Earth is visited by a giant, floating, spoon-obsessed alien.
An Israeli soldier is harassed by a Palestinian boy in a rabbit suit. As the soldier chases after the boy, he leaves reality behind him.
DIRECTED BY: Amos Sefer
FEATURING: Asher Tzarfati, Lily Avidan, Tzila Karney, Shmuel Wolf
PLOT: Pursued across the globe by mysterious figures, an American Vietnam vet turned hippie goes to Israel and founds a small commune on an island.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few very weird (and even more very stupid) moments in this earnestly bizarre Israeli/hippie artifact. But working against An American Hippie in Israel is the fact that the vast majority of the film is so damn boring. Frankly, this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where I could honestly say: it needed more mimes. It’s worth seeing once to mark off your bad-film bucket list, but it’s no forgotten treasure.
COMMENTS: It’s easy to see why film fans were desperate for An American Hippie in Israel to be a hit. So-bad-they’re-good films are rare treasures, providing an intoxication that competent films can’t replicate, but once you’ve seen the obvious classics––Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster, Troll II, The Room—pickings get slim. So when word gets out about a lost trash classic, hopes get high. And Hippie boasts a uniquely twisted take on its botched universe, including some “thoughtful”/”mind-blowing” revelations, flat amateur acting, ponderous Ed Wood quality dialogue (“you fools… stop pushing buttons… you fools!”), a balding Israeli hippie who doesn’t speak English and looks twenty years older than his companions, nonsensical scenes and plot twists (sharks!), and mimes with machine guns.
And yet, I don’t think Hippie is truly a lost cult classic, because its numerous delights are buried in a morass of slow, arid scenes of Israeli hippies being groovy. When our American arrives in Tel Aviv, he’s picked up by an incipient flower child who proceeds to take him home and make him coffee—in real time. There are lots of scenes of the characters driving through the desert in a convertible, grooving to folk songs, and doing the frug at a dance party (which is happily interrupted by mimes with machine guns). That’s right, I said mimes. Two silent white-faced characters, who symbolize (pick one) death/the Vietnam War/man’s inhumanity to man are tracking our globetrotting hippie across the globe. These marauding Marcel Marceaus, who appear without rhyme or reason, are a surreal intrusion into a movie that is otherwise a rather lame fable of youth in revolt.
The other really noteworthy section of the film is our hippie’s dream as he rides across the desert towards his island utopia. It’s a totally silent, totally slo-mo, totally symbolic montage that begins with lavender-tinted lashing and ends with our protagonist whacking a couple of cassette-tape-headed aliens (?) in three piece suits with a giant oversized novelty sledgehammer. Those fools won’t be pushing any more buttons after that bashing, you can be sure. Unfortunately, the film goes downhill from there, as the bohemian quartet make increasingly stupid choices, choosing to permanently locate to a desert island without scouting it first for food or water, or bothering to secure their precious inflatable raft when the land. Stranded on the island, they descend into savagery in a weekend, with the two male hippies quickly turning into territorial rapists. The downer ending is meant to demonstrate, we gather, that even hippies become monsters when their very survival is at stake, and that man’s darker nature is stronger than his idealism. What it really demonstrates, I think, is that stupidity is stronger than either, and that if you’re an American hippie trapped in a dumb script, you are truly doomed. What a bummer.
An American Hippie in Israel was made by one Amos Sefer, who never made another movie (his only other credit is a short which is included as a bonus on the Blu-ray). Unsurprisingly, the execrable Hippie never found distribution. Somehow, Grindhouse Releasing discovered a print of this oddity and made a trailer, which generated interest in the flick. Israelis tracked down prints and began showing the movie as an interactive midnight event, complete with commentators, folk singers (singing mocking new lyrics to the instrumentals) and performance artists, turning it into a homegrown Hebrew version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Grindhouse screened the film at American festivals and brought out a DVD in 2013.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This weird inept movie was made by a former lifeguard with no training as a filmmaker… The film is so perplexing and maddening, that one can say without any trepidation that the filmmaker is a meshugener.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (Blu-ray)
(This movie was nominated for review by Ryan Marshall. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Amos Gitai
FEATURING: Amos Gitai, Jeanne Moreau (voice)
PLOT: A series of autobiographical reflections mix with impressionistic recreations of a battle between Romans and Jews and poetry read by Jean Moreau.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are a few moments of effective weirdness, most of Carmel is too personal to convey much meaning to anyone other than its director. Far too much of the movie is misty flashbacks of characters we can’t place fondly reading letters from relatives we don’t know.
COMMENTS: Carmel is a confusing movie, and its lack of urgency about telling a story combined with disinterest in avoiding dull patches doesn’t serve it well. To give it its due, it does announce itself as a “poem”—one supposedly “about people, what they think and what they want and what they think they want”—providing ample warning that, if you don’t like to read poetry, you’re probably not going to like this movie. Of course, that’s a very different proposition from saying that if you do like to read poetry, you will like this film. Scattered interesting images and turns of phrase aren’t enough to make great verse; good poetry, after all, exhibits focus, discipline, and communication, which are Carmel‘s weak points. That said, Carmel does turn a few fine film phrases, which save it from being a complete, solipsistic waste of time. The first of these phrases happens early on, when Gitai evokes an ancient battle between Romans and Jews. Moreau narrates the battle over Hebrew dialogue, and, further in the sonic background, an English-speaking voice (could it be Sam Fuller, who makes it into the credits?) chronicles the exact same events, but out of phase with the primary narration. Visually, two (sometimes three) overlapping images play onscreen at the same time, all featuring centurions in horsehair helmets battling robed Jews by torchlight. The effect is dreamy and abstract, rather than chaotic; this montage would be successful if were extracted and presented as a short film all its own. We fast-forward in history for the film’s second meaningful moment, which also utilizes the overlapping dialogue motif. A father (Gitai himself) is searching for his recently-deployed soldier son at a gas station. He shares coffee with the attendant, but their attempt at conversation, while taking the outward form of a dialogue, drifts into the two men delivering two completely unrelated monologues. A metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian relations? Both those bits occur in the movie’s first third, and (besides an unexpected re-occurrence of the battle scene at the movie’s midpoint) we have to wait almost to the end before encountering the movie’s third interesting interlude, a bizarre bit involving a young couple who wander into an old woman’s home during a terrorist attack, borrow gas masks, recite prophecies and poems, briefly make out, and leave when the air sirens fade out (promising to return for a chat if they’re ever in the neighborhood). The vast valleys between Carmel‘s high points, however, are filled with autobiographical boredom. There are pretty establishing shots that establish nothing, and lots of readings of old family letters that lead to pastoral flashbacks. Characters are shown, but not introduced. Who is the red-haired boy who writes letters home from boarding school? One of Gitai’s sons, maybe the one who later becomes a soldier, or Gitai himself as a kid? (It doesn’t help that the lad looks like no one else in Carmel, not even the kid Gitai is shown auditioning to play the role of his son in [another?] movie). Who is the pretty brunette woman shown endlessly looking at herself in the mirror while an opera aria plays—a younger version of Gitai’s mother? Of his wife? A daughter? The familial relationships, along with the symbolism, can probably be untangled, but the author gives you little inducement to want to figure out who is who or what they really want, as opposed to what they think they want. It’s all important to Gitai, but he never makes it important to us—the film seems aimed at an audience of one.
The “Carmel” of the title may refer to Mount Carmel, which is associated with the Old Testament prophet Elijah. There are several other towns and settlements in Israel called “Carmel,” including one that was involved in the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the second century A.D.—could this be the site of the battle shown in the film?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Gitai seems to care little about what the audience will glean from this oddity, which is its strength and weakness… fuses documentary, narrative and stream of conscious forms in creating a singular, occasionally exasperating, work.”–Mark Keizer, Box Office Magazine (contemporaneous)
DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman, Ori Sivan
FEATURING: Lucy Dubinchik, Halil Elohev, Johnny Peterson, Yigal Naor, Israel Damidov, Joe El Dror
PLOT: An Israeli girl uses her psychic powers to help classmates cheat on tests, but she will
lose them if she falls in love.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clara Hakedosha mixes quirkiness, magical realism, coming-of-age drama and light absurdity together in exotic and unfamiliar proportions, like a postmodern twist on some ancient Israeli narrative recipe. After watching it twice and thinking about it for weeks, I’m still not sure I know what the point is, and can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not. Maybe that’s the sign of a truly weird movie?
COMMENTS: Lucy Dubinchik plays 13-year old Clara, “a weird Russian girl with purple eyes,” with a blank face that makes it hard to figure out what she’s thinking or feeling. Given that her character is defined by her mysterious psychic powers, it’s appropriate that she’s inscrutable; but it’s still a relief when a recognizable emotion like fear or contentment briefly flits across her face. Though it often does an excellent job of evoking that period of early adolescence on the eve of your first kiss, the filmmakers’ motives in Saint Clara can be as inscrutable as those of a 13-year old girl—you may find yourself watching the action and wondering what the filmmakers intended you to feel. For example, there’s a scene where a baseball bat-wielding child gangster (chauffeured by his 16-year old sister) and his female sidekick (in an aviator’s helmet) demand the passing Clara climb in their convertible: “Get in, fairy. We’ll take you for a ride in heaven.” Sitting in the backseat, the kids ride through a neon-drenched city with completely expressionless faces as organ-driven cruising music chugs on in a minor key. Is Clara a captive, or just a kid out on a joyride with schoolmates? Is her host trying to intimidate her, or make her fall in love with him? Saint Clara contain odd, alienating moments that strangen what might otherwise be a simple, quirky love story between a boy and his psychic fantasy girl. There’s the reporter on television with the puffy black hat who’s always warning of impending nuclear or ecological disasters while carrying a lapdog or sporting a yellow raincoat; the constant talk of rebellion, as if the kids are a bunch of Marxist revolutionaries from the 1960s; the peculiar anecdotes their teachers tell about meeting Bobby Fischer and Edith Piaf; Uncle Elvis, a former psychic who lost his powers just as Clara will one day, who walks his pet goat through town like a dog; and there’s the huge bird that crashes through the classroom window one day, somehow turning the sky blood red in the process. Adolescence here is a brief, bored slice of time perched perpetually on the brink of an apocalypse—although when the disaster finally arrives, it turns out to be a letdown. For these kids, the onset erotic love entails the loss of childhood magic and vitality. The story is as much, if not more, about Clara’s would-be beau as it is about her; his infatuation with this “weird Russian girl” may cost him his position in the punk pecking order. Barry Sakharov’s instrumental rock soundtrack, with its main theme with guitars screeching like birds of prey in the distance, adds to the film’s odd ambiance. Saint Clara seems to beg for an allegorical explanation, and there are allusions to political events that may make more sense to an Israeli than to an outsider; but perhaps its only purpose is to capture the iherent surrealism of puberty. If so, it hits the mark squarely.
Co-director Ori Sivan disappeared from the cinema stage but found a home in television, adapting his hit Israeli series “Be Tipul” as “In Treatment” for HBO, starring Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist who is in therapy himself. The other co-director, Ari Folman, went on to score a big arthouse hit with the fairly weird Waltz With Bashir (2008), an animated examination of the Israeli national conscience, and is currently in post-production on the animated sci-fi adaptation The Congress (see this post).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal
FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia
PLOT: A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,
including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice. But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film. By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone. The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background. Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.
COMMENTS: Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view. In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch. The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion. It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film. These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between. Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are. The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director. A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story. The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme. Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action. The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors. These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment. This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.
$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans. It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience. It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)