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Culture Goes Pop

Mickey McGowan explores
the cannibalizing of pop

By David Templeton

For three years writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he coaxes collector/curator Mickey McGowan out of his Unknown Museum to see Tim Burton's offbeat space-invasion flick Mars Attacks!

Surrounded by a chattering throng of "advance screening" viewers milling about, shouting across the theater, and generally behaving in an enthusiastic manner, my guest, frequent Talking Pictures participant Mickey McGowan, is stretched out in his aisle seat, happily taking in the hoopla as he tightly clutches a small, well-preserved cigar box, the contents of which he is about to display.

We are here to see Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton's twisted, mayhem-filled sci-fi spoof that is based, in part, on a series of gory Topp's bubble-gum cards released in 1962. Appalled by their vivid illustrations of alien carnage, parents' groups objected loudly, and the cards were withdrawn. The few original sets that still exist are in high demand among collectors of memorabilia.

"You're dying to see these, aren't you?" McGowan teases, patting the cigar box. With only a few minutes to spare before movie time, he lifts the lid. Each card is individually stored in a hard plastic case; they click as McGowan shuffles through them.

"Here's the one that upset the moms," he says, unaware of the faces behind him, peering over his shoulder for a better look. "'A Dog Is Destroyed,'" he reads, lifting up the card depicting a nasty little green Martian cruelly disintegrating an Irish setter down to its bones as the dog's boyish master looks on in horror. "Parents thought this was terrible. Kids thought it was great."

McGowan is the admittedly eccentric curator of the Unknown Museum, a once-popular Northern California tourist attraction (currently warehoused pending a new location), and one of the world's largest private collections of pop cultural artifacts from the '50s and '60s. The book Incredibly Strange Music (RE:search, 1993) devotes a full chapter to McGowan's estimable record collection, which provided the unsettling auditory backdrop to his visitors' explorations of the museum.

"I've had these cards forever," he says with a laugh. "The Martians were perfectly re-created for the movie. They look exactly the same. To me, this was like seeing old friends. It feels like a high school reunion.

"I'm so tired of all the slimy aliens--the thing in Alien and the slimy guys from Independence Day," he sighs. "Give me little green men from Mars any day. They're not here to assimilate the planet. They're ornery little buggers. They're just here to screw us; they're rowdy teenage kids who happen to fry people." He pauses a moment.

"I suppose I can see why that might disturb some people."

I pose a question: Since it is commonly believed that the aliens in Martian movies from the '50s were metaphors for communists, and the Alien variety are metaphors for Mother Nature taking revenge on humans for sticking their noses where they're not wanted, then what do these little green fellas symbolize?

"Criminals!" McGowan replies. "We're afraid of crime now, more than anything else. So these are like gang members from outer space. Instead of the red and blue colors of the Crips and the Bloods, we have green--the gang color of Mars.

"I was weaned on these movies. To me they're like breathing. My parents gave me complete carte blanche about what I did. I could stay up late and watch The Twilight Zone. When I was 13, they dropped me off at the theater to see Psycho. Few of those movies ever scared me."

Though he enjoyed tonight's big-screen adaptation of the beloved gum cards, McGowan is quick to state that he is growing tired of all the cinematic rehashes of material from days gone by.

"We're all so retro now," he says, shaking his head. "Everything is a reissue of a copy of a thing that was based on something else. I get catalogs in the mail every day with reissues of lunch pails, Barbies--you name it. Even the Mars Attacks! cards are being reissued. We are using up the culture of our past.

"The age of innocence is over," McGowan adds. "Even our memories are being converted into cold cash. I kind of dread opening my doors again and letting people into the museum to see the mass quantities of artifacts.

"I know they'll be standing there calculating its value in 1990s dollars, and I resent that. The true value of this 'roots material' is not what it could sell for, but what it tells us about who we are . . . or, at the least, who we were."

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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