On the Small Screen, Kitsch and a Witch

Tribal Vision

By Lisa Keys

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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That pesky, mysterious Lilith.

As the mythical first wife of Adam who, as his equal, refused to lie beneath him, she’s been a source of wonder and inspiration for thousands of years. Demonic references in the Talmud and Kabbalist texts have led many to fear her; more recently, she’s been worshipped as a goddess and has been “reclaimed” by feminists as a symbol of Jewish female equality. As such, she’s been fodder for a feminist magazine, the namesake of a television psychiatrist’s frigid wife and the title for a festival of “womyn’s” music.

And now, the Lilith myth is boldly going where no man — ahem — has gone before: the realm of science fiction.

“Darklight”— an original movie produced by the Sci-Fi Channel, written and directed by Bill Platt — finds Lilith reimagined as a gentle, 24-year-old vagrant who has no memory of her tumultuous past. Played by Shiri Appleby of “Roswell” — herself a Jewish goddess of sorts, at least among adolescent Jewish boys — Lilith, known as “Elle,” is trying to hold down a job at a florist. She’s busy trying to decipher the mysterious markings on her arms — the fictitious “curse of Daggoth,” we learn — when one day she’s recruited to slay a demon who threatens the world with a horrid plague.

If it sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster, then that’s exactly the director’s point. “I wanted to present Lilith essentially as a Jewish superhero,” Platt said in an interview with the Forward. “I wanted to take her, take this Jewish myth, and put it in the context of modern pop culture allegory. I wanted to see if there was a way to deal with a Jewish-inspired journey, a Jewish heroine, in a pop culture context.”

Unfortunately, however, Platt’s eagerness to universalize Lilith’s appeal means that the myth is quickly stripped of its ancient mystical origins, replaced with a trajectory that’s oddly similar to that of Superman. Let’s see… a humanlike creature born in a now-extinct homeland, bearing extra-human powers, who is immortal, save a sole organic substance that can bring our hero to ruin? Check, check, check.

“Darklight” also falls into the same trap as “Stargate” — a 1994 film that is now a series on the Sci-Fi network — which took a compelling, quasi-biblical premise that quickly, and, some might say unnecessarily, descended into violence. Take the scene in which William Shaw (Richard Burgi), an agent of a secret society called the Faith, recruits Lilith to employ her hidden powers for good and not evil. Having explained to Lilith her powers of darklight — “energy old as the universe” — William instructs: “You’d better prepare yourself,” as he picks up a gun and shoots her. Yeah, we get it: Lilith’s immortal. But there should be some demarcation between science fic- tion and violent fiction — and frankly, this film has crossed it.

Still, for fans of mainstream science fiction, you’re in good hands. A master of the genre — as a graduate student at New York University, Platt won a Student Academy Award for his sci-fi thesis, “Bleach” — Platt employs every trick in the book: evil scientists, beasts, blood and the battle to save mankind.

Those of you who would prefer to trade in science fiction for a heavy dose of schmaltz ought not to miss “Too Jewish, Too!” which is Avi Hoffman’s follow-up to his one-man show, “Too Jewish!” It’s a family-friendly program that nonetheless should come with a warning label — Danger: Extreme Kitsch Ahead.

In the tradition of Jewish vaudeville, the luminous Hoffman takes viewers back to the time, as he says, “when Yinglish was king.” Accompanied by a six-piece klezmer band — including clarinet great Don Byron — Hoffman pays a musical, comedic tribute to American Jewish immigrant culture. And while a definition of “Jewish culture” proves ever elusive, Hoffman plays it straight by riffing off ready-made symbols like the Catskills and knishes.

Organized around basic themes such as “Jews are everywhere in the world” and “Jews are everywhere in the USA,” “Too Jewish, Too!” takes the road much traveled. A mere mention of the name Fyvush Finkel elicits enthusiastic nods from the gray-haired audience — the show was filmed before a studio audience in (where else?) Palm Beach, Fla. — and yes, there are guffaws when Hoffman drops a joke with the punch line, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

Hoffman is the master of the Jewish folk tale; every segment has bits of Jewish education built into the humor. Take Jews in Italy, for example. Hoffman imparts to his audience that the Star of David first appeared on an Italian Jewish tombstone in the third century before he launches into a kosher version of “That’s Amore”:

“If you see him walk past/

With schmaltz on his vest/

That’s Morris.”

And while you may roll your eyes at the predictability of some of Hoffman’s jokes, at the same time, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.

“Darklight” premieres Saturday, September 18, at 9 p.m, on the Sci-Fi Channel.

“Too Jewish, Too!” premieres Sunday, September 19, at 8 p.m, on WLIW.

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