'There's nothing more empowering," says Mickey McGowan, "than the act of putting on a Santa Claus suit. If you've ever done it, you'd feel the same way. You feel so powerful in that suit, you might as well be a god from another planet."
Mickey McGowan, who owns his own Santa suit just in case the need to feel like a god arises, is the curator of Marin County's legendary Unknown Museum, currently not open to the public but still alive in the memory of folks who remember strolling through rooms full of castoff items from the '50s, '60s and '70s. A collector and seller of vintage records and memorabilia, his opinions on popular culture have been featured in books, magazines and on television shows since the late 1970s.
I first met McGowan at a screening of Joe Dante's monster-movie homage Matinee, and every couple of years or so, I call up to invite him to another movie for a bit of enlightened postfilm conversation. Being that he is also a ginormous fan of Christmas, with a massive collection of authentic plastic Christmas decorations to go along with that Santa suit--and also that he has strong opinions about the classic 3-D movies of old--I invited McGowan to see and discuss Disney's new 3-D reconfiguration of Tim Burton and Henry Selick's macabre masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's the gorgeously stop-motion story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who experiences a midlife crisis and, in a fit of manic-depressive obsession, attempts to replace Santa on Christmas Eve. McGowan is mixed on the notion of reengineering 2-D movies to look 3-D.
In the new Nightmare, the beautiful cinematography of the original is somewhat eclipsed by the newly dimensional snowflakes, bobbin pumpkin heads and straight-at-you projectiles. Still, he feels that if any movie is going to be 3-D, the otherworldly landscapes of Nightmare are a logical fit.
"Three-D is a magical process," says McGowan, "so a magical movie like Nightmare Before Christmas is a good choice. But the truth is, as much as I love the old 3-D movies like It Came from Outer Space and House of Wax, the process has never been more than a gimmick, and it's usually just a distraction. Nightmare Before Christmas didn't need to be made 3-D, because it always kind of was 3-D. It was a classic innocent Christmas movie the way it was. It was magical to begin with."
In the film, Jack Skellington is suffering seriously from job burnout, and is tired of scaring people for a living. When he accidentally enters Christmas Town and begins to feel all warm and fuzzy, he tries to keep the feeling by staging an ill-conceived takeover of Christmas. Ironically, though he is initially empowered by his night of playing Santa, his crisis is resolved only when he takes the suit off and becomes himself again. McGowan still likes to think it was the act of putting on the suit that helped Jack heal his conflicted soul.
"Putting on the Santa suit is a form of therapy," he laughs. "I think a lot of people could benefit from it. Once Jack puts that suit on, he does feel powerful; he feels that he's part of something greater than himself. He takes it too far and things don't work out for Jack as Santa, but I think a lot of us can identify with that urge. That's part of why the movie has become such classic."
In McGowan's view, there are few actors alive who wouldn't jump at the chance to play St. Nick, but one doesn't have to be an actor, or an animated skeleton, to do it. Every costume store worth its salt has at least one Santa Suit on the racks.
"If you think of it, playing Santa is the only theatrical work that some of us ever do," McGowan says, "but it really is the ultimate role. Forget Hamlet or King Lear. Santa Claus is the greatest part in the world. You should try it. Go rent a Santa Claus suit. Seriously. You'll never be the same."
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