An American Hippie in Israel (1972)

An American Hippie in Israel (1972) movie poster

director Amos Sefer
viewed: 05/21/2015

My ongoing journey through cinema has many roads, pathways, asides, spur of the moment outings, trajectories and landing spaces.  One particular trajectory that I’ve been following for about a year now has been a sojourn through the worst movies ever made.  I’ve used two primary lists as the guideposts, the original 1978 book The 50 Worst Films Ever Made by Michael and Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss, which was one of the first attempts at such a listing (though it’s amazingly inconsistent.)  But also, a more active and contemporary list, Wikipedia’s List of films considered to be the worst, which is a bit better, though there is such a heavy focus on films of the last 20 years that it does lack some perspective.

An American Hippie in Israel, had Medved and co. known of it in 1978 might well have been up for consideration, but it seems that this film languished in some obscurity until the internet came along and offered places for such cinematic turds to shine.

If it wasn’t for TCM Underground offering this one up, I’m not sure that I would have gotten around to trying to land it.  Considered the worst Israeli film ever made, it’s a wayward semi-political parable about hippie culture, imported from the States, though carrying with it an ideology that many of the flower children and others of that generation related with considerably.  Peace, love, sex, and drugs, man.  Vietnam is a bummer, War is a bummer, government is a bummer.  It’s freedom, man, freedom, that’s what we need.

Oddly the barefoot American traveler of the title hooks up with a rich gal and they screw and get real with one another, trek around and find other people who share their hippie vision.  Only the hippie, Mike (Asher Tzarfati) is hunted by two pale, gun-toting weirdos in oddly non-sequitur murder attempts that are apparently metaphorical as well as making no sense.

But in the film’s ultimate moments of truth, it turns out that all these visions of peace and paradise are a sham.  Once isolated by sharks on a small desolate island, Mike and hist girl and another couple devolve into warfare and chaos.

The beginning of the film is weird and slow but it builds up in the last third to some moments of utter hilarity.  I laughed out loud at the bizarre conversation between Mike and Komo (Komo, who doesn’t speak English, Mike who doesn’t speak Hebrew).  It’s very funny.  The sharks are also pretty hilarious.

It struck me as funny, too, that at a time when so many more successful counter-culture films were made (late 1960’s – early 1970’s), how tone-deaf and misguided this comic caper really is.

Definitely enjoyably bad.

Big Bad Wolves (2013)

Big Bad Wolves (2013) movie poster

directors Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
viewed: 05/05/2014

This Israeli black comedy/thriller/torture porn follows a cop on the trail of a serial child rapist and murderer.  The cop employs some too heavy-handed tactics during interrogation and gets booted from the squad, but he stays in pursuit of his prey, this mild-mannered school teacher, who he suspects to the nth degree.  Only in steps the father of one of the murdered girls, who has upped the ante on torture tactics to extract a confession and the disclosure of where the young girls’ heads are.

Cheery stuff, eh?

The drama turns on whether the captive is really the killer.  The comedy turns on many various elements, like when the father’s brutal torture of the killer is interrupted by a visit from his own father, a mild elder who initially thinks his son is losing his mind before joining in on the festivities himself.

The film is well-shot and moves along pretty good.  But several things wound up annoying me.  Possibly petty things, like the way the actors responded to their rather painful wounds.

Overall, the thing that was the most disturbing about the film was the acceptance of all this misbehavior.  When the cop is chastised, it’s only temporary, even when a clip of his interrogation goes on YouTube.  It’s slap on the wrist material.  When he’s hounding the suspect, we’re never shown any evidence and the guy is totally, totally wronged.  And that the father and the grandfather take this whole brutality in stride suggests a world where morality is truly a relative thing.

Frankly, I thought the movie was okay.  Not great.  I don’t recommend it though I didn’t despise it either.

The Gatekeepers (2012)

The Gatekeepers (2013) movie poster

director Dror Moreh
viewed: 08/18/2013

The Gatekeepers is a very compelling documentary that features and focusses on interviews with six former directors of  Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence and security force.  Director Dror Moreh was influenced by seeing Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) in which former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara candidly spoke about his experiences in the White House during such critical times as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.  In Morris’s film, McNamara is the lone interviewee, and reflects on times many decades past with genuine doubts, criticism and insights.

The six former heads of Shin Bet in The Gatekeepers range in age and distance from their time in leadership. Avraham Shalom was head from 1980-1986, the eldest and furthest removed from his time in charge. Yuval Diskin, by contrast, led Shin Bet from 2005–2011.

While some of the insights are fresher and less far removed from the present, a fascinating portrait emerges from men who led anti-terrorism response as terrorism was coming of age.  Their perspectives on the Palestinian State and the problems of government are measured and philosophical.  Some led more ruthless organizations under their watch, such as Shalom, and are confronted with questions about some more brutal events and terrible outcomes.  While McNamara only hedged a small amount in Morris’s film, there is less a full sense of total disclosure here.

The film is no less fascinating however.

Moreh deftly employs computer animation on old photographs, giving a sense of presence and relative omniscience to specific scenes.  Omniscience isn’t really something we achieve, that we can achieve but it nonetheless vivifies the moments.

Certainly, one of the better documentaries I’ve seen in a while.  My knowledge of Israeli history is not strong enough to fully comprehend all the details confronted or elided here.

I was also reminded of Waltz with Bashir (2009) which took a much more existential approach to reclaiming knowledge of the past, exposing that which has been repressed.  The Gatekeepers tells what its subject wish to share.  Still illuminating.


Lebanon (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Samuel Maoz
viewed: 03/14/11

Referred to as “Das Boot (1981) in a tank”, director Samuel Maoz’s film shares a confined location with the German submarine thriller, setting the near entirety of the film inside the tank.  The outside world is only viewed through the gunman’s viewer, in a constant bullseye.  And like Das Boot, there is a war going on outside the claustrophobic setting.  But this is Lebanon, this is 1982, these are Israeli soldiers.

The real parallel for me is not so much Wolfgang Peterson’s much-praised WWII film, but rather another Israeli film about the same war, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008).  But there the commonality is the broader setting and subject matter, the 1982 Lebanon War.  The film itself is, despite its caprice of keeping the whole of the story trapped within the tank’s confines, is a much more straight-forward, if a tense and experiential affair.

The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and has gotten solid reviews.  But frankly, I found it a bit overwrought.  It was a mixture of the acting and the dialog, maybe really the entire thing.  You can just see everybody “acting”.  Maybe that is just to say that I wasn’t really drawn into it for whatever other reasons, but it simply didn’t work for me.

I did like the final image of the tank in the sunflower field, as well, perhaps, as the opening image of the sunflower field with the wind blowing over it, causing you to wonder if people were moving through it, was something approaching?  Or was it just the wind?  This seemed to betoken of good things to come.  But it was pretty ham-fisted in my mind.

The story starts when a new guy gets pulled into the tank.  There is a driver, a gunman, a guy to load the bombs, a leader and a driver.  They don’t have much of an idea of what’s going on, but they are to roll alongside a troop into this town and ferret out the bad guys.  An early incident on the road proves that the gunman is gunshy, and his slow trigger work winds up with killed and maimed soldiers.  Another event winds up with an innocent man being killed.  It’s clear that they are better off following orders than figuring out what it’s all about.

In that sense, it’s not given to a specific history.  And the chaos and badness that they go through is like some living nightmare.

It’s interesting to me that there have been two film in the last couple of years that have come to the fore (who knows there may have been many more) regarding this conflict.  Waltz with Bashir was a bit like psychoanalysis, coming to terms with a repressed history, memories of violence and unjust brutality.  Lebanon, like Waltz with Bashir, is made by a film-maker who experienced the conflict, and while his story is more straight-forward, there is also a sense of coming to terms with some scarring event.  It’s been referred to as an anti-war film, but it is clearly a personal film, too.

Oddly enough, I’ve never seen Das Boot. But I’m willing to guess that it’s a bit stronger of a thriller and a more successful film.  And further, I’d recommend Waltz with Bashir 10 times before recommending Lebanon.  They’re not at all the same film nor could stand in for one another, but one thing that sets them apart is the Waltz with Bashir is very good.


Waltz with Bashir

Walth with Bashir (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Ari Folman
viewed: 01/25/08 at the Clay Theater, SF, CA

Waltz with Bashir is the aptly much praised Israeli film about the memories of the 1982 Lebanese War and the Shabra and Shatila massacres.  The film is considered an animated documentary, as the narrator finds himself triggered into a recovery of repressed memories of great atrocities when talking with another friend, who shares his own nightmares of his time as an Israeli soldier.  The film is profound, intellectual, strikingly animated, and revealing.

While the style of the animation reckons of the technology behind Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), in which animation (in varying styles) is applied via software on top of shot photographic footage, offering a sensibility akin to rotoscoping, but quicker and freer, the actual visual style is high contrast figures against a variance of backgrounds, some more hyper-real, others more explicitly dream-like.  And like both of Linklater’s films, the animation, while clining to some of the naturalism of the movement and environments depicted, adds an absolute layer of Surreality to the images and story, evoking the interior of the mind on top of the “real world”.

And for Waltz with Bashir, this makes great sense.  Folman is much inside himself, or others as they recount their stories of the war, interior memories, searching for lost images, lost scenes.  There is a great sense of psychology, a hunt for the repressed, the lost, the hidden.  And in this, the film reminded me of excellent 2005 thriller Caché, in which another lost story of a massacre, of blood and history, is revealed.  The hidden are facts and memories.  But in Waltz with Bashir, the search is very much about the images.

As the memories are played out in the stylized animated designs, tracking back through one story or another, or the conversations between those seeking the repressed scenes, the sudden fulmination at the end, when the animation disappears and the images become that of the actual photographic (video) scenes of the mad horror of brutalized bodies and babies strikes forth with great power.

I’d read in The New Yorker a review of the film which criticized this final transition, saying essentially that it was a cop-out from its aesthetic and approach.  But I would disagree.  I think that this is an effective point, a transition in which the repressed comes back, no longer in some imagined, compromised memory, blurred and uncertain, but in the hard evidence of the natural world depicted via a camera.  In essence, a the real, the actual.  The horror.

It’s a hell of a downer of a film.  But it’s quite brilliant.  Like Persepolis (2007), animation is used to tell a story, a very adult story, in a fashion that is quite different from most anything in mainstream feature animation.  The film is very thought-provoking, and interestingly, again like Haneke’s Caché, the return of the repressed for the characters of the movie acts as a revealing of history for the audience of the film.  The story is about real events, real history, a horrible crime against innocents, a bloodbath, yet something that is not widely known.  It is through this return of memory, the unearthing of the trauma, that educates the film viewer.  It’s a revelation of our repressed history, small as it might be in the world’s grander schemes, yet made vivid and powerful as a film.


Jellyfish (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret
viewed: 10/20/08

Jellyfish is an Israeli film, written and do-directed by Shira Geffen and co-directed by her husband, writer Etgar Keret.  It’s not something that I would normally have necessarily stumbled on, but earlier this year I did stumble upon Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), directed by Goran Dukic, which was adapted from a short story by Keret, and it sparked a brief exploration of the writer.  I read his latest collection of stories, The Girl on the Fridge: Stories, but I didn’t really like it.  For some reason, and maybe it’s just one of those situations in which once you notice something, like Keret, you suddenly see him everywhere.  And so I’ve been curious about Jellyfish.

It’s an off-beat film, with elements of magical realism, and an occasional drift into the surreal, but mostly it’s a film about three of four young women in Tel Aviv, whose lives intersect more than once, though on fairly superficial ways.  Each is in their own zone of reality.  One is a waitress who discovers a lost child on a beach, another is a just-married woman who is dissatisfied constantly, and the third is a Filipina woman who speaks no Hebrew and is working as a caregiver to the elderly and unkind.

I liked the film well-enough.  The stories each have their elements and for a while, it’s a little hard to see where it’s all going.  With a running time of 78 minutes or something, its brevity plays well with its light touch on some more serious elements, death, love, loneliness.

What the proverbial Jellyfish is, even though one does show up on the beach, I can’t really say that I get what that symbolizes or means, which in the case of this film, is a little annoying.  But this film’s light-weight magic might work more for others better than it did for me.