Midnight in Tel Aviv
There was a recent article about the waning attendance at churches that featured a striking drop quote from a lad who went to a Catholic church for the first time. The only reference point he had for all of the standing up, sitting down, repeating or responding to the celebrants was The Rocky Horror Show midnight movies. Looking at the history of films shown in theaters after midnight that people interact with, there is a correlation between their rise and the fall of church attendance. Given that midnight movies are mostly an American phenomenon, many eyebrows were raised when Tel Aviv got its own first participatory midnight movie in 2011: An American Hippie in Israel.
The subject of this revival almost didn’t get released. When the backers saw the finished product in 1972, it was relegated to a shelf where it stayed for nearly four decades. Happily a cinephile with a focus on so-bad-they’re-good films eventually got it released as a super-deluxe three-disc DVD boxed set. To gauge how deluxe to make the set, he edited a trailer out of a print he found and posted it on YouTube. Reactions were off the charts, and a copy started circulating in Israel, where it was shown at private house parties. As the film gained fans, they started showing it weekly in a theater at midnight. Every show was soon selling out and fans were chanting along to the stilted dialog.
Three things seem to set this film apart from similar offerings from companies like Roger Corman’s AIP. The first is what has been described as its “creepy sincerity.” The second is its production values. The third less tangible aspect is that it never seems padded or lazy. An example of this is a long car ride where the hero falls asleep and has a nightmare. Every time the camera changes angles, the hero has found some new seatbelt-free way to ride in a convertible. It’s like the filmmaker saw every film about hippie life and decided to make a “quality film” about them. (About a half a decade too late)
The plot (such as it is) follows an American vet, who has thrown off the shackles of The Man and decides to travel the world barefoot in jeans, a fur vest and a bowler hat. He lands in Israel (on a jet full of passengers who don’t seem to find him odd) which somebody told him was “where it’s at.” He is picked up hitchhiking by an actress and proceeds to assemble a band of hippies to live free of oppression on a coral island in the middle of nowhere. The hippies’ favorite words are “beautiful,” “free” and “hooray.” They are chased by a pair of murderous mimes and menaced by plastic sharks as things turn very “Lord of the Flies.” The film was shot in English by ESL actors and then dubbed by voice actors, giving the dialog an extra layer of strangeness. One that is only enhanced as the audience chants along.