Digi-Schlock: AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL (Grindhouse Releasing Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack)

Grindhouse Releasing: it’s a name that carries a lot of weight with collectors of cult cinema on home video.  Their catalog might be small but they’ve distinguished themselves by giving Criterion-level treatment to forgotten exploitation gems like I Drink Your Blood and Pieces.  They’ve been very active as a theatrical exhibition company in recent years, releasing a lot of titles to theaters in new 35 mm prints.   One of the titles they’ve been putting back into theaters is An American Hippie In Israel – and the company also recently made their blu-ray debut with this title.  Simply put, the results are damned impressive and one of the best cult movie home video releases of the year.

The good stuff begins with a crisp transfer of the film, presented in both blu-ray and DVD formats.  The blu-ray was viewed for this review and it looks quite good, applying skillful remastering to a rare print to create a richly detailed image.  The film’s mostly muted color scheme is given an accurate representation here, with occasional bright colors – like the crystal-blue seas around the island – popping nicely on the screen.

In terms of audio, the original mono mix is presented in a lossless form that sounds good for a vintage, low-tech mix.  There is also a 5.1 stereo option called “The New Beverly Experience”: in other words, it’s a recording from an audience watching the film in a Los Angeles theater.  A similar feature was included for their Pieces release and it allows the viewer to experience how a cult-film crowd responds to the film in a public setting.

Grindhouse has also assembled a diverse collection of extras to flesh out the story of this fascinating obscurity.  First up is a quintet of deleted scenes.  These five bits are extensions of existing scenes in the film but make for interesting viewing because they clarify what is missing from a few abrupt edits in the finished film, including a brief but unforgettably loopy coda that should have been kept in.  On a similar note, there are about eight minutes’ worth of silent screen tests including several actors who didn’t make it into the film.  This will probably a one-view-only item for most but it’s worth checking out for a wild improv bit with a quartet of actors fighting over a loaf of bread.

The next pair of extras go deeper into the film and its history from the actors’ perspective.  “Asher Tzarfati and Shmuel Wolf Q&A” offers nearly an hour’s worth of interview footage with both the film’s male lead actors.  The two men cover a lot of ground, including how their friendship with director Amos Sefer led to roles in the film, stories about the challenges of production and why the film never made it to the theaters.  Tzarfati is often raffishly witty, particularly when addressing the top of how real the film’s sex scenes were, while Wolf is more philosophical, particularly in how he describes the beautful naivete of the film’s production.

Tzarfati also gets a 17-minute solo interview piece called “An Israeli Actor In Israel.”  It’s a more biographical segment that allow Tzarfati to discuss the poverty of his childhood, how he developed a love for movies while working as a theater usher during his teens and his successful career as an actor.  He’s had quite the career and has great stories to tell about working with Menahem Golan of Cannon Films fame and Jean-Claude Van Damme.  He’s grateful to be interviewed, even thanking his interviewers at the end, and his good cheer makes this segment fun to watch.  A filmography in text form is also provided for Tzarfati’s career, showing how varied his screen career has been.

Another text-driven feature is a brief but informative biography of director Amos Sefer.  Sadly, he passed away before he could be interviewed for this disc but this biography does a good job of providing a thumbnail sketch of his life.  It includes some pictures of the director at various ages and even a photo of his filmmaking résumé. The disc also includes one of Sefer’s short films, a silent short entitled Be Careful, Children.  This crude yet bold piece contrasts children’s games with war, predicting the in-your-face symbolism Sefer would use in his one feature film.

The next two extras delve into the birth of the recent revival of An American Hippie In Israel.  “A Cult Is Born” is a 5-minute featurette that chronicles how the film got its first public screenings at an cinematheque in Israel, including interviews with the film’s fervent admirers and footage of said admirers dancing alongside the screen and improvising lyrics to go with the instrumental score.  Along similar lines is an Israeli t.v. news report on the film that covers the film’s revival and the necessary elements for a bad film to get a successful cult revival.  Tzarfati and Wolf are interviewed for this piece and it’s touching to see the two friends reunited.  This report is also noteworthy for the incredible smarminess of the news anchor who introduces it.

And still there’s more:  Susan Devor was half of a folk singer duo who appear in the film and a seven minute interview reveals how the duo went on to great success in Israel as recording artists – but never saw the film that captured one of their early performances.  Devore is also reunited with the other half of her musical duo via Skype and gets to perform her song from the film for an enthusiastic group of cinemagoers (including Shmuel Wolf).  A brief but fascinating interview with Moshe Berman follows. He served as an associate producer on the production and was the son-in-law of the man who financed the film.  His tart comments reveal how the investment went horribly wrong for his starry-eyed stepfather and ate up a small fortune in the process.

The disc is rounded out by a series of promotional materials.  First is a five minute piece called “Shmuel’s Still Show,” which features Wolf showing some photos from his personal collection as he answers questions (he gets amusingly annoyed by one question that leads to this piece’s end).  Also included are two formal still galleries in click-thru form: “Production Stills” offers an array of staged and behind-the-scenes shots in color and black and white, also including a few shots of Sefer on his boat circa 2007, while “Promotional Materials” features news clippings, a press kit, various revival art campaigns and even photos taken outside the film’s New Beverly Cinema screening.

The last of the promotional materials is the trailer that Grindhouse put together to promote the film a few years back.  This savvy, sharply-edited spot effectively distills the film’s gonzo essence and played a crucial role in inspiring its theatrical revival.  Along similar lines, the disc also includes a hefty section of bonus trailers (10 on the DVD, even more on the blu-ray) for a variety of past and future Grindhouse Releasing discs.  It’s a great mix of vintage spots and some new items put together by the company itself – and the feverish sights and sounds they deliver will get cult film fanatics hungry for more releases from this company. If that wasn’t enough, there are also a couple of cool easter eggs hidden in the menus that should be easy to find.

Finally, those who buy the first pressing will also be treated to a bonus DVD featuring the director’s cut of the film under its original title, The Hitchhiker.  This windowboxed transfer is taken from a rare archival print.  It’s a little beat-up and features burnt-in French and Hebrew subtitles but it’s a swell little artifact for anyone obsessed with the film because it reinstates all the trims featured in the deleted scenes section on the main discs.  It’s a nice touch for those who have waited so patiently to buy this film.

All in all, this is an impressive comeback for Grindhouse Releasing, offering an excellent transfer of a rarity and a wealth of extras.  In an era of home video where major studios are content to pad out discs with glorified EPK’s or give nothing at all, it’s great to see an indie company go the extra mile for cult cinema scholars.  This is a set to be proud of – and it bodes well for the high-def future of Grindhouse Releasing.

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