Saturday, August 5, 2017

THE INNOCENTS 1961

"It's time to speak of unspoken things...."
Ad tagline for Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1969)


Ghost stories have always been a bit of a challenge for me. Not so much in literature, where my imagination is free to conjure up whatever horrors necessary to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and get the goosebumps tingling; but most definitely in film. There I find the visual medium’s gift for literalism is paradoxically at odds with the degree my imagination and mind's eye need to be involved in order for ghosts to seem even remotely scary.
Through the magic of special effects, films are ideally suited to granting vivid, tangible realism to even the most fanciful narratives; thus, the representational side of ghost stories—materialized apparitions, floating objects and the like—has always been well within the scope of where motion pictures excel. But too often in the attempt to provide solid scares, ghost story movies fall prey to an over-reliance on rote genre devices like: loud noises, jump cuts, the scope of the ghost's powers, the grotesqueness of their appearance, the malevolence of their actions, etc. All standard suspense/horror devices which are fine in and of themselves, but in the supernatural realm tend to turn ghost stories into little more than paranormal stalker thrillers.

Since what has always creeped me out the most about ghost stories is the mere "idea" of ghosts—that the dead retain a presence and consciousness of life—the literal depiction of phantasms onscreen isn't enough to elicit much of a response from me. In fact, when it comes to ghosts in films, my experience has been that the more over-emphatic the visuals, the more muted its power to genuinely scare me.  
Authors and filmmakers tend to agree that the scariest, most vivid horrors take place in the mind. So, when a movie comes along that appears to have its priorities in order (revealing less, calling on viewers to use their imaginations more) and takes the time and effort to really mess with my head (allowing the visual aspects of the narrative to assert themselves in service of, and in deference to, the engagement of the viewer's imagination); then I feel as though I’m in good hands.

When this occurs (as it frequently does in the thrillers of Hitchcock, Polanski, and Clouzot), I’m comfortable suspending my disbelief and surrendering to the full arsenal of cinema’s storytelling vocabulary—music, cinematography, performance, atmosphere, ambiguity, language—because my active participation as a viewer has always been a considered part of the equation.
In other words, in order for it to work, the film needs me to be alert and paying attention. All manner of information is hidden in plain sight on the screen, but the filmmaker who respects the symbiotic partnership of audience/showman knows better than to hand me everything; he/she knows that my enjoyment of said film will be richer if I am trusted and called upon to discover things for myself.

To me, this is the hallmark of any well-made film, but when speaking of horror and suspense, it's absolutely essential. One film which accomplishes all of the above spectacularly, while also embodying the cinematic principle I call "the eloquence of ambiguity," is Jack Clayton's masterpiece The Innocents.
Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
Martin Stephens as Miles
Pamela Franklin as Flora
Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose
Michael Redgrave as The Uncle

William Archibald’s 1950 play The Innocents, adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, serves as the source for Jack Clayton’s decorously brooding 1961 film adaptation. This assured sophomore effort by the Oscar-nominated director of Room at the Top (1959) boasts a screenplay by Truman Capote and playwright/screenwriter John Mortimer (Bunny Lake is Missing), who contributed scenes and a touch of Victorian verisimilitude to the dialogue.

And the Victorian setting, with its demand for propriety and the appearance of order at all costs, is every bit a character in this ghost story as is the pervading presence of the tale's no-longer-living lovers. It’s a ghost story best whispered and a dark poem of life lingering, one befitting the somber corners and shadowy hallways of a gothic mansion.
The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens; a naïvely pious governess dispatched to a remote country estate which she comes to fear is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor (Miss Jessel) and a valet of bestial repute named Peter Quint. Both of whom died under mysterious circumstances on the estate not long before, yet still wish to make their presences felt. Compounding her dread is the mounting certainty that the nature and intent of the haunting is the moral corruption of the two children left in her charge: angelic, guilelessly morbid Flora (Franklin), and charming, disturbingly mature Miles (Stephens).
The film’s slowly intensifying disquietude—the narrative turn of the screw—arises out of both uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty as to whether the children truly are the innocents they appear to be, or are, in fact, wily co-conspirators in league with the phantoms. Ambiguity relating to the possibility that the spectral terrors befalling Bly House are not real at all, but figments of Miss Giddens’ imagination; the fevered manifestations of her repressed emotions.

More than just a faithful adaptation of a literary classic, The Innocents is a visually stunning elucidation of the novella's themes. Taking great pains to distance itself from the full-color, purple gothic of the then-popular Hammer series of horror films, this British production has pedigree and craftsmanship oozing like ectoplasm from every frame.
Filmed in glorious black and white that grows increasingly starker as the film progresses,
the cinematographer is two-time Oscar winner Freddie Francis (who has the dubious distinction of being the director of Trog, Joan Crawford's last film and a horror of a different stripe). Atypically for the genre, The Innocents is shot in widescreen Cinemascope: a 20th Century-Fox prerequisite for its “A” productions at the time.  
From Jack Clayton’s perceptive direction to the affecting performances of its talented cast, everything about The Innocents: location, décor, and especially its use of sound and the innovative integration of electronic synth to its music score – has been done to capture the feel of James’ novel and remain true to its subtle horror.
Clytie Jessop as Miss Jessel
And while The Innocents is a deliberately paced, restrained film, it’s far from passionless. In fact, in its own buttoned-up Victorian way, it's near-hysterical. When one takes the time to process just what Miss Giddens' suspicions allude to, or what's to be inferred by the strange relationship she shares with Miles...well, it's really rather astonishing. Especially when considering the age of the children and the fact that this was made in 1961.
(Even The Nightcomers -1971, an ostensibly progressive prequel to The Turn of the Screw featuring Marlon Brando as Quint and Stephanie Beacham as Miss Jessel, felt it necessary to take the edge off a bit by making Miles and Flora teenagers.)
The Kiss

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Innocents is a film I came upon rather late in the road, seeing it for the first time only a few years ago after several readers—learning of my newfound appreciation of Deborah Kerr—recommended it as both one of Kerr's finest films and the actress' favorite of all her performances.
I have a vague recollection of seeing part of The Innocents when I was a kid; a memory wedded in my mind with seeing  The Haunting on TV (a film I now see owes quite a lot to Jack Clayton) and concluding in both cases that, to my Creature Features-weaned mind, the movies weren't scary enough to hold my interest because “nothing happens.”
Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint
Now, to my mature, weary of the Rob Zombie/Eli Roth School of horror-for-the slow-witted eyes, I realize nothing could be further from the truth. Catching The Innocents on TCM, I was absolutely thunderstruck by what an exquisite exercise in terror of the mind it is. I was especially impressed by how true to the nature of Henry James’ novella the film remains, maintaining the particulars of the ghost story and tone of Victorian repression, all the while interposing layer upon layer of menace, deviancy, and psychological dread in ways wholly cinematic and dramatically evocative.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more beautifully shot horror film (the edges of the frames are blurred, giving the impression of things hidden and lurking in corners), nor one with a screenplay so richly detailed in character and a sense of time and place. The real trick up The Innocents’ sleeve is its narrative ambiguity. It’s extremely skilled in establishing Bly House as a place of strange goings on, of encroaching decadence and decay, but just as deftly it hints that the principled, impressionable Miss Giddens might be something less than a reliable narrator.
Are the others unable to see, unwilling to see, or is there just simply nothing there to be seen?

The puzzle of the story is provocative and the whole film is shrouded in a disturbing sense of discordant interactions, but what cemented The Innocents as an enduring favorite (and made watching the film a genuinely frightening experience I was more than happy to repeat) is how its ambiguous structure played with my imagination just as deftly as the shadows and barely heard whispers in Bly House played with that of Miss Giddens. 

PERFORMANCES
I’ve recounted before on these pages my youthful antipathy toward the work of Deborah Kerr. A gross discrediting of this immensely talented actress born of my first having become aware of her work through those late career head-scratchers which hardly did her justice (Prudence and the Pill, Casino Royale, Marriage on the Rocks). Bonjour Tristesse is the film that turned me around, followed by the glorious Black Narcissus, and now The Innocents—unequivocally my favorite Deborah Kerr performance. It's in fact one of the most extraordinary screen performances I've had the good fortune to come across. 
Given how often I’ve watched The Innocents merely to see the play of emotions cross Deborah Kerr’s face—some of the most complex appearing in almost imperceptibly brief flashes of brilliance—I too am convinced this film is Kerr’s finest hour. With the entire film hinging upon the arc of Miss Giddens’ character: from empathetic voice of reason to irrational, possibly unstable fantasist; Kerr moors this ghost story in a gripping emotional realism.
With no dialogue specifically addressing the source of her character’s many “issues” (the fervency of her devotion to children, the cause of her troubled dreams, the austerity of her existence, her sexual repression/preoccupation) she makes The Innocents as much a film about the dangers of repressed desire cloaked in moral rectitude as it is about the corruption of innocence.

Deborah Kerr makes the movie for me, but the two child actors portraying Miles and Flora are beyond outstanding. Both Pamela Franklin (the wondrous actress from Our Mothers House and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie making her film debut) and near-veteran Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned) credit their performances with the patience bestowed by Jack Clayton, but I think that’s only partially the case. These kids bring an incredible amount of creepy plausibility to their roles.
Kids in horror movies are meant to ratchet up the jeopardy-factor, but too often the reality is, in the casting, that they tend to be a pretty vacuous addition; vortices of irritation, sucking the energy out of perfectly good horror films. For the radiance of every Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed there are countless half-pint deadweights like the twin blank slates cast in The Other (1972); that annoying brat in Burnt Offerings (1976); the dyspeptic son-of-a-devil in the 2001 remake of The Omen; and worst-offender prize-winner, the noxious child in the TV movie version of The Shining, who had viewers praying for his REDRUM.
Compare the knowing and disturbing performances of Flora and Miles in The Innocents (Stephens managing to be also heartbreakingly touching) with their elongated, vacant-eyed counterparts in The Nightcomers and you really get a true sense of the enormous contribution Franklin Stephens' and Pamela Franklin's canny knowingness makes to the overall chilly effectiveness of The Innocents.
Purity Devoured by Evil

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
A testament to the richness of The Innocents’ ambitiously ambiguous structure is that its themes of innocence defiled and wholesomeness decayed extend to the enigmatic efficiency of its title.
Who are "the innocents"?
Taken literally, it refers most obviously to Miles & Flora, children whose innocence Miss Giddens fear has been robbed of them due to their exposure to the “indecencies” of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship. And, taking this tack, most certainly the sheltered Miss Giddens also qualifies as an innocent; not only due to her novice status as a governess, but born of her naiveté and misguided moral indomitability in the face of an evil she can scarcely comprehend. Even Miss Grose, with her determined refusal to entertain even the dimmest thought of anything untoward, represents innocence preserved through obliviousness.
Purity Decayed
A bug crawls out of the mouth of a garden cherub

I personally gravitate to the above interpretation of the film’s title, but equally persuasive is the theory that The Innocents is meant paradoxically, like Edith Wharton’s ironic titles for her novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. In which case The Innocents alludes to the Christian concept of original sin and how all acquired knowledge—carnal or otherwise—is innocence lost. In the context of the film, this posits the notion that none of the characters are really innocent in nature, and none are as unwitting as they seem.

The self-interested uncle feigns no innocence, although his lack of full disclosure to Miss Giddens as to what truly transpired between Quint and Miss Jessel in his country home can be interpreted as the pretense of innocence in order not to lose her as a potential governess.
Miss Giddens’ innocence is called into question when one considers how her reaction to the uncle (obvious infatuation) is mirrored in her response to first meeting Miles. It has been suggested that her fervent devotion to children and lack of interests outside of their welfare, masks a repressed, embattled sexuality. Like many an overzealous “family values” politician, Miss Giddens is a mass of closeted desires and is unwholesomely obsessed with obscenity.
Mrs. Grose, the only adult in a position to be fully aware of what risk to the children Quint and Miss Jessel posed, nevertheless prefers to shun imagination, close her eyes in the dark, and meet everything she doesn’t understand with a dismissive, “Stuff and nonsense.” A willful ignorance, and means of shrouding herself in false, "blameless" innocence.
The question posed by the superficially benign behavior of the children is the one Miss Giddens asks herself: are they truly oblivious to the hauntings and all they have been exposed to, or do they merely pretend? Although we hate to admit it, children have a natural sexual curiosity devoid of an awareness of morality. When we insist on imposing moral imperatives, telling them such thoughts are wicked and wrong, it's not difficult to view such well-meaning "protective" behavior - introducing children to the concept of evil - as a corruption of their natural innocence.
Sharing Secrets

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Owing to my having more practical, real-life experience with familial dysfunction than either ghosts or haunted houses, I like horror films which make a case for supernatural disturbances arising from emotional and psychological crisis. When I think of my favorite horror movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Stepford Wives, The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Haunting) they all start with characters whose relationships and/or emotional states are already shown to be under some considerable stress.

Early on in The Innocents it’s hinted that the very qualities characterizing Giddens as a suitable governess—single (and perhaps given to flights of romantic fantasy, “You do look pleased!” remarks Flora, noticing Miss Giddens’ reaction to receiving a letter from the handsome uncle), sensitive, morally devout, a strong love of children—are the aspects of her personality which will later prove to be where she is most vulnerable.
The positive, sensual overstimulation she feels with her arrival at the manor (whose every corner of tranquil beauty also reveals an air of decay) turns feverish and detrimental only in proportion to what she learns about the children’s past and their relationship with Quint and Miss Jessel. As The Innocents reveals itself to be a ghost story, it also exposes its roots in Victorian repression; for one gets the distinct impression that for Miss Giddens, the materialization of the ghosts themselves is a horror, but one secondary to the real “evil” they represent: sex. 
It’s precisely this‒the subtle overlay of human sexual neurosis upon the supernatural‒ that makes The Innocents such a compelling and uniquely creepy viewing experience. A film so intelligent and artful in execution that it can end on a note that leaves the audience with more questions than answers, yet at the same time feel wholly and utterly satisfying. Brilliant movie.




BONUS MATERIAL
Insights: The Making of "The Innocents" (2006)  Click HERE to watch the 30 min. documentary
Director jack Clayton and Pamela Franklin behind the scenes during the filming of The Innocents

This speculative take on the events preceding The Innocents is vastly inferior and over-literal, but as a curiosity (Marlon Brando's accent!) worth a look. Available on YouTube (for now).

"More than anything I love children. More than anything."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, July 13, 2017

AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL 1972


She asked me why. I'm just a hairy guy.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court -1949
An American in Paris 1951
An American Werewolf in London 1981

To this contradistinctive cinema canon of culture clash colonists, quixotic visitors to strange lands, and vagabonds on physical/spiritual journeys of self-discovery—I add a new title: An American Hippie In Israel. The timeless story of one man’s dirty-toenailed quest to find a pot-hazed Shangri-La where one can live “Without clothes, without government, and without borders!” A lost film, rediscovered. A vision of a simpler, sweatier world long past. A top contender for worst film ever made. So, of course, I love it.

Take the naïve idealism of San Francisco's Summer of Love (albeit, four years after the fact), cross it with the inept earnestness of Ed Wood, Jr. (after one too many screenings of Easy Rider - 1969 and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point -1970), shore it up with the technical polish and solid performances of Manos:The Hands of Fate (1966), and you have a pretty good idea of the myriad pleasures awaiting those who choose to throw a good 95-minutes to the wind to go “thumb tripping” with An American Hippie In Israel.
Asher Tzarfati as Hippie Mike
Lily Avidan as Elizabeth 
Shmuel Wolf as Komo
Tzila Karney as Francoise
An American Hippie In Israel is a has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed, late-to-the-party artifact of the ‘60s counterculture movie revolution sparked by The Trip (1967); actualized in Alice's Restaurant (1969); documented in Woodstock (1970); Hollywoodized in Butterflies Are Free (1972), and musicalized in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).
Movies devoted to “The Gentle People” (hippies, flower children, peaceniks, the Love Generation) showing us both the light and the error of our ways through symbolism-heavy anti-war allegories. Utilizing avant-garde techniques borrowed from experimental films; these movies celebrated the counterculture philosophy and proffered bohemian alternatives to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, imperialism, and knuckling down to "The Establishment."
An American Hippie in Israel opens with the image of an unmanned steamroller crushing a field of wildflowers while news footage of the Vietnam War is intercut over the sounds of bombs and machine gun fire. This student film level of subtle metaphor is likely one of the reasons why the film was never able to find a U.S. distributor.

Mike (Tzarfati) is a disillusioned Vietnam vet hailing from New York who travels the world in search of a better way of life. A bearded Dorothy Gale, if you will, on a quest to find his personal somewhere over the groovy rainbow: “I’m looking for a place far away from everything. A place where I can live with a bunch of people who think like me. Without anyone telling us what to do.” Of course, what Hippie Mike's actually describing here is a cult—a fact not at all helped by his resemblance to Charles Manson—but I've always found it curious that so many of the Flower Power Generation believed the road to individual freedom required a tour guide and a map.
And now, a Public Service Announcement from Hippie Mike

After bumming around Europe for a few years, Mike arrives in Israel looking for all the world like a lycanthropian Janis Joplin: barefoot and resplendent in floppy hat, dirty bellbottomed jeans, love beads, and sheepskin vest. But we soon learn that, as movie hippies go, Mike is one of the good ones. No anti-hero or rebel without a cause, he. For although he has a considerable ax to grind when it comes to society as a whole—“World, you’re so full of shit. You’re so badly contaminated, it’s impossible to find a corner free of smell!” —he’s a hippie conspicuously lacking in political convictions (not a peace sign flashed or "Power to the People" fist pump throughout the entire film); he's just a guy who wants to do his own thing, man.
Sure, he's a bit of a windbag when it comes to spouting off about his philosophy of life, but his credo is basically live-and-let-live, and he's quite the affable, easygoing sort. It's nice to know that even though the Vietnam War turned our hippie hero into a self-professed “killing machine, it doesn’t prevent him from thanking the flight crew with a smile as he disembarks his plane, or helping a lady with her luggage at the airport. He’s just that kind of a hairy hippie guy.

As Mike hitchhikes to Tel Aviv (the film allowing just enough drivers to pass our hero by to hammer home its man’s-inhumanity-to-man themes) he ultimately gets a ride from a comely redhead in a ginormous convertible who invites her scruffy pick-up back to her parents’ home—“They’re abroad at present” —for coffee and a quick bout of hippie hanky panky. But not before narrowly missing getting into an accident with a black Ford Fairlane driven by two gray-faced men in black suits and top hats. 
Described in various sources as everything from murderous mimes to "the painted men";
to me these guys look more like zombie gangsters. Or, given their top hats,
the ghosts of aging Las Vegas chorus boys past

Just who these gentlemen are and what they want is a mystery, but Hippie Mike recognizes the pair immediately. Accusing them of harassing him and chasing him all over the world, he calls them “Shithead” and “Scum of the earth before threatening the silently glaring pair with physical harm —“Next time I see you, I’ll bust your ugly faces wide open!”

Were they a hallucination? An acid  flashback? A costume shop metaphor for The Man always hasslin' the hippies?  Hmmm...

Oddly enough, neither Mike’s violent outburst nor the overall bad drug trip weirdness of her run-in with Messrs. Shithead and Scum of the Earth seems to concern Elizabeth very much. Her "play the hand you're dealt" attitude perhaps explaining why, after one brief afternoon of flower-child proselytizing and naked frolic, she's ready to abandon her comfortable life ("I'm an actress!") and join Hippie Mike on his quest for an elusive Utopian paradise.
Mike mansplains freedom to Elizabeth while putting his dirty feet on her sofa

What follows next is a kind of Hippie’s Guide to Tel Aviv as Mike and Elizabeth gambol about the city in a montage of self-consciously free-spirited breeziness that for a time was a staple of every self-respecting counterculture film. In due time the duo’s spiritual carefree footin’ draws the attention of two more like-minded souls: the lanky, non-English-speaking Komo (Wolfe), whose indignantly retreating hairline makes him seem a little “mature” for all this, and his bi-lingual girlfriend Francoise (Karney).
As our duo becomes a linked quartet, one is made instantly aware that certain conventions persist even amongst the most vehemently unconventional. The women are both young, slim, and in no way challenge the traditional Eurocentric beauty standard. The men, on the other hand...to put it charitably, don't exactly pose a threat to Joe Dallesandro's status as underground film's reigning male sex symbol.
As an interminable folk song wails on the soundtrack (courtesy of Fran Liberman-Avni and Suzan Devor, who also appear in the film) Mike continues to pick up followers like bellybutton lint, becoming the Pied Piper of the granny-gown/headband set. Undeterred by being wholly unfamiliar with the city, he leads a caravan of Tel Aviv’s hippiest hippies to a seaside warehouse (a communal crash pad outfitted with posters, pillows and “found object” art) for a far-out afternoon Be-In.
The Age of Aquarius took a little while to reach Israel
For the unversed in hippie communal celebrations, this simply means they lie around, listen to folk music, drink, smoke pot, screw, and "Laugh-In dance" (aka: indiscriminate wiggling, arms in the air, eyes rolled back in their sockets). Freedom! Freedom!
After thanking everyone—“Beautiful, You’re just beautiful people”—Mike gives yet another long-winded speech about freedom before it’s suggested they all join forces and establish an alternative civilization on an isolated island approximately 12 miles out of town. Hippie Mike has at last found what he’s been searching for. At the point where it looks like we might have to endure another folk song and more "dancing," the sudden reappearance of the zombie chorus boys (brandishing machine guns, yet) comes as something of a welcome intrusion.

You’ll have plenty of time to ruminate on the symbolic significance of the subsequent machine gun massacre of these harmless, peace-loving hippies (remember that steamroller...), because once the commune’s only survivors—our original quartet—embark on their road trip to their island paradise, nearly 15-minute minutes transpire during which absolutely nothing else happens. (Well, they do fuck some more, but maybe that's just out of grief.)
After an appropriate period of mourning (3 minutes), our four sun-baked Don Quixotes
decide to forge ahead with their plans and establish a free, topless society of their own 

If the first act of An American Hippie In Israel was to establish Hippie Mike’s freedom-seeking objectives; its second act, a “road movie” that takes the term WAY too literally (Mike & Co. buy supplies and visit an outdoor bazaar where they purchase a 4-legged cousin of Mike's vest); then act three, when our foursome finally achieve their goal and set up their own civilization, is when reality confronts idealism.
And it does so with alarming dispatch.
Declaration of Independence
With their color-coded swimwear making them look like contestants on the oldest Survivor episode ever, our emancipated quartet revel in their newfound (short-lived) freedom. 

I won’t divulge how the film's final act plays out, but given the amount of time devoted to the redundant and undramatic road trip, what ultimately transpires feels incredibly rushed. In a turn of events likely meant to provide an ironic or twist ending, the idealistic message of the film's early scenes (suggesting life holds an alternative to the oppressiveness and violence of civilized society), takes an abrupt, totally out of left field detour into not-exactly-profound nihilism (man is an irrepressibly violent animal).
Perhaps it's a commentary on the death of idealism or a bellwether metaphor for the demise of the whole hippie revolution; but the events play out with such speed and lack of nuance, they have the effect of contradicting all that came before.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
What's not to love? I mean, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.
The world is full of brilliant comics, satirists, and parodists; but try as they might, no one as yet has ever been able to intentionally capture the special magic that is the truly awful film that fails to recognize itself as such. I've an enduring affection for ambitious, ill-conceived, overly-sincere movies which attempt to balance a surplus of  pretentiousness with a shortage of money and an absence of talent. In most cases these films are merely bad, but every once in a while, celluloid dross reveals itself to be pure gold.
Hippie Mike's Silver Hammer
What's a '60s movie without hallucinatory imagery? Mike has a dream in which he wields a large silver hammer against two figures with reel-to-reel-tape players for heads. Between them is a globe painted like a chessboard upon which are pawn figures resembling soldiers. Trippy? Yes. Ludicrous? You bet!

An American Hippie in Israel is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed, some might find watching it without benefit of an audience or sans the sarcastic input of those Mystery Science Theater 3000 robots (a treatment this film cries out for) an impossible task. But being both a child of the '60s and a fan of so-bad-it's-good cinema, this movie had me laughing from beginning to end. Even when I wasn't quite sure what it was I was watching.
There's no quicker route to absurdity than solemnity; and never is absurdity as entertaining as when a film tries to be profound and deep while reducing a cultural phenomenon to its most superficial components. Everyone involved in An American Hippie in Israel is clearly taking it all very seriously, but just as clearly one is left with the impression that no one really knows what the hell they're doing.  Or saying!
Someone should tell Francoise the world doesn't like to be scolded


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
An American Hippie In Israel is a no-budget, muddled, sun-baked (and altogether half-baked) make-love-not-war hippie allegory that is the triple-threat brainchild and feature film debut/swansong of independent filmmaker Amos Sefer—sometime actor, lifeguard, electrician—who managed to write, direct, and produce without actually being good at any of them.
Shot in (mostly dubbed) English and released briefly and inauspiciously in Israel in 1972 under its original title Ha-Trempist (The Hitchhiker), Sefer's film, despite ample doses of market-friendly nudity and violence, disappeared into obscurity after failing to land a U.S. distributor. (You know a movie is bad when even the cheapo exploitation houses like Screen Gems and American International won't buy it.)
The Stepford Hippies
With the help of YouTube and a host of bad film enthusiastsThe Hitchhiker was resurrected, renamed, and a cult film was born. An American Hippie in Israel had its Los Angeles premiere in 2010, but my first opportunity to see it came when it aired on TCM sometime in  2014. I'd been looking forward to seeing this oddity since journalist Joe Meyers wrote about it in his column, and it didn't disappoint. The film is currently out on DVD/Blu-Ray, and has become a cult sensation on the Midnight Movie circuit in Israel.
An American Hippie in Israel has become a new classic for me. I've seen it at least five or six times now and I keep finding new things to gasp at and enjoy. The film is mercilessly padded-out for length; the actors to a one are all endearingly awful (Hippie Mike's voice is dubbed by Israeli-American actor Mike Burstyn); the production itself has that delightfully cheesy look of those early Andy Warhol films; and from a strictly nostalgic viewpoint, who of my generation can find fault with so much dated, Flower Power grooviness emanating from screen? 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
To the untrained ear much of An American Hippie in Israel’s dialogue sounds like a drug-fueled hummus of non-sequiturs with a side of adjective/adverb salad. If it sounds tin-eared and a little forced, it's because what you're listening to is not really  normal conversation, but a 30-something screenwriter’s take on the colorful, comical, counterculture dialect of the North American hippie. To better enjoy your brief visit to Amos Sefer’s vision of Israeli hippiedom, here’s a brief glossary of terms used in the film.

Bad Scene: An American Hippie in Israel is nothing if not a motion picture comprised of nothing but bad scenes, but as expressed by our hippie hero Mike, a “bad scene” means to be faced with an unpleasant or unlucky occurrence. A negative twist of fate.
Beautiful: A term of approval and approbation applied to persons, places, or things. Sometimes simply a declaration of an emotional state (See: Wonderful Feeling).
Cool It: Stop making a hassle, slow your roll, mellow the fuck out.
Dig: To understand, comprehend, or empathize. Often posed as a rhetorical question preceding endless reams of hippie mansplaining.
Do Your Own Thing: To live life as one chooses. To be yourself, not follow. No button pushing.
Don’t Sweat It: Don’t worry, overthink, or trouble your mind. Don’t get excited. The more dismissive cousin of “cool it.”
Far Out!: An interjection of surprise or excitement. Also an all-purpose term of confirmation and acknowledgement (suitable for banal questions like “Would you like some coffee?”) and expressing disbelief (for example: having one’s mind blown).
Flake Out: To bow out. To not contribute. Not to be relied upon. As used by Hippie Mike, to take a snooze.
Man: A multi-purpose word. When peppered throughout conversation, it is the hippie equivalent of “like” and “y’know.” Can be used as an expression of joy, surprise, or exasperation. Most often means friend, pal, individual. Most dreaded, when preceded by a capital “The” denoting The Establishment.
Outtasite: Wonderful, terrific, fantastic. Sixties antecedent to mid-‘70s “Dyn-o-mite!”
Pad: Home, domicile, living quarters. Wherever one lays one's sheepskin vest.
Right On!: An emphatic yes. An affirmation, as in certainly; of course; most definitely; and, you said it, brother. Also, an enthusiastic exclamation of excitement meaning wonderful or great.
Turned On: Varied meanings, but most often referring to being high on drugs, or sexually excited. As Hippie Mike uses it in the film, it’s a term meaning being very much in the moment, keyed up and attuned to sensations. Feeling very much alive, alert, and happy. 


BONUS MATERIAL
Director Amos Sefer died in 2007 before he could see his only feature film become a cult success. But, happily, Asher Tzarfati (Hippie Mike) 73-years-old, and Shmuel Wolf (Komo) 83-years-old, are still with us. They appear on the special edition Blu-Ray, and both get a kick out of their late-in-coming notoriety and display a healthy sense of humor about participating in a movie they thought was long forgotten.
Links:
The movie trailer that started it all.
TV Interview with Shmuel Wolf and Yaniv Edelstein (the man who spearheaded the film's resuscitation). English closed-captioned.
What are we waiting for? Let's get on down there where we can live and be free! Free! Free!
Copyright © Ken Anderson