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Monday, November 5, 2007

Pandora Revisited (originally published 4/99)

Ever since the Greek myth of Pandora, who opened her fateful box and unleashed all manner of woe and misery on the world, there have been stories of mischief based around women. While mythology tends to render such tales on a broad, societal scale, more mundane fiction brings the theme down to the micro level. Typically, we find a story about a man whose life is orderly, settled, well in hand. Then he meets a woman, usually an eccentric free spirit, who captures his fancy and tempts him to cast aside his orderly existence. The most recent retelling of this venerable old story is "Forces of Nature," starring Sandra Bullock as the free-spirited temptress. If you'd like to see how earlier films handled the same theme, look for these titles on home video.

"Bringing Up Baby" (1938). David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a respected paleontologist. A man of science in a position of great responsibility, in charge of reconstructing dinosaur skeletons for a large museum, he is the very picture of stability. Of course, he does have occasional moments of absent-mindedness, but that's to be expected of scientific geniuses, at least in the movies. Then he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), and almost at once his life is turned upside down. When Susan's dog runs off with a particularly rare and valuable dinosaur bone, David has little choice but to follow. The next thing he knows, he's helping Susan hunt for her pet leopard named Baby, who can only be calmed when skittish by being serenaded with the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Before the night is over he will land in jail. One of the jewels in the crown of the American cinema, this classic comedy continues to be imitated to this very day.

"The Owl and the Pussycat" (1970). Felix Sherman (George Segal), bookstore clerk and writer, engaged to a concert pianist, is a model of civility and rectitude. When Felix gets one of his neighbors, a woman named Doris (Barbra Streisand), evicted from his apartment building for prostitution, the abrasive Doris retaliates by moving into Felix's apartment. So begins a belligerent courtship that will lead to Felix himself being evicted. Ultimately, Felix will find himself caught in a compromising position with Doris, both of them high on marijuana, in the home of his fiancee's family.

"What's Up, Doc?" (1972). Professor Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal), a respected musicologist, is attending an academic conference at which he hopes to secure a $20,000 grant. He wants to use the money to study the musical properties of certain ancient rock samples. Along the way, and to his complete chagrin, his life becomes entangled with that of Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand again!), a bright but eccentric young woman with a knack for causing trouble. By the end of the conference, Howard will find himself before a judge, attempting to explain why he and Judy have left half of San Francisco in shambles while driving around in a car with a Chinese dragon draped over it. This was director Peter Bogdanovich's affectionate tribute to "Bringing Up Baby" and, by extension, the whole screwball comedy genre of the Thirties and Forties.

"Something Wild" (1986). Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is the picture of yuppie success, a rising young Wall Street executive. One day, however, a Bohemian young woman named Audrey (Melanie Griffith) catches Charles leaving a diner without paying for his lunch. Pegging him as a "closet rebel" based on this small act of larceny, Audrey seduces Charles into leaving his job behind to join her on a wild and crazy road trip. This little adventure is exhilarating to Charles until Audrey's psychotic ex-husband turns up, fresh from the penitentiary. When Charles finds himself confronted with the dark side of the rebel's life, the game turns dark and the fun quickly turns to fear. By then, however, it's much too late to back out.

The dark turn of events in "Something Wild" is actually very unusual in films of this type. Mostly, the strait-laced man and the free-spirited woman live happily ever after, she having liberated him from his repressed existence so that he can become a whole human being. After centuries of wrestling with her mythic legacy, it is interesting to note that it was through the comparatively lightweight genre of romantic comedy that we finally made our peace with Pandora.

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