So bad, it’s great

A cult film emerges after decades in the darkness and becomes a midnight Cinematheque hit.

American hippie in Israel 521 (photo credit: Grindhouse Releasing)
American hippie in Israel 521
(photo credit: Grindhouse Releasing)
Bad movies are an all-or-nothing gambit.
If they’re harmlessly mediocre or painfully dull, they’re doomed to be forgotten, the celluloid equivalent of a mild case of food poisoning. But sometimes a film so bad, so ridiculously stupid, emerges, that its very existence seems to defy all odds, a perfect storm of failure whose futility borders on greatness.
One such movie, the 1972 Israeli film An American Hippie in Israel, has started a cult following of its own here, a homegrown version of the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that have long been a tradition in the US.
The film was acquired more than a decade ago by Grindhouse Releasing, a US company that buys and distributes movies with cult or “exploitation film” potential. In addition to the classic blue-and-white flop, its website includes such titles as Cannibal Holocaust, Gone with the Pope and Cat in the Brain.
David Szulkin, theatrical director of Grindhouse Releasing, says the company plans to release the film in US theaters and on Blu-ray disc this year. He adds that details of the acquisition of the film can’t be disclosed, “but that strange tale will be included on the disc,” in addition to an interview with Asher Tsarfati, who plays the lead role of Mike the Hippie.
Szulkin does say, however, that the film was discovered by Bob Murwaski, an Academy Award-winning film editor (Hurt Locker, 2010), who is one of the partners in Grindhouse Releasing.
Murwaski was also the man responsible for the film’s YouTube trailer, which has been viewed more than 38,000 times and was instrumental in spiking interest in the movie here.
Regardless of how the cinematic gem managed to see the light of day, Szulkin says its appeal has been widespread.
“We screened it in 2010 at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, and the audience loved it. Prior to that, we showed the movie at the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry, where a band called the Ettes performed at the event. The band was so impressed by the film that they want to do the same thing in Nashville.”
The low-budget film, for which the term “so bad it’s good” seems to have been created, centers on American hippie Mike, who touches down in Israel one sunny morning on an Alitalia flight, barefoot in bell-bottoms, a bowler hat and a white rabbit-fur vest, perfect for the Israeli summer.
Shortly after arriving, Mike (who says he is from “New York, United States of America”) is picked up hitchhiking by Elizabeth, an Israeli woman with massive sunglasses driving a white convertible. One of the most awkward and laughable sex scenes in movie history follows, and Mike tells Elizabeth of the hell he went through in Vietnam, where “they turned me into a murdering machine.”
To make a long, convoluted story (or lack thereof) short, Mike and Elizabeth hit it off quickly, and walk hand in hand through Tel Aviv before happening upon a group of fellow hippies sitting at a café on Allenby Road. Cue the musical montage as the newly formed hippie platoon skips across Tel Aviv because, apparently, that’s what hippies do. They then have a hippie hoedown at a hangar at the Tel Aviv Port, where they pass around cigarettes and cigars, dancing in a stupor and cursing this world and its rules.
A bloodless massacre disrupts the party and Mike, Elizabeth and a fellow hippie couple leave it all behind for a deserted island “south of this town,” played by Coral Island south of Eilat in an uncredited cameo. Trouble ensues, and the hippie paradise quickly becomes a killing field.
Along the way, Mike is hounded by a pair of mimes in zombie makeup and black suits, whose motives remain unknown but whose methods are murderous, silent and swift.
The film, this country’s first color movie, was produced on a shoestring budget in an Israel that, like the film, seems lost in time. The Tel Aviv seaside looks pristine and vacant, the countryside an endless stretch of pastoral green fields and blue skies unmarred by Soviet-style apartment blocks, and Eilat is an empty, dusty desert town on the Red Sea with nary a mega-resort in sight.
There is virtually no indication that the movie is actually set in Israel. None of the dialogue mentions the country, Tel Aviv is only to referred to by an extra who mentions “this town,” and Mike says he came to the country because he was traveling around Europe for two years, when a friend “told me he’d been in these parts” and he decided to give it a try. The only indications of the setting are Shmuel’s character, Komo, who speaks only Hebrew, and a visit to the Beersheba Beduin market, where the foursome, for reasons unknown, purchase a baby goat which Mike carries over his shoulders into the convertible. (Spoiler alert: The goat doesn’t survive the film.) The film has all the hallmarks of a classic cult movie: terrible dialogue, horrible camera work and editing and gratuitous nudity and violence.
An American Hippie in Israel has some unique, bizarre cult credentials in its favor, including an all-Israeli cast speaking awkward, laughable English dialogue that is incredibly naïve and bizarre at the same time (during an argument, Mike tells a female companion, “Shut your ass!”).
It’s also full of ham-fisted symbolism, especially the opening scene, which depicts a steamroller pancaking a patch of wildflowers, cut with shots of bullet-riddled Southeast Asian corpses rotting in jungle earth as machine-gun fire plays in the background. Not to be outdone, a dream sequence during the gang’s trip to Eilat defies description: Soldiers face off in firing lines, and Mike slow-motion runs up a hill swinging a sledgehammer against robots with cassette deck heads. Some unwashed beggars walk across the scene, and a man is quickly shown trying to sexually assault a woman – a shot that one viewer greeted at a recent showing by shouting, “Hey, it’s Katsav!” The film’s newfound success has been a welcome surprise for 66-year-old Asher Tsarfati, who starred as Mike the hippie when he was 28.
“First off, it’s a surprise. It’s very nice to hear that people are going to see it and enjoying it,” he says.
Tsarfati, who became a nationally known stage and screen actor performing in dozens of films and in plays produced by Israel’s leading theaters, says that when they were making the movie, he was convinced it would be a hit.
“I thought it would be very successful. I was young, it was my first movie playing a lead role.
I though it would be a hit, but not as a cult movie. It was also a different time; we felt good, and we thought of the movie differently.”
Tsarfati only recently saw the movie for the first time and says he isn’t hurt by the laughter or ridicule it draws. “I also laugh at the movie.
There are many funny and very naïve things about it, especially the dialogue.”
LIKE EVERY creed, An American Hippie in Israel needed an evangelist to bring its gospel to the masses. Enter Yaniv Edelstein, 32, of Tel Aviv, who first brought the film to his friends, associates and, eventually he hopes, to the masses.
“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.”
Edelstein recounts that Wolf said the movie was the only film ever created by actor Amos Sefer, and following its failure Sefer got out of the business and moved to America.
Edelstein convinced Wolf to let him borrow a copy of the movie and arranged a showing for friends at the Hayarkon 70 artists’ community in Tel Aviv in September 2007. Wolf brought his wife and watched the movie before a crowd of ecstatic, sudden fans.
“After that first showing, people kept asking me about it, wanting to know when I’d show it again, some of them people I’d never even met.
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.”
Edelstein says he believes the monthly showings will continue for the time being because it brings in an abnormally large crowd for a midnight screening.
“People just keep coming. The Cinematheque told me it’s very rare that a midnight showing succeeds, 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.”
On a recent Friday, nearly 100 people crowded into the cinema, laughing through virtually every badly filmed shot, nonsensical line and gratuitous love scene. A row of high-school students shouted out the lines, with an emphasis on the especially ridiculous ones.
A few rows behind the teenage fans, an older gentlemen sat by himself in the back row, quietly taking in the social experience that is a midnight showing of “An American Hippie in Israel.”
Wolf, now 77, was only 39 when he played the supporting role of Komo, one of the film’s four main roles. In the film, Komo and his girlfriend meet up with Mike and Elizabeth in Tel Aviv and set off with them for the would-be utopia in the Red Sea, where their paradise soon becomes a death trap for man and goat alike.
Komo speaks only Hebrew in the movie and is the only actor whose lines aren’t in English.
Wolf says this was no accident, as he didn’t speak English then or now. He has only a handful of lines, including his signature phrase “Wonderful feeling!” which he shouts several times – his only line in English. Other than that, his only other significant lines are in a dropdead hysterical scene where he and Mike argue with each other in Hebrew and English on the Red Sea beach.
Wolf describes the pleasure he receives from his sudden fame and the once-forgotten movie’s newfound success with a younger generation.
“The movie has become a cult film, and I really enjoy that. You were there; you saw how the young people would circle around me in the lobby before the movie, shaking my hand, talking to me about the movie. It makes me happy.”
Wolf says the movie was shown on only a few occasions before its current run, on a few nights at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv in the 1980s.
Wolf, a delightful man who moved to Israel from his native Hungary in 1949 at the age of 15, is perfectly at peace with the movie. He’s not a staunch defender of its merits but is also not so quick to pass it off as merely cinematic tripe.
“I find myself thinking, ‘If it’s so bad, then why is it so successful all of a sudden?’ I’m a bit ambivalent. There must be something about the movie people enjoy. You saw the young people, they were laughing at the ridiculousness and offthe- wall parts, but they also relate to parts of it.
They laugh at the movie, but they also love the movie.”
While it may seem obvious to most viewers, the more outlandish aspects of the movie – its script and its plot – weren’t so clear to Wolf when he was shooting it.
“I thought it was a little bit stupid, but when you’re an actor and you’re inside the movie and there is a budget, you have to believe in what you’re doing. We did it in all seriousness. If an actor doesn’t take his work seriously, it won’t come off well.”
Before Edelstein and newfound cult fame came into his life, Wolf was a bit bashful about the movie. On one occasion in the 1980s, he went to a showing at the Cinematheque but left after only a few minutes when he saw the crowd laughing at the film.
“At first I was very embarrassed about the movie because people would laugh at it when it was shown. But today, all of a sudden it’s a success.
It’s a very strange thing. No one thought this would happen after 38 years, not to a movie that no one wanted to show before. They never thought it would become a cult movie,” he says.
“I never thought... no actor would think that a movie they did 38 years ago would suddenly become a cult hit. Now, before I even walk into the theater, the people yell, ‘Komo, Komo!’ They come up to shake my hand; it’s amazing. It’s a wonderful feeling.”