Finding New Life As a Cult Classic
Take a barefoot American hippie clad in a rabbit-skin jacket and a bowler hat, trying to run away from the traumatic memories of the Vietnam War by traveling to Israel, of all places; a sexy redheaded vixen who can’t seem to keep her shirt on for longer than a few minutes, and a naive flower power couple happy to go along for the ride. Put them on a desert island surrounded by crude plastic prop sharks and murderous mimes, and what do you get? Probably the worst Israeli movie ever made, and a serious candidate for the worst movie of all time, which, surprisingly, is enjoying an unexpected revival 38 years after it was made.
When Israeli director and producer Amos Sefer completed his English-speaking flick “An American Hippie in Israel” (known in some circles as “The Hitch Hiker”) in 1972, the distributors who viewed it thought the acting so outlandish, the copious amounts of sex and violence so gratuitous, and the plot so far-fetched that they wanted nothing to do with it.
For decades it lay in wait, until somehow, a few years ago, under circumstances that its current distributor, Grindhouse Releasing, is unwilling to divulge, it was rediscovered and shown in public for the first time at a few select theaters in the United States that specialize in cult classics.
Since then, the movie’s trailer, which has been uploaded to YouTube, has slowly become an Internet sensation. In addition, hundreds of cinemagoers have attended midnight screenings held once a month at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, and a DVD and Blu-ray release is expected later this year.
“I hope you brought a flask with you,” Yaniv Edelstein said at the film’s screening at the Cinematheque on January 7. Not encouraging words, coming from the man more responsible than anyone else for the film’s small but growing popularity in Israel. “This movie is bad,” he said. “You’re going to need to fortify yourself with something to get through it.”
Edelstein’s interest in the long-lost “masterpiece” was piqued when he happened to watch its rereleased trailer on the Web.
“I found the movie on YouTube in 2007, and wondered why there was no available information on it anywhere,” recalled Edelstein, 32, an avowed cinephile. “So I tracked down one of the actors, and it turned out he had a copy. We’ve been showing it here once every month at midnight on Fridays, and it’s drawn an unusually large crowd for the time of night.”
A few moments later, the lights in the cinema dimmed, and the first scene of the movie — an image of a tractor running over a flower bed, with the sound of machine-gun fire in the background — appeared, prompting the audience to erupt in applause and laughter.
“Are you a hippie?” the love interest of “American Hippie” Mike, the protagonist played by Israeli actor Asher Tzarfati, asks him in one of the first scenes.
“Well, you might say so,” Mike replies, with several members of the audience who have clearly seen the movie more than once joining in aloud: “Right on!”
Mike soon meets several other likeminded free spirits, and together they skip giddily through the streets of early ’70s Tel Aviv with a Muzak-like sound track playing ceaselessly in the background. The plot takes one of its more bizarre twists when two gun-toting mimes show up in the middle of a hippie hoedown and mow down the defenseless revelers. Miraculously, Mike and friends survive the massacre and head for the desert with the intent of leading “an absolutely free life, in an absolutely isolated place far away from this civilization and culture of violence.” There they become stranded on an island surrounded by crude plastic prop sharks. As it nears its end, the movie becomes increasingly allegorical and hysterical, leading to a finale that, without giving it away, would not be out of place in a Monty Python comedy.
“We laughed, we had a good time, we cried and we died a little bit inside,” one moviegoer said after the screening. “Nothing can prepare you for a movie like this.”
In fact, everything about “An American Hippie in Israel” is so perfectly awful — including the bad acting, the poor camera work and storyline non sequiturs — that it’s hard to believe the movie was made in earnest.
But the film actually fits perfectly within the growing canon of infamously bad movies including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” director Ed Wood’s exploitation flicks “Glen or Glenda?” and “Bride of the Monster,” and the nonsensical melodrama “The Room,” which have found a following years after their original releases not despite, but because they were done in such astoundingly bad taste. These cinematic endeavors are giving new meaning to the saying “so bad it’s good,”
“We didn’t think we were making a bad movie,” Shmuel Wolf, who plays the part of Komo, a supporting character in the film, told a local media outlet during a recent interview. “I remember thinking at the time how carefree and wild we were.”
Gil Shefler is a journalist living in Israel.
Watch the trailer for “An American Hippie in Israel” below (contains some brief nudity, viewer discretion advised):
“Shut your a—!”
— Mike’s strange order to a female friend
“World, you’re so full of s—. You’re so badly contaminated, it’s impossible to find a corner free of smell.”
— Mike on the world’s problems
“They turned me into a murdering machine.”
— Mike on the Vietnam War