Kitsch boils over in witty look at Salem

By John Koch
Globe Staff

Television Review

If truth is the first casualty of war, history is often the first casualty of commerce -- in America, anyway.  An example of this phenomenon is Salem, home of the infamous witch trials, which condemned 19 innocents to hanging deaths in 1692.  Three centuries later, rife with witch-on-a-broom logos and neon signage, the town is a circus of touristy witchcraft boutiques, museums resembling funhouses, fairs, and parades.  Important history is swamped and subverted by the commercial hubbub.

That, at least, is the impression conveyed in the wittily critical "Witch City," which fueled considerable controversy when it was first screened in Salem in 1997.  The hour-long documentary airs tonight at 10p.m. on Channel 2.  The work of six North Shore filmmakers, "Witch City" is part of WGBH-TV's seven-year-old springtime series of locally produced independent films called "Viewpoint."  It's the third this season and the most appealing thus far.

The intention of "Witch City," to rescue history from Salem's carnival atmosphere, is serious.  So is its secondary message that, a few years ago if not today, the town showed signs of its hysterical old intolerance.  As its 1992 tercentenary approached, fundamentalist Christians were crusading fiercely against Salem's population of New Age witches, or wiccans, led by Laurie Cabot.  A man representing a bleeding Christ on a Heritage Day float yells from his cross: "Witchcraft is evil!"  Wiccans in the motley crew take umbrage.

What makes the low-budget documentary so watchable is its zesty comic style, which remains bouncy even when the humor gets scabrous.  In one scene, the owner of the Salem Witch Museum earnestly compares the events of 1692 in Salem to the mass murders of the Holocaust.  In a another, a local entrepreneur sells tiny bags of Gallows Hill dirt for $2.95.  At a crammed Psychic Fair, a Tarot reader tells her client, "The thing you need mostly to do now is get your car parked."  Mock-spooky music and deliberate horror-show cliches, including extreme camera angles, infuse the proceedings with a sense of fun meant both to entertain and underline Salem's hyper-commerce.

If there's a flaw in the brew, it's the films refusal to see Salem in the context of the nation's long tradition of garish antihistorical commerce.  The otherwise loosey-goosey "Witch City" filmmakers seem a bit too appalled by what's happened to their hometown.  On the other hand, they capture Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel on camera saying, after an appearance at Salem's tercentenary formalities, "Who am I to say 'no' to tourism?"

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