead role of Komo), he convinced the actor – now 77 – to lend him his copy of the movie to hold a showing for friends at his home in Tel Aviv in 2007. Wolf came with his wife, and watched the movie among a crowd of new-found fans.

“After that first showing at my house, people kept asking me about it, wanting to know when I’d show it again, some of them people I’d never met even,” said Eidelstein, who works as a translator and subtitle writer for movies in Israel. “A few months ago, Time Out Tel Aviv ran an article about the movie, and afterwards we went to the Cinematheque and convinced them to hold a midnight showing.”

Eidelstein said he believes the monthly showings will continue for the time being since they draw an abnormally large crowd for a midnight screening.

“People just keep coming. The Cinematheque told me it’s very rare for a midnight showing to succeed, and I think they’re going to stay with it because it’s a success. It’s surprised me too, to see people, high school kids especially, who have learned the words to the movie,” he said.

Eighteen-year-old Matan Portnoy was at the screening on Friday, sitting with a group of four friends, who shouted out several of the movie’s more ridiculous lines in tune with the actors. Like many others, Portnoy was brought to the showing, his second, after seeing the YouTube trailer.

“I heard about the movie by chance from someone who was at the first showing at the theater, and he told me I should check out the trailer online. Once I saw the trailer, I realized I had to see the entire movie,” he said.

Portnoy, who said he would definitely go to the showing again, said what he loves is “the ending, which kills me each time. Also there’s the dialogue, the bad acting, the plot – all of it, really.”

While the ending, which won’t be given away here, is in fact hilarious – almost resembling a Monty Python animated segment – the funniest part of the movie happens after the credits roll. The words “With special thanks: the government of Israel” roll across the screen.

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