Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Retrospective Review

The late John Hughes meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some folks older than me might primarily associate him with the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise, while some younger than me might primarily associate him with Home Alone. But for me mention of John Hughes is virtually synonymous with the string of six iconic 1980s teen films that he either wrote and directed (Sixteen Candles & Weird Science), wrote and produced (Pretty In Pink & Some Kind of Wonderful), or, in the case of his two masterpieces, wrote, produced, and directed:

First, The Breakfast Club, which roughly ties with The Karate Kid and Superbad as my all-time second favorite film of the teen subgenre; pure teen angst somehow magically grafted onto celluloid unlike any movie before, since, and in all likelihood, ever. If you're anywhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen this movie is guaranteed to speak to all your fears and anxieties and neuroses like it was made for you and you alone. Sure, it ages laughably and appears hopelessly silly and melodramatic pretty much the second your high school diploma is in hand, but at that point it's no longer made for you you senior citizen motherfucker, and the skill with which Hughes tapped into the psyche of a generation so far removed from his own is without peer.

And second, Hughes' masterpiece, not only my favorite teen film but easily now and forever one of my very favorite movies of all time: Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The brilliance of Ferris Bueller is difficult to quantify. Much like Groundhog Day, another film now universally hailed an all-time classic, it was met upon release with pleasant but mild critical response, and on its face seems a fun, whimsical, yet ultimately fairly disposable teen comedy. It certainly doesn't have the technical and aesthetic innovation or brilliantly elaborate story and characters of other masterpieces like Citizen Kane or Chinatown or Star Wars — but it is brilliant, and it is a masterpiece, make no mistake, and there are more interesting concepts percolating under the surface than may be initially evident, starting with the unusual divide between protagonist and who the story is really about.

Our protagonist is of course Ferris Bueller; impossibly suave, ultra-charming, devil-may-care Ferris Bueller. As someone who strongly prefers my teen protagonists to be geeks and oddballs and underdogs, such as in the previously mentioned Karate Kid or Superbad and of course Freaks & Geeks, Ferris outwardly seems like the last person I would ever root for. He's the most popular and most cool and least unhappy high schooler on earth; the world is his oyster. But while Ferris is our protagonist, the story isn't truly about him. He's less a man than a superhuman avatar for coolness, a god who walks among us, and the gods rarely underwent character development in Greek mythology either.

No, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is in fact the story of one Cameron Frye, and he is (initially) everything Ferris is not: unhappy, uptight, nervous, perpetually ill, mistrusted by his parents, full of bottled rage at his lot in life. And while Ferris is the engine that propels the plot along, it is Cameron who takes the Hero's Journey during their day-long jaunt through Chicago; far from being Ferris's straight man as a lesser filmmaker might have doomed him to, Cameron (along with one other character we'll discuss later) is the one who undergoes a rich and thorough character development and slays his own personal antagonist in the end.

We meet Cameron in his grey, clinical tomb of a home, convincing himself that he's deathly ill so that he can feel something. He's a wretch, the most pathetic character of John Hughes' career. But then, initially against Cameron's will, his superhuman best friend whisks him away to see the view from atop the Sears Tower, a game at Wrigley Field, the priceless works of the Art Institute of Chicago, a downtown parade, and Sloane Peterson naked, and in doing so Cameron emerges from his shell, confronts his inner demons, and acknowledges the beauty that life holds, quietly but honestly admitting at the end that he's just had the best day of his life. "Save Ferris" is a visual logo repeated many times throughout the film, ironically reflecting the entire reason Ferris organized his day off: to Save Cameron.

"All I wanted to do was give him a good day," Ferris confides to the camera, and it's true. The first-time viewer could be forgiven for interpreting the titular character to be the story's center, but upon further analysis it becomes clear that the grand ulterior motive of Ferris Bueller's miniature vacation is not leisure, but the exorcism of Cameron Frye's demons, an epic task that only a living god like Ferris would dare undertake. Fame, fortune, love, and lauding all come easy to a deity, so perhaps saving a person's very soul is the only true challenge that remains.

Coming back to aesthetics, one fascinating aspect of the film which I briefly mentioned above is its lack of a fourth wall — for Ferris, anyway. Like many other films where the protagonist addresses the camera, only the protagonist addresses the camera; no other character speaks to or acknowledges it, but at the same time, they never seem to find it unusual when Ferris turns to and addresses what they see as an empty spot in the air. It's best not to dwell too long on the logistics of it, you'll get a headache.

But while Ferris Bueller's Day Off isn't the first and sure as hell isn't the only movie to have the protagonist address the camera — Woody Allen occasionally did so in Annie Hall about a decade beforehand — no other film has ever put this device to such consistently brilliant use. Ferris's monologues are witty and glib but never superfluous; he speaks to the camera to enhance our knowledge of the characters (usually Cameron), or spin our perspective on events ("I asked for a car, I got a computer. How's that for being born under a bad sign?"), or, in the classic opening minutes, explain his foolproof plan for faking out your parents, complete with onscreen graphics.

The film is also unique in the way it plays with the conventions of pacing. Teen comedies aren't usually known for their languid pace, and like the rest of the pack, Ferris Bueller keeps things snappy and never stays in one place too long (hell, the dialogue starts over the opening company logos and the film continues with new scenes straight through the entire end credits and beyond!). But in a film loaded with classic scene after classic scene (who could ever forget Ferris's impersonation of Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, in order to gain access to a glitzy restaurant, or the economics teacher's oblivious role call of "Bueller? ... Bueller? ... Bueller?"), two of the most iconic and immortal moments seem outwardly superfluous and fly defiantly in the face of generic "three jokes per page!" comedy screenwriting conventions.

In the first, Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane stop by the Art Institute of Chicago, and the movie pauses for a few minutes, dispensing with dialogue and sound effects and leaving only the dreamy, symphonic score to accompany Ferris as he and his friends absorb the most beautiful paintings and sculpture in the world. Eventually, Cameron splits off from the group and stands transfixed before Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte for nearly a full minute, looking deep into the pointillism until, like the fragments of his life, it no longer makes sense. It's a scene of overwhelming power and beauty that I don't think would have made it off the pages of the screenplay in a teen comedy of this day and age.

In the film's next major set piece, Ferris, flabbergasted by Cameron's claims that he remains unmoved by all he's seen, hijacks a downtown parade float to dedicate a cheesy lip synch of Danke Schoen to "a young man who doesn't think he's seen anything good today — Cameron Frye, this one's for you." In the real world, a high school student faking a deathly illness to skip school might want to avoid getting up on a stage surrounded by millions of Chicagoans, TV cameras, photographers, and the mayor, but of course Ferris Bueller has ascended beyond such earthly logic. It's not that he has a work-around, it just simply can't touch him.

Ferris then drives Chicago into an orgasmic frenzy by leading them in a rousing rendition of Twist and Shout. It serves no narrative purpose and contains no comedy per se, yet at the same time it's one of the most staggeringly perfect scenes in the long annals of the medium; if you were to ask me what scene in all of film best encapsulates "pure joy," you would have to look no further, and it's a flawless counterpoint for the more subdued, ethereal beauty of the museum sequence.

As far as antagonists, the movie has three, two highly visible and one more subtle and insidious. The most colorful, widely recognized, and conventional bad guy is Ferris Bueller's nemesis, Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students. He's every inch the flamboyant movie villain, complete with a henchman (Grace the secretary), nefarious plots (spying on the Bueller house), and evil monologues ("Fifteen years from now when [Ferris] looks back on the ruin his life's become, he is going to remember Edward Rooney."), but in contrast to John Hughes' other gratuitously evil high school principal, Richard Vernon of The Breakfast Club, he's an absolute buffoon. He's humiliated, outsmarted, and browbeaten, sprayed with soda, chewed on by a Rottweiler, loses his shoe, loses his keys, loses his car, loses his wallet, and is made to look the doofus at every turn.

And this contrast makes sense — after all, what is the key operating principle of The Breakfast Club? Angst, of course, extending to the angsty horizon as far the eye can angst. Ergo, Principal Vernon is meant to embody all the worst aspects of every teacher we hated in middle and high school into one nightmarish human being, a condescending, smugly superior, threatening, quasi-violent authoritarian asshole, someone we (and by "we," I mean sixteen-year-olds) can look at and feel the waves of angst wash over us. Principal Vernon is "UGH! I HATE MY TEACHER!" ensconced in flesh. Ed Rooney, on the other hand, is part of a more joyous film and his sole purpose is to be laughed at. His hellish day is our revenge on every teacher we resented in childhood. And curiously, it's not Ferris Bueller who finally defeats Rooney in the end (Ferris only thinks about Rooney in the terms of how best to avoid him), but our second antagonist, Jeannie Bueller.

Like Cameron, Jeannie is full of barely-concealed rage at her parents and her station in life, rage which begins bubbling to the surface as early as the first scene of the movie. Even though she got a car while Ferris got a computer, she perceives Mr. & Mrs. Bueller as loving her brother more, and she alone has noticed that her brother is a living god who doesn't have to operate on the same playing field as everyone else. Fuming at the end of a school hallway, she mentally rants: "Why should he get to do whatever he wants? Why should everything work out for him? What makes him so goddamn special?!", before capping it off by growling aloud, "Screw him." So she ditches school to prove that her shithead brother is ditching school (with the sheer irony of the scenario never crossing her mind).

What makes Jeannie Bueller interesting is that her story is basically a fifteen-minute short film divided up throughout Ferris Bueller's runtime, only intermittently and occasionally crossing paths with the other main characters. She has her own antagonist, her own conflict, her own journey, her own love interest, her own character growth, and her own conclusion, all delivered in short, satisfying bursts. This being a John Hughes teen film, the kids are savvy while the adults languish in utter uselessness, so of course Jeannie proves that Ferris is ditching school by the movie's midpoint (something that Rooney is never able to do), but before she can inform the world, she perceives Rooney spying on the Bueller household to be a burglar, gets trapped in her own home, and winds up in a police station.

It's here that Jeannie meets the accurately-named Boy in Police Station, played by Charlie Sheen. Over the course of about two scenes, he attempts to psychoanalyze her. She rejects his dimestore analysis at first, but her defenses soon break down, and the gentle person inside is revealed as she realizes what's really important in life. Like Darth Vader, Jeannie is redeemed, and reverts to the side of good (even giving herself the alternate name of "Shauna" to Charlie Sheen, reminiscent of how Vader again became Anakin upon his redemption). In the end Jeannie comes to Ferris's rescue and vanquishes their mutual enemy of Edward R. Rooney for good.

But, much like how many viewers don't recognize that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is truly about Cameron Frye, not Ferris, many don't recognize that the true villain of the picture is not the bumbling, inept Ed Rooney, but in fact a different character, one with no actor, no face, no screentime, and no dialogue, but whose fell touch is always unmistakably present. I speak of Morris Frye, Cameron's unseen father.

Mr. Frye's cold, angry, detached means of fatherhood are what have driven Cameron to become the sickly, self-loathing creature we meet at the beginning of the film. Morris hates his wife, he neglects his son, and in their place his one true love has become his red Ferrari GT California, which Ferris and Cameron steal in the film's first act to rescue Sloane from the high school.

We only have little bits and pieces of Morris Frye related to us — his house is like a museum; very cold and very beautiful, and you aren't allowed to touch anything, he went ballistic when Cameron broke his retainer, he can't stand his wife, he loves his car more than life itself — but it is Morris who has broken Cameron. Every time Cameron expresses his cynicism, his fear, and his desire to get home and end the day off as quickly as possible, Morris can be felt. His influence looms like a dark shadow across the entire film; the Bueller Crew's own private Sauron.

And so, while Ferris's mad dash to beat his parents home and final victory over Edward R. Rooney is humorous, it's all extended dénouement to the film's true climax, which occurs when Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron sit by the garage with the Ferrari, waiting for the miles to roll off the odometer as they spin the wheels backwards. When it doesn't work, Cameron finally snaps, and, mentally substituting the GT California for his father and seventeen years of neglect, attacks with impunity, kicking the shit out of the car, bending in the hood, smashing the headlights, caving in the bumper, while screaming "Who do you love?! Who do you love?! You love a car!!"

Of course, Cameron famously knocks the car (in high-speed reverse) off its jack, and it plummets through the garage window into the ravine below, reduced to scrap metal. Now, I doubt the absolute destruction of the car was ever in Ferris Bueller's game plan for the day, but it has the desired effect. The beast is slain. And, contrary to everything we've learned about him, Cameron smiles, having seen the beauty in life and realized what's truly important. Freed from his sorrow and fear, he simply states that he's looking forward to having a little chat when Morris gets home, tacking on a sentence Cameron has probably never said before in his life: "It's going to be good."

Sure, Cameron was probably grounded all summer, but he's a new and improved person for the next six to eight decades after that. The redemption is complete, and both Ferris and Cameron win.

Now, I've barely even scraped the surface of why Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the greatest movies ever made. I hardly mentioned the film's perfectly integrated soundtrack (especially Yellow's Oh Yeah, which will forever be known as "the Ferris Bueller song" in my mind). Or how, despite a career filled almost entirely with nebbishy losers regardless of the genre and quality of the movie or show in question (WarGames, Election, Godzilla, The Producers, 30 Rock, and many, many more), Matthew Broderick brilliantly embodies cool in a way few other actors in history have ever even approached. Or the fact that every other line would be the singular highlight of virtually any other screenplay.

But everything can be summed up by saying that it's one of cinema's finest achievements; funny, charming, endlessly quotable, and much deeper than it appears at first glance. John Hughes had an illustrious career, but high on the shoulders of National Lampoon's Vacation, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty In Pink, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Home Alone, and even The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off stands alone.

5 Stars out of 5

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."


Anonymous said...

Pretty good review. I'd almost take it a step further with the superhuman, greek god aspect. Ferris is at odds with his god-family. Rooney, Jeannie, his parents.

He takes a mortal (Cameron) with him on a whirlwind tour of wonderland, places and sights he never dreamed of. Notice that Cameron is a non-entity in Ferris's world. Neither Rooney nor Jeannie or anyone else is even aware of him. Rooney doesn't care about Cameron and it doesn't even cross his mind that Ferris might be with Cameron. Even though Cameron has been his Ferris's friend since the fifth grade.

A mortal in the Greek god's presence would not warrant notice. The myths did show the greek gods were always messing with each other. I always saw it like that.. with one god coming down and showing a mortal the way to help him improve.

Anonymous said...

WELL WRITTEN! I love Cameron too, not only identify with him, but agree in your wisdom of analysis that the story is really about him.

Anonymous said...

Currently studying this film as part of my VCE media and this review, or almost in-depth analysis, is really helping me to see the hidden aspects of the film and importance of certain characters. I've always loved this movie, along with Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, and many others. I'd give 5 stars to the review. Thank you for writing it too. You've just made my life a whole lot easier :)

ShadowCII said...

Excellent to find another fan of this move, and the original karate kid.

Can I please ask you to settle an epic debate.

I remember a scene where Sloan undresses in front of (what she believes is) a catatonic Cameron. However, that scene is missing from the dvd and the netflix cut of the movie and that I have fabricated a memory.

Can you tell me if you ever recall seeing this scene.
Please,if you get this, let me know. Thanks!

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