Mickey McGowan is pissed off.
“I am. I’m pissed off,” he admits, his voice rising ever-so-slightly as his mouth forms the words and tosses them out, like a pair of old tennis shoes hitting the garbage can-not that Mickey McGowan would toss out a pair of old tennis shoes. Or anything else for that matter. But he is pissed off. “And, I don’t get pissed off that often,” he adds. “Not like this.”
The focus of McGowan’s infrequent-yet-sizable ire is Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The classic 1982 fantasy, starring Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in the story of a little lost alien and his unlikely friendship with three suburban siblings, has, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, been changed, messed with, and otherwise, “improved.” As has been widely reported-and advertised up the old wazoo-Spielberg has gone and tinkered with his sentimental blockbuster, enhancing the special effects with new digital technologies, adding formerly deleted scenes, and-here’s where McGowan gets especially miffed-altering several key moments to make the film more palatable to what Spielberg believes are the newly-evolved attitudes of modern movie-going audiences. Remember the famous scene where the boys on bikes fly over the heads of pistol-waving policemen? The guns are now gone, digitally replaced with walkie-talkies, a procedure repeated in other scenes that once featured fire-arms. Then there’s the Halloween scene in which the kids’ Mom tells one of them he can’t go trick-or-treating dressed as “a terrorist.” In the new post-9-11 version, the Mom now objects to his going out as “a hippie.” (A hippie? Who hasn’t gone trick-or-treating dressed as a hippie?)
“It’s confusing and unnecessary, and these changes rankle me,” says McGowan, 55, an artist, self-described “cultural observer,” and the curator of the legendary-though currently closed-Unknown Museum, a Marin County landmark showcasing McGowan’s staggering collection of pop-cultural toys and abandoned artifacts from the 1950’s to the early-80’s. If you ever threw out an old Mr. Potato Head, a bendable Gumby, a plastic Bat Man utility belt-or an E.T. lunch box-McGowan probably has it in his compact (heavy on the word “packed”) warehouse in San Rafæl. Along with your old E.T. lunch pail are a whole pile of E.T. bean-bag dolls, a box of E.T. jewelry, and McGowan’s prized E.T. possession: a life-sized E.T. laundry hamper that makes E.T.. noises when you lift the lid. “There were 212 licensed E.T. products when the movie first came out,” McGowan reports. “E.T stands as the most commercialized alien of all time.”
E.T. also stands as one of McGowan’s favorite cinematic icons. “E.T. is this wonderful intergalactic communicator of peace and love,” he says, “A Christ-like messiah coming to Earth to show the children the way.” Of course, in the altered version of the movie, E.T. does still come to Earth, does still show the ways of peace and love-he just does it in world devoid of guns and fake terrorists. “Movies are like mirrors of the times they were made in,” argues McGowan. “If you start changing things twenty years later-taking the guns out of the hands of the policemen, changing the dialogue to reflect the tastes of the current moment-you risk changing the way we think of the past, you do a disservice to history. Taking the guns away is so . . .I mean . . .Gee whiz! Think about Jaws. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jurassic Park. Empire of the Sun. Saving Private Ryan. Come on. Every Spielberg movie but Close Encounters has guns in it.”
The core issue, of course, is that in E.T., the guns are in the same shot with kids. Spielberg has publicly stated that in a time when we are still reeling from events like Columbine and Littleton, movies that show kids and guns together make him uncomfortable.
“So he should stop making those kinds of movies,” says McGowan. “I have no problem with that. But E.T. wasn’t made in the age of Columbine. So for history’s sake, he should have left well-enough alone.”
With a wry chuckle, McGowan goes on to relate a likely prediction of the future.
“Fifty years from now,” he prophesies, “someone will probably release the first E.T. all over again. The ads will say, ‘It’s back! The original, uncut, fully restored, politically-incorrect, triple-threat, razor-sharp version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial!’ Spielberg will be gone, Drew Barrymore will be eighty-years old, and everyone will be confused all over again. I hate it. I’m just glad I’ll be dead by then so I won’t have to see it happen.”
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
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