Joshua Budich Ferris Bueller

This evening, we watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) written and directed by John Hughes.  I’ve seen the film numerous times through the years since I originally saw it in the theatre in the 1980’s. I was impressed with the film even more this time watching it. Part of the pleasure of watching it was seeing it with our high school daughter who could relate to the humor, skipping school fantasy, and travelogue of Chicago – which shines in the movie as one of the characters.

It is a rare writer or director who can pull off what John Hughes did with this film.  It works on a number of levels, something that rarely happens in comedies. First, it’s a smart, well timed comedic piece with great physical gags and plenty of set-ups that work with the audience like a great comedian can.

When comedy is done well, there is a rapore between the comedian and the audience where all of the guards are let down and the audience trusts themselves to the comedian. The barriers come down. When that happens, it’s almost like telepathy the play of “call and response” between the comedy and the audience. There must be a name for what this is called in comedy. It has to do with anticipation, rhythm, repetition, and surprises that break the rhythm. In Ferris Bueller, an example of this is the concern that everyone shows for Ferris’s illness. We start to anticipate it as we are watching. As the movie continues, we know it’s going to be more audacious each time the subject comes up. Till students are collecting money for a kidney transplants, water towers are being repainted with “Save Ferris”, Police men are inquiring about him, his house gets filled with flowers.  Our trust and pleasure in the anticipated surprises grows with each gag till no matter how audacious it becomes we totally trust the film maker and suspend belief and critical thinking. It moves from reality into a shared acceptable fantasy. (repainting water towers? really?)

Many instances of great comedic timing fill the movie, from the surprise of Ferris’s phone antics such as the call from his girl friend Sloane’s father Goerge Peterson about the death of her Grandma, in which the audience along with the student dean (Jeffery Jones), are deceived into thinking it’s Ferris calling. Then, when the director shows us Ferris on the phone on another line, we start to wondering, could it be real? Then, we see it’s Ferris’s friend Cameron on the phone. These events of masterful manipulation build and build throughout the film till they start to break down. (The door bell scene for example)

Ferris is more then human in this film, he never pays for his breaking of the rules, within the movie, Ferris never grows, never learns, does not really risk anything. He is in complete control or incredibly lucky.  Why is this? Because John Hughes is being tricky, the movie is not really about Ferris Bueller. It’s about Cameron. Cameron is the hero of this movie, he is the one who must sacrifice his fears and learn, first how to enjoy himself, and secondly how to take a stand–to face his fears.  Ultimately, he is faced with what feels like the end of his world when his dad’s car–which his dad loves more then anything else in the world, is destroyed and Cameron has to choose to let Ferris take the blame or face his father. Ferris is Cameron’s guardian angel. This movie is more closely akin to “It’s a wonderful life“, only in a reverse sort of way. Instead of seeing what life would be like with Cameron, Cameron is taken on a journey to actually live and experience life, he literally rises from a cocoon of bed sheets and blankets at the beginning of the film looking very much like a mummy , resurrected by Ferris’s constant prodding. By the end of the movie he is a changed person. Hughes in fact suggested that a young Jimmy Stewart could have played the part of Cameron.

Usually, when the 4th wall is broken in film, it disrupts the immersion of the audience in the story, and takes us outside the story reminding us that this is not real.  In this case, Ferris when he talks to the audience acts as our guide and helps us participate in the movie deeper. He reminds us that this surreal experience is a fairy tale that the audience is participating in. This becomes not so much a devise that John Hughes is using as a crutch, but an integral part of our relationship to Ferris.  Ferris is an angel who can see the audience and keep us informed on his motivations and concerns for the true protagonist in the movie, Cameron. It reinforces the fantasy.

A movie like this could have been written with much more crudity and hedonistic behavior. A morality tale about being bad and learning a lesson about the evils of skipping school. Instead, John Hughes crafted this to be original and fresh.  What the characters do with their day of freedom?  They go to a ball game, eat dinner in a nice restaurant, go to the art museum, visit the top of the Sears tower, dance and sing in a parade and take a swim in a pool.  The movie is a splash of fresh water compared to films about high school such as “American Pie” or “Porky’s” or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, just to name a few. It explores a classic list of great reasons to live: The pleasure of food, inspiration and beauty of art, beautiful vistas, celebration, singing, dancing, physical pleasure of water, sports and competition, and friendship. These are the basic building blocks of a healthy, inspired life.  Ferris in the end saves Cameron and the audience by helping us remember the reason for living. “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”