80s Week: Reconsidering “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
I thought I’d share this mash-up, which is one of more than a dozen that will be featured Friday night at the radical 80s prom.
For this week leading up to the event, I thought it’d be fun to use evening posts to post some thoughts on 80s pop culture, for two reasons. One is obviously to gin up enthusiasm for the prom, but obviously that only matters to those who can be in Manhattan on Friday night. The other is I’ve begun work on a book on pop culture and politics that is slated for release in 2012, and so I thought it would be fun to warm up my chops on subjects that I can’t cover within its boundaries, since I’m focusing on more recent pop culture. And that, I believe, everyone can enjoy. So consider this 80s week!
When John Hughes died last year, there was a lot of public mourning, and it was centered almost completely on a series of films he wrote and/or directed in the 80s that were about the lives of teenagers in suburbia. It’s funny, because if you look at his actual track record, it was mostly a bunch of shit with a few gems in there, but one thing that really comes across is that his interest in teenagers as a subject died out early. His last film on the subject was “Some Kind of Wonderful” in 1987. He did six films on the subject, right in a bunch, and then I guess he felt he’d said all he had to say and quit. But out of his entire career, those six films are the ones that are the most fondly remembered, in part because they’re the most honest and interesting. Flashes of the darkness and complexity in them come out in later movies, such as “She’s Having A Baby” or “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, but it wasn’t the same.
To be fair, some of his hack tendencies are all over the teen flicks, too. “Sixteen Candles” is racist and kind of an amateur hour-type of movie. “The Breakfast Club” has numerous and well-picked over flaws. I rewatched “Pretty in Pink” the other day, because I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, and while I overall think it was a strong and effective film, it was a tad ham-fisted when it came to the class issues. But I think that Hughes must have learned a lot from these mistakes, because his movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is clearly his best, and it touches on many of the themes in previous films, but with more subtlety and a hint of more pathos than before. I know, it’s a strange thing to say about a movie that is basically a broad comedy centered around a character who resembles a teenage version of Bugs Bunny, and yet. There it is.
I’m far from the first person to note this, but it all makes more sense if you think of Cameron as the protagonist of the film, and not Ferris. In fact, this is such an obvious point that people have made it by joking that the Cameron/Ferris relationship is the same as the Ed Norton’s character/Tyler relationship in “Fight Club”.
Ferris is a spoiled rich kid, but not on the level of Cameron. It’s Cameron whose father is rich enough to own a car that was worth $350,000 in 1986 and is now worth $11 million (there were only 100 made). It’s Cameron who feels unloved and controlled by his rich father. It’s his story that’s the interesting one.
Ferris, on the other hand, doesn’t really change over the course of the story. He begins and ends the story as someone who lives a carefree existence of popularity, fun, and good times. Towards the end, there are hints that Ferris is aware of impending adulthood and the possibility that good times will end, but do any of us really believe that Ferris will be less free when he’s given more freedom in adulthood? Yeah, I didn’t think so. His concerns in life are light as a feather. He worries a little what will happen to his relationship with Sloane, but we in the audience have ample reason to believe they’ll part amicably as romantic partners and probably be friends from there on out. All the other characters in the movie are basically concern-free, too. Anyone who has problems, besides Cameron, has them because they haven’t yet embraced Ferris’s worldview. His sister, the principal: they end up in trouble because they take things too seriously. If they let go, life would be much better for them.
In this, Ferris is something of a precursor to The Dude in “The Big Lebowski”. He also is related to the character of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except since he’s male and this is a good movie, he gets to have more agency, an internal life, and a future—all things MPDGs rarely get in any more than a surface fashion.
Cameron has real concerns. Initially, Ferris puts Cameron into the same bucket as everyone else who makes trouble for themselves, which is people who just need to chill out a bit. But Cameron’s pain cannot be contained by Ferris’s blithe attitudes. Indeed, one of the neat tricks of the movie is that it heaps enough dark humor on to the situation that some truly alarming things are said and done by Cameron, but it just gets smoothed over by Ferris until the big explosion of anger at the end when the car is destroyed. This includes a suicide attempt by Cameron that is momentarily disturbing, then played off for laughs. On paper, that sounds like it doesn’t work, but it does. The entire Cameron storyline is basically a darkly comical portrait of depression, and by muting it with comedy, we get the impression that Ferris doesn’t have the emotional capacity to handle his responsibilities to his friend. And yet, when Cameron jumps into the pool, Ferris rescues him. The implication is that you may not feel up to your responsibilities in life, but you should squash that fear and just do what you need to. (So maybe Ferris does grow more than I give him credit for.)
Obviously, the other big symbolic scene is the car crashing through the glass garage and falling into a ravine that destroys it. This is about Cameron’s feelings of neglect, but I don’t think it’s wrong to think there’s some subtle commentary on class going on here. Despite being a Republican, Hughes toyed with the idea that excessive wealth can be a rot on people’s souls in at least one movie, which is “Pretty in Pink”. That movie straight up argues that wealth and privilege turn people into empty-headed, mean-spirited assholes, an idea that research is beginning to suggest has something to it. Even the good guy rich boy character, Blaine, is unable to understand Andie’s concerns about being subjected to his friends until he’s already humiliated her by doing so.
Cameron’s father in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an offscreen ogre. What we know of him we only know through his son. We know he has lots of time to dote on a car, but not enough to notice his child is suffering. By making the car a stand-in for the father and everything fucked up about him, Hughes is linking extreme wealth with emotional neglect. The characters have their fun playing around in the expensive toy, but learn all too quickly that it’s an albatross, and that they must destroy it. Money plays a strange role in the film. On one hand, it’s what gives Ferris the privilege to live a carefree life, but by the end we’re left with this feeling that money is just another one of those things that people obsess over to the degree that they don’t live.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to look at the famous scene with Ben Stein speaking about voodoo economics. That was the theory that you cut taxes for the rich and it “trickles down” to other people. But it isn’t long, if I remember correctly, after he explains this concept that we see what the rich actually do with their money: a rare Ferrari, encased in glass, and never actually driven. All of Ferris’s attempts to get his buddy to enjoy life and pull out of his depression are for naught. It’s only when a couple of working class guys get their hands on the symbol of obscene wealth, the Ferrari, and they drive the thing as it was made to be driven that Cameron is pushed into a situation where he has to make a decision about his own life. The result is the destruction of the car.
The movie has endured as a classic, and the reason is ostensibly because it’s just so funny. And it is—it has some of the most repeatable, hilarious deadpan humor of the 80s—but I think it’s also because these themes resonate with the audience. They’re not immediately apparent in many ways, but Hughes’s temporary break from being ham-fisted about these ideas is one reason the movie works on an emotional level that many of his others don’t.