Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
0. Where It All Began (2004, from Mysteries of Cinema)
In my youth, I dashed to the movies, in the company of my friends, after a pleasant meal that included several bottles of wine. We arrived after the projection had started, and settled down in our state of heightened intoxication to watch an American teen movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It was a pretty good film when re-viewed in a sober condition, but as far as I was concerned, that night, it was the greatest of all cinematic masterpieces, a perfect pretext for the Deleuzian method of reception I had been eagerly cultivating. In this state that the Surrealists of the 1950s called irrational enlargement, I plunged into this big-screen movie as if it were an entire world. Every detail, every corner of the frame came alive. I could enter the space of the screen and explore it at will. The film lost its fixed duration: it became an infinite, virtual zone. Every zig-zag of the characters, every travelling past décor, every crystal-clear blast of pop music became the forward projections of my own imaginary voyage in and through the screen.
In an eerie but very beautiful way, the film even seemed to be reading the minds of we happy few liberated spectators, answering our prayers and giving form to our desires: when a sad boy named Cameron is trapped at home, suddenly a choir on the soundtrack whispers let my Cameron go!; when the film seemed to have ended we wanted it to go on forever, but then the young hero flew back into the frame to ask into the camera are you still there?; and, in an unlikely, impromptu scene at an art gallery, the teenagers’ gaze at Impressionist paintings jump-cuts in deeper and deeper until there are only purely abstract dots and colour-fields …
Sometimes, one’s aim exceeds one’s grasp. I have never completed my prospective text Inside Ferris Bueller, my homage to that evening of inner expanded cinema and what it taught me. Perhaps some texts are meant never to be written in one’s lifetime. The haunting question is always: can they be written? Somewhere, sometime, we all reach the limit of our sweet delirium; if we don’t, maybe we go over the edge, we die, or evaporate.
1. Coffee Table Book Entry (2007)
Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is an odd kind of hero, at least for a screen genre like the teen movie that so often prizes anti-social rebellion.
Although he contrives a “day off” school for himself, girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and severely repressed pal Cameron (Alan Ruck), Ferris is no juvenile delinquent. He is a self-proclaimed guru of self-improvement, living life to the full – indeed, given the adulation accorded him by the entire student body, this supremely narcissistic lad resembles a cult leader.
Ferris’ fun-filled sight-seeing tour around his home town includes not the teen movie staples of sex, drugs, booze, or property destruction, but a very instructive trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to take in masterworks by Picasso, Modigliani, Kandinsky …
The scene is a smooth blend of MTV music clip (a wacky montage set to The Dream Academy’s instrumental version of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”), feel-good pedagogy (Great Art is good for you), and the fresh, giddy invention that, for a few action-packed years, Hughes brought to Pop Cinema: especially the actors’ postures, gestures and movements, a hundred delightful bits of business that ceaselessly threaten to overturn the plot.
The highlight of this gallery scene is a vertiginous few seconds at the end, where Cameron stares neurotically at a Seurat, his ever-deeper gaze translated into successive inserts of a child’s face, the colours and lines of which it is comprised, and finally the material surface of the canvas itself. What a lesson in Modernism!
2. From a Survey of the Teen Movie Genre: A Liminal Adventure (1990)
Liminal experiences come in many forms, many types of story lines, many situations. Whatever its form, the crucial aspect of a liminal experience is that it is somehow radically different from the given, everyday lives of those it affects. Liminality is experienced as a break from the norm, an adventure of some sort – perhaps an unexpected detour from one’s set path, or the intrusion of something or somebody new that upsets quotidian routine.
Most often in teen movies, the liminal experience happens for the characters because of a holiday, whether spent far from home (Dirty Dancing , Aloha Summer ), or in the streets of one’s home turf (Old Enough, 1984). But it can equally be just a few days: the murderous weekend binge between the last day of school on Friday and the commencement of manual labour on Monday in No Apparent Motive (aka The Boys Next Door, 1985); or a single “night on the town”, as in the 1987 film of that title (also known as, liminally enough, Adventures in Babysitting).
A characteristic of the liminal experience in many teen movies is that is not individual but collective, confronting radically different types of people who would not normally mix – think of the mature JD (Paul Le Mat as John Milner) and the very young teenage girl (Mackenzie Phillips as Carol) with whom he is thrown together in American Graffiti (1973).
Of all the filmmakers closely associated with the contemporary teen movie, perhaps none has worked the form more thoroughly and cagily than John Hughes [1950-2009]. He has explored almost every possible liminal pretext. His characters find themselves momentarily suspended in a new, thrilling, sometimes excruciatingly painful world because they are doing Saturday detention together (The Breakfast Club, 1985); because their computer spits out a supernatural being (Weird Science, 1986); because there is a transport strike on (Planes, Trains and Automobiles : not a teen movie); and, most whimsically, because every member of a family forgets the date of the teenage daughter’s birthday (Sixteen Candles, 1984).
The significance Hughes invests in the seemingly trivial notion of playing hooky in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is immense, and intense: only by making the everyday world an occasional space for adventure and childlike games, the film explicitly suggests, can one actively realise what life is, and how best to live it.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is, on a profound level, an ode to a city (Chicago). Like so many teen movies and other contemporary mainstream films, it views the city-space as an arena for spectacle, the public spectacle of daily life itself. Recall, for instance, the ecstatic parade sequence, where ordinary people of all physiques and persuasions dance in formation, and Ferris momentarily becomes a star as he mimes “Twist and Shout”.
Even more central to the film than this display, however, is the way in which the characters are able, literally, to magnify the minutiae of their city (Cameron’s reverie of going in to the very grain of the painting), to project themselves into its expanse (Cameron’s almighty scream), and to play it like a vast board game. (In this, it is the inverse of Raúl Ruiz’s Le jeu de l’oie : there, the game plays the characters, with Paris and its environs as the expanded board).
Ferris is the master of this manipulation of the city: via his wizardry with all communications systems (computers, answering machines, synthesizers, especially telephones), he is able to make himself legion, to dissimulate himself everywhere at once. If the main characters find a way to make their city interesting, to renew its life, so do the two garage attendants (played by Richard Edson and Larry Flash Jenkins) who, unbeknownst to everyone, pull the best stunt of all, sneaking out Cameron’s car for an all-day joyride (at one point in glorious slow motion, and to the theme music of Star Wars!).
Every event in this film has a liminal resonance for one or another character, leading to a decisive outcome. Cameron learns, through the sometimes painful adventure of the day, a new measure of self-esteem. He learns to literally let go of the material object (his father’s car) that binds him into a daily oppressive situation. The school principal (Jeffrey Jones as Ed) is utterly degraded, to the extent that he must come face to face, ultimately, with the grimy reality he has so assiduously avoided: a smelly school bus! Ferris’ sister Jeannie finds herself unexpectedly in the midst of an accelerated liminal-romantic encounter with a teen crim (Charlie Sheen) at the police station – an experience which mellows her for the finale.
Perhaps most crucially in liminal terms, the film presents itself to the audience as a spectacle of the most heightened proportions: it is structured (on a narrative deadline) and styled so breathlessly that one forgets to ask whether or not what it shows is plausible. It is almost hallucinatory to watch; we enter its world of pure dream-made-reality, pure energy, pure ego ...
And then, when it’s over ... what? Does Ferris Bueller’s Day Off end up in the entertaining-but-instantly-forgettable disposal bin of our minds? Do we, can we retain anything of the exhilaration, the passionate insight into the sensual everyday world, the capacity for total life renewal?
What makes Hughes’ teen films so special is the insistence and the intensity with which they pose such questions.
3. Radio Script: A Letter to Jeannie Bueller (2016)
I know it’s really your film. You’re the first voice we hear, off-screen, and your introduction is classic, heroic, epic: first your foot tapping, then your fingers drumming on your belt, then your face in close-up. Your film. Not that brother of yours who gets his name in the title, with his damn Day Off. Oh yes, that cheeky, irrepressible, teenage guy who skips high school classes to go driving with his friends, sing songs, and have fun adventures in art galleries and street parades! Sure. But didn’t you skip class that day, too, Jeannie? Aren’t you one mean driver yourself, especially when you’re racing that creep of a brother back home? Your Mom and Dad see nothing, know nothing, understand nothing. Only YOU understand everything. And you get punished for it, every time. Whereas HE gets away with it all. Life is so unfair. That’s what you know, Jeannie. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you’re a girl, and he’s a boy?
That smug shit with his winning ways, his irresistible smile, his winsome charm. Just a manipulative devil underneath it all. He gets every break. You get none. You save your family home from a predatory burglar, and then they drag YOU to the cops for making crank calls. What justice is there in this white-picket world? Your brother – I can’t even bring myself to utter his foul, amusement-park name – knows how to get by and get over, how to win everybody’s confidence, how to trick the system. He’s slick, I’ll give him that. He glides over the surface of everything. Not a blessed thought or a single deep emotion inside him. He keeps on truckin’. You bet he’s grown up, by now, to be some corporate criminal. Or the American Psycho. Same thing.
Jeannie, your aim is true, and your emotion is pure. You are driven by one thing, and one thing only: hatred. You burn with hatred. Your eyes narrow and glare in extreme close-up, your body twitches with spasms of anger, your mouth curls and snarls to utter insults worthy of Marlon Brando’s scatological rap in Last Tango in Paris. “Run it up a flagpole”; “Put your thumb up your butt”; “You’re about to lose a testicle”! You’re a poet. You’re also a radical. Like a character who should have been in a John Cassavetes movie, you can’t abide the patter, the lame excuses of functionaries, secretaries, bureaucrats; to all of them, your deadly putdown is: “Nice attitude”. So much for them. And like a suffragette, you declare: “I am very protective of my body. I don’t want it violated or killed”. It’s your Manifesto. Your Manifesto of hatred for the world as we know and loathe it, you and I.
And people really thought this was a cute, entertaining, 1980s pop movie for undemanding teenagers? Get over it. They weren’t looking in the right place. Your brother is all over this movie, hogging the camera and dispensing his “live your life today” banalities, but you are its beating heart. Sometimes, a full 15 minutes can go by where you don’t appear on screen. These bits in-between you are the obligatory, conventional parts. Forget them. All through the film, there’s the crazy sound and fury of sampled pop hits and zany, fast editing. But can any of it match the single, simple moment of real cinema when the camera tracks along a bare, white school corridor to arrive at your figure, leaning against a wall, and your thoughts in voice-over – “What makes him so goddamn special?” – suddenly turn into a vocalised-out-loud proclamation: “SCREW HIM!” You are a woman of action, Jeannie. You even get to karate-kick the school principal in the face, repeatedly.
And finally, like in some mystical movie by Bresson or Dreyer or Sokurov or one of those cats, you get a moment of grace. It’s special: you get to share it, at the police station, with Charlie Sheen, who looks like a Brando-esque juvenile delinquent in leather, and can tell you only that he’s on drugs. A prophetic part for Charlie. This dude tries to tell you some home truths: “Your problem is you”. Your fist clenches, you’re ready to sock him. But then, something else happens. As your Mom prattles on to the cops, apologising for you, that’s when, deep in the background of the frame, you start snogging Charlie. It’s magnificent, delirious, amour fou. And again it’s hidden, off-centre. Mom breaks it off and hauls you away. You know what to say: “Let’s not ruin this with a lot of talk, OK?” It was just a beautiful moment, and it’s over, you’ll never see him again. You’re “way existential” to understand that. And the film’s director (god bless him for this) gives you a fabulous exit, where you’re leaving but you’re pausing, you’re down the step but you’re up again, you’re giggling like a kid but burning with desire like a woman. Just for a second, your white hot anger has transmuted into love. But the anger will be back again, soon enough – unless you decide to allow this reprieve of grace even to your hideous brother.
Jeannie, I believe you have a sister in the movies. Not this movie, your brother’s movie, but a different movie, a modern horror film. It’s the third version, and the second remake, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just called Body Snatchers. There’s another teenage girl in that film who can’t be fooled or taken in by anybody: by all those soulless, cloned pod people who so profoundly resemble your own teachers, your neighbours, your classmates, and especially your family members. At the end, this girl, your soul-sister, gets away in a helicopter, watches the rotten world as it burns, and even gets to throw her horrid brother down into those same flames. And what does she say? She says: “I was happy, because I hated them” – and the force of her hatred is the mark of her passion and her humanity. You deserve to ride in that helicopter too, Jeannie.
Yours sincerely, Adrian
© Adrian Martin March 2004 / March 2007 / March 1990 / August 2016