This week on TCM Underground: AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (1972)

American Hitch-Hiker

A disillusioned Vietnam veteran escapes the madness of modern living and attempts to establish a Utopian commune on a desert island.

AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (1972)

aka HA-TREMPIST, THE HITCHHIKER, THE HITCHHIKER: A HIPPIE’S GUIDE TO ISRAEL

ast: Asher Tzarfati (Mike), Shmuel Wolf (Como), Lily Avidan (Elizabeth), Tzila Karney (Francoise), Susan Devor Cogan, Fran Avni (Hippie Singers). Director Amos Sefer. Producer: Amos Sefer, Amatsia Hiuni. Cinematography Ya’ackov Kallach. Music: Nachum Haiman.

Color. 95 minutes

Showtime: Saturday, December 27th, 11:00pm PST/2:00am EST 

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Some films are lost because no one can find them, others because no one is looking. The latter is the case for one of the more bizarre saves in the history of cult cinema, Amos Sefer’s HA-TREMPIST (1972), whose title has been translated into English as THE HITCHHIKER, THE HITCHHIKER: A HIPPIE’S GUIDE TO ISRAEL, and AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL. Never given a proper theatrical release, the movie was vaulted almost as soon as it came back from the lab. Writer-director Sefer died in 2007, never having seen his one and only feature being given the attention he certainly thought it deserved; that attention came at long last in 2007, through the combined efforts of Academy Award-winning film editor Bob Murawski and Yaniv Eidelstein, a Tel Aviv-based movie translator. Having been intrigued by the film’s title for decades, Murawski tracked down footage and assembled his own trailer, which he uploaded to YouTube. On the receiving end in Israel, Eidelstein found the footage to be as compelling as it was cringe-worthy and took it upon himself to track down the film’s surviving principals (among them, leads Asher Tzarfati and Shmuel Wolf and composer Nachum Heiman, among others). Getting his hands on a complete print of the film, Eidelstein arranged revival screenings that turned into a monthly affair, a bona fide thing. What could have been — and for some tastes, should have been — a bizarro one-off began attracting a legion of the curious and scores of repeat viewers who took to the experience as if it were another ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) or PINK FLAMINGOS (1972). In America, Murawski’s Grindhouse Releasing pressed AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL to DVD and Blu-ray and now the film makes its debut on Turner Classic Movies Underground, marking the bell lap of what can only be described as the ultimate long, strange trip.

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Amos Sefer was an electrician who studied film in London and had high hopes of helping to jumpstart Israel’s sluggish film industry. With a budget cadged from various investors (one of them, the Israeli heir to a New Jersey pillow factory), Sefer shot his dream project in English, with the hope of attracting American play dates in the aftermath of such counter culture landmarks as THE TRIP (1967), HEAD (1958), EASY RIDER (1969), and WOODSTOCK (1970) and such high profile head trips as Jean-Luc Godard’s WEEKEND (1967), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO (1970), and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) — among many other possible influences that also might not have had any influence on this at allThough Sefer was a relative newcomer to the Israeli film scene, he staffed his project with several crew members fresh from the desert adventure film HA-PRITZA HAGDOLA (released in the US in 1974 as ATTACK AT DAWN), which was directed by Menahem Golan, a veteran of the War for Israeli Independence, and a theatrical and film director who had learned his craft at London’s Old Vic and New York University; Golan is best know, of course, for having bought with his cousin Yoram Globus The Cannon Film Group in 1979 and for unleashing upon the world such singular cinematic attractions as THE APPLE (1980), BREAKIN’ and BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (released in May and December of 1984, respectively), the Tobe Hooper triptych of  LIFEFORCE (1985), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986), and INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), as well as various vehicles for aging action heroes Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and a, shall we say, maturing Sylvester Stallone. Why Golan didn’t have his imprimatur on this particular production is one of the many beguiling mysteries that knit up the tapestry that is, as we now know it, AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, especially given that Golan-Globus were sufficiently inspired by that other disgruntled-Vietnam-vet-seeks-inner-peace movie RAMBO (1985, first sequel to FIRST BLOOD from 1982) while it was still in development to fashion a little bit of  competition in the form of MISSING IN ACTION (1984), which beat RAMBO to the cinemaplex by six months.

But I digress.

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Of all the complaints that might be lodged against AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, “same old/same old” would not be one of them. The movie is off the hook, off the charts, and entirely its own animal, however it may have drawn inspiration from such diverse texts as Walden and The Lord of the Flies. When Mike and his fellow First World apostates prepare to strike out for some small patch of land “without clothes, without governments and without borders” only to have their number cut down by machine gun-toting funeral directors (well, that’s what they look like) and try to make a run for sanctuary only to find themselves stranded on a desolate island surrounded by sharks, I was put in the mind of Peter Watkin’s PUNISHMENT PARK (1971), which had opened early in 1971, a few months before AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (or, rather, THE HITCHHIKER) went into production. Sitting back and wondering just where this all came from is only one of the joys of watching this movie, though others have made great fun by shouting its own dialogue back at it (“Wonderful feeling!” is the phrase that pays, you’ll see), dancing along to the hippie songs, or even pantomiming being mowed down by submachinegun mimefire. I get the MST3K response but I came of age before that service, so I tend to watch these movies, warts and all, free of the compulsion to mock as I view. You may well find this film unwatchable — certainly, that was the consensus back in 1972 when the decision was made to shelf the whole affair — but there’s a lot here for me to love, from the quasi-Nouvelle Vague theatricality of the performances to the grindingly slow traveling footage that charts the protagonists’ journey from the city (Tel Aviv, never so named but unmistakable) to the port of Eilat on the Red Sea and on to Pharaoh’s Island (then controlled by Israel, now controlled by Egypt), and all the wacky intervals inbetween and beyond.

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I also love the star performance by Asher Tzarfati, another ATTACK AT DAWN alum. (Though he spoke English, Tzarfati’s performance was dubbed by Mike Burstyn, whom we have to thank for the immortal rendering of the line “Shut your ASS!”) Tzarfati has an absolutely mad look (Borgnine teeth!) that could have taken the film in any number of directions, with Mike the Hippie turning out to be a Messianic Manson/Jim Jones-type character or an international terrorist. (Shots of the four protagonists clowning around in a movie car reminded me of similar footage from Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which played the hippie card in an entirely different way that same y ear.) Tzarfati could have easily gone on to a solid career in spaghetti westerns or Euro-crime films, stealing roles from Ray Lovelock or Raimund Harmstorf had he traveled, but he seems to have stayed in Israel and indeed went on to appear in small roles in such films as MIVTSA YONATAN (aka OPERATION THUNDERBOLT), Menahem Golan’s retelling of the 1976 Entebbe incident that introduced the world to Uganda despot Idi Amin, the Israel-set horror film HELLBOUND (1994), starring Chuck Norris, and Tsui Hark’s Jean Claude Van-Damme actioner DOUBLE TEAM (1997).

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If you haven’t been chased in the opposite direction by this point, tune in and turn on come Saturday night at 11pm (Pacific Time; 2am Eastern Time) to catch AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, which is still fairly difficult to see if you are not willing to pop for the Grindhouse 3-disc collector’s edition. (Available for $34.95 at the TCM store.) It’s not available on Netflix or YouTube (apart from select scenes) and though the Internet offers various and sundry torrents for you to download, I’m pretty sure they will infect your computer with malware, change your default browser to Bing, and give those machine gun ghost guys your home address. And you don’t want that.

Big Cube

Batting cleanup in the “overnight” slot on Saturday-int0-Sunday is the Lana Turner acid movie THE BIG CUBE (1969). Did you even know there’s a Lana Turner acid movie? Well, there is.

3 Responses This week on TCM Underground: AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (1972)
Posted By Pattie Winton : December 26, 2014 9:20 pm

JUst a comment about some once popular B Hippie movies: I find it very odd that with Tom Laughlin’s death, TCM did not schedule even the tiniest tribute to him, or show “Billy Jack” and “The Trial of Billy Jack”. Well, I guess TCM did give him the tiniest tribute by showing him in the end of last year’s lost-this-year montage. But as someone who was an admiring teenage-hippie in the 70′s, who saw “Billy Jack” about 10 times, and even bought a “Billy Jack for President” button, this has been very disappointing. And, it must have been a real slap in the face to his surviving wife and daughter, who were also in those movies. It would have been nice if his movies, I think all of 4, were aired on a Saturday or Sunday, because I would have really enjoyed seeing them again, especially with my 18 yr old son, whom I know would get a “KICK” out of “Billy Jack”!!!

Posted By Susan Doll : December 27, 2014 11:45 pm

Holy Cats! How completely bizarre. I will definitely try to catch this one. At first glance at the poster, I thought Asher Tzarfati was Richard Chamberlain, which would have been interesting, too.

Posted By swac44 : January 2, 2015 1:23 pm

So glad to finally be able to catch this one! Thought about buying the DVD, but worried it would be one of those watch once and forget kind of purchases. OK, I probably would only watch it once, but guaranteed I would never forget it. And my girlfriend, who spent a year on a kibbutz in her teens, enjoyed revisiting the Israeli landscape.

The whole time I was watching I kept thinking Asher Tzarfati was a dead ringer for Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire) and his creepy looking balding buddy looked like Dario Argento.

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