Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #14

Ferris Bueller's Day Off: A Look Back

 

When I say "Bueller," what automatically goes through your mind?

A hundred bucks says the dead-pan, monotone voice of Ben Stein repeating it endlessly.

If not that, then perhaps "Hey batta batta...?"

A visit to an art gallery?

Pretending to be Abe Forman, the Sausage King of Chicago?

A prank phone call and stealing a car?

Or maybe an image of the watertower to the right here and Twist and Shout in your head?

Either way, there's one thing all those have in common: being iconic.

And all are found in one little, low-budget comedy movie from 1986 that was about one day out of a teenager's life, an ode to Chicago, a reflection on lost youth and the uncertainty of the future. It's smarter than people give it credit, moving without needing to feel forced and more timeless than anyone could have expected. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the best comedies ever made.

There's an odd sense of classiness to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, perhaps a showing of a writer/director really coming into his own after claiming his stake on the brat-pack teen comedies he was already known for. Ferris Bueller's Day Off, though, saw writer/director John Hughes maturing and coming into his own.  Bueller was that point we can almost draw a line at that divides the style of film in his filmography. Before were the likes of National Lampoon, Breakfast Club and Weird Science, while after focused a little more on adult situations with Planes, Trains and Automobiles, She's Having a Baby and even Uncle Buck (then the 1990s came, and a lot of that changed). All phases were handled with intelligence and respect to their characters, though, and characters were something Hughes did better than anyone. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a happy medium. It's not quite a typical teen comedy, even for Hughes, but it's certainly not a movie for adults or dealing with adult situations.

What Ferris Bueller's Day Off is, though, is a celebration of youth that appeals to all ages. The younger kids want to grow up and be like Ferris, even if he is seemingly isolated and unappreciated by his parents, the older adults will watch the film and reminisce of their days in high school and wishing they could have such as a day off (Fast Times at Ridgemont High took a similar approach, although there wasn't one central character everybody wish they could be). Many of Hughes's other comedies dealt with the then and now of the era, something he was certainly keen and tuned into. The Breakfast Club is a perfect example of this, showing the problems of teens, the stereotypes, the pressure of parents and so on. Bueller, though, is much lighter and joyous if not warming. There aren moments of reflection, drama, or even emotion balanced against a rather broad-scoped comedy where character antics are stretched across the city of Chicago. As stated earlier, everything is much more subtle and far less direct, and that's what makes the movie so absolutely brilliant.

I think I was about ten when first seeing Ferris steal his Ferrari, pick up his gorgeous girlfriend, get his best friend to do a prank call and make Principal Rooney's life a living hell. At the time, I loved Ferris and the situations he would get himself into and, hopefully, out of. I revisited the movie years later when VHS came more readily available, and found myself more in tune with the world of a teenager and of high school. Now, I'm an adult. I've been through high school and life as a teenager, and now Ferris Bueller's Day Off is more a bittersweet reminder of a simpler life. Things didn't come as easily for me as they did Ferris, but I certainly wished they did and, in a way, lived vicariously through him. The film, now, is about youthful uncertainty for the future and how hope for the best of things is never clearly drawn. Conversations in the film touch me more meaningful than when my 10 and 16 year old minds were able to comprehend. I'm 29 now, but there's not a moment I don't wish I was still Ferris...but in reality it's wish I was still back in high school.

That's really what is is, though. It's a time-machine that is really only appreciated in hind-sight. Many teen comedies of today come and go, but when something is "timeless" it still beckons you like a Ferris on the phone with Cameron demanding he come and pick him up.

For Ferris, like Cameron, I can't resist.


  

A Brief History of Ferris Bueller's Day Off

 

-Conceptualized as a teenager's love letter to Chicago, John Hughes based much of Ferris Bueller's day on things he loved about the city growing up, then wrapped a story around it. The Art Institute of Chicago, Wrigley Field and the downtown area being strong centerpieces for him to set his characters around.

-Principal photography began in the fall of 1985 and only lasted for about a month and a half. All major scenes were shot on location around Chicago, Northfield and Winnetka with other scenes shot in other Chicago areas, Long Beach California and Highland Park (Cameron's house, which last year was up for sale).

-Matthew Broderick (Ferris) and Alan Ruck (Cameron) had worked with each other before in other projects (on and off Broadway) and were already good friends. Hughes, knowing this, utilized their chemistry for the characters. Broderick was Hughes's first choice, but Ruck wasn't cast until Anthony Michael Hall turned the role down.

Jennifer Grey, who would star in Dirty Dancing the following year, was cast as Ferris's sister. Interesting enough, Broderick and Grey were dating at the time. Also, the actors who played Ferris's parents were married soon after photography was completed.

 -Many cuts were made on the film, including Bueller's younger siblings (entirely removed), his prank calling a radio station and bits of dialog used for the trailer but not used in the final film. Like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, many of these additional scenes are lost completely.

-Four replica Ferrari's were created for the film. The "real" Ferrari was only used for basic shots and close ups, but never actually driven.

- Out of all the scenes shot, the museum sequence is many peoples' personal favorite, including John Hughes because it's something very close to his heart, albeit self-indulgent, as noted by his commentary. I challenge you to not be a little moved by it.

-The film grossed a little over $70 million, costing only $6 million.

-The film only garnered one award nomination: Matthew Broderick for best actor at the Golden Globes in 1987.


    

 Top Ten Reasons Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a Classic

(and Why we all still wish we were him)


10: Rooney

Of all the principals that were in high-school themes movies, to me there's no question that Principal Rooney is the most memorable. He utterly hates Ferris and all that he stands for, but as they say you can't have a Ying without a Yang. Jeffrey Jones becomes absorbed into this character, showing how great of a character actor the man is (and even moreso considering he just came off of a low-budget horror movie and Amadeus to this film). Rooney's rage towards Ferris is unmatched, his loathing of everything he stands for a drive for everything his character does and his unquenchable third to bring him down causes his downfall to be that much more of a release for us, the audience. He is the principal from Hell and every scene he is in demands your undivided attention...or it's detention for you, buddy. 


9: Incredibly Hot Girlfriend

Obviously, this is guy-specific here. You girls are stuck with Cameron, I guess, so sorry about that. But hey, Cameron is no slouch either.

Sloane is the girlfriend that every guy dreams of getting. She's smart, beautiful, gives as much as she gets from Ferris and understand his unique outlook on life. It's really her personality and the balance she finds with Ferris that makes her so unbelievably attractive, the looks were just icing in the cake. Guys don't always find the right girls to "get" them, but when they do, they can only hope and dream she's as half as gorgeous as Sloane.


8: Just a Touch of Romance

Teenager, Brat-Pack 1980s movies often dealt with one of two things: love and sex. Those things are a big topic for high-schoolers (and even younger) even today, but Bueller doesn't really dwell on it even for a John Hughes film - by this time he had already done The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Weird Science all of which focused more heavily on the those elements. Instead, it's beneath the surface. That hot girlfriend from #9 is already caught, so there's no story there or a boy-meets-girl plot, losing virginity or trying to woo. Instead, Ferris Bueller's Day Off plays out more like an epilogue or sequel to a film that already happened where we saw Ferris try and get the girl. In other words, everything feels as though it's already done and over with, and now new things can me focused on and you don't have to dwell on those plots that overwrought the teen comedy genre. But, and this is a but, there's this little subtle nuance to it. The romance and love between Ferris and Sloane feels as though it's always been, no different than his friendship with Cameron. It doesn't need to constantly remind us, because love and romance isn't saying "I love you" all the time. This is just a normal, simple day and that's exactly how Hughes, smartly, approaches the concept of their love: normal and simple. 


7: Celebrating Being A Teen

Ferris Bueller's Day Off is really about one thing: saying goodbye to youth and hello to adulthood. Simply put, this is probably the last day off Ferris will have before moving on in life, as noted numerous times in the film that it's his senior year in high school and that things are going to change drastically once he leaves - better or worse. Cameron and Sloan may not even be a part of his life because not many people from high school really keep in touch once they've gone to college or moved to another city. This is all the more sad because, as noted above, there's a sense of history to all three of them and it's implied they've known each other since they were kids. It's not so much a "coming of age" story as much as it is a "growing up" story, reflected similarly in how Hughes handles the material as though it's an adult looking back and wishing for this time again, things were easier and simpler, rather than a teenager merely uncertain of his future. This aspect appeals to everyone, as we all have people we used to be friends with but are no longer, or memories of how easier life was at 18 than at 28.


6: An Ode to Chicago

Hughes said it best, there aren't a lot of movies really shown about Chicago. I can only think of a few. The Blues Brothers. The Untouchables (and probably other older gangster movies I'm forgetting) and this film. What's interesting here, though, is that Chicago is a character itself and not merely just background fodder. While not everything was shot in Chicago, the significant moments were. The moments that had a little heart, or a deeper discussion about life after high school. The larger jokes and gags are there to get the crowds, but the smaller scenes of self-reflection is what ultimately defined the movie and gave it heart. They just happen to be done while giving a tip of the hat to Chicago in the process.


5: Bueller has Good Taste (and is a Master of Disguise)

 Through the process of...wearing a coat, hat and sunglasses...Ferris Bueller has to pretend he is the father of Sloane to get her out of school. Alas, he must also sell it one extra mile and pick her up in Cameron's father's 1961 Ferrari GT California.

Ferris may not know what kind of car or how rare it is, but he knows quality and what is going to impress people. Let's face it, he's driving a car we all wish we were driving. He also shows a pretty damn good fashion sense, even for the mid 1980s, notably a lack of New-Wave hairdo and bright neon colors. Instead, he tries on a suit, wears a posh beret and sporty sunglasses. Bueller didn't just act cool, he was cool and there's this sense that he could wear anything and still pull it off. This sense of taste lends itself well to his ability to fool people. He doesn't just wear an outfit, he wears it with confidence as though it was tailor made. Through all this, we feel that Ferris can really do anything, and we're so happy to be there alongside him as he does so. 


4: Teens Outsmarting Adults

Alright, this is really nothing new when it comes to teen comedies, but Ferris Bueller takes it to a new level. He's both spontaneous yet strikes out as though he had planned it all along. Sure, a hell of a lot of luck comes in the process, especially towards the end, but he manages to find a way through it, dragging his friends and us along for the ride. If it were a lesser character, we maybe wouldn't enjoy it, but Ferris makes us enjoy it and rather than it just being "teens outsmarting adults," which brings in the crowds certainly, it's "making sure all of us have a wonderful day off with Ferris, rather than just observe his day off from afar."


3: Cameron

For those who maybe found Ferris a little off-putting and too Alpha Male, you have Cameron who is pretty much the exact opposite yet is never in doubt on being his best friend. As great as Ferris is, it's his film afterall, but Cameron is almost every bit as memorable and hilarious as Ferris. He's dry, dead-pan, monotone at times and certainly, certainly, paranoid about everything. Ferris himself notes this. He is a glass half-full guy, that is obvious.  However, I think what's interesting about Cameron is that we really get to know him better than we do Ferris. We know his issues with his mom, with his dad, with school and his friendship with Ferris. This all culminates to a very exposed Cameron, beating his father's car and yelling at the end of the film. But he doesn't hide. He's had enough, and if anything is thankful to Ferris for letting his finally see it. We didn't really get that raw, visceral emotion from Ferris. Sure, he's full of self-reflective observations and questions about life, but Cameron is interesting. Cameron wants answers, but fails to realize that sometimes answers just don't come and his reaction to never knowing the "whys" to thing causes him to explode. "Who do you love!? You love a car!" It's a cry for help, and sees how Ferris truly loves and appreciate his friendship they've had since the fifth grade. Yes, this is Ferris's movie, but Cameron is the one that truly has the emotional story to be told.

By the way, there's this great weird little bit of crazy theorizing and straw-grasping of Cameron actually being the main character, and Ferris is his alter-ego/figment of his imagination. Ferris is what everybody really wants to be, similar to Tyler Durden. Let's save that for the #1 spot, though.


2: Appreciating the Little Things

Stopping to smell the roses is usually the last thing a teenager does, yet . Bueller is certainly a big-picture, lavish type of guy, but some of the best moments in the film are simply enjoying the small things, or being playful with them, such as going to the top of the Sears Tower and putting your head against the glass to look down, or going to the art museums (which also made it onto my Top 25 Movie Montages from a few months back). As great as sneaking into restaurants, dancing in a parade and tricking adults might be, I actually found the most significant parts of Ferries Bueller's Day Off the parts that don't draw attention to themselves at all. I think this is because life itself is built around these elements, the small moments we perhaps take for granted. The film knows this and achieves two things in the process: a more believable look at life, not just the big picture, and more significance to the characters because these smaller scenes are entirely about them, their problems, and the big question of life after high school. Smaller moments and poignant, casual conversation are often the more significant in our lives, the film balances both perfectly with the fun, large moments we desire, but the small, personal moments we appreciate in hindsight. As Ferris says:

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


1: Ferris Bueller is the Teen We Wish We Were

Everything we regret not doing as a teen, or wishing we could do and get away with, Ferris does for us.  He's smart, good looking, has parents that love him, a friend dedicated to him, a girlfriend that is as intelligent as she is gorgeous, his plans always work and he is the most popular guy in school. In reality, we're probably lucky to have had just one of those elements.

Not only this, Bueller is a Christ-like figure. He brings out the best and worst of people, exposing them for what they really are on both good and bad levels, but is also inspiring to those that, without him, would never say or do what they really feel (Cameron and his relationship with his father an obvious example, the ending bit with his sister another). He's an inspiration, and obviously people love him or there wouldn't be watertowers with his name sprawled across them. Ferris is, for all sakes and purposes, an inspiration to eveyrbody. As Rooney says

"What is so dangerous about a character like Ferris Bueller is he gives good kids bad ideas."

No, he just makes those good kids realize how great life can be and to realize they have more in them than what other people tell them.

 


Honorable Mention: Charlie Sheen as Charlie Sheen

While not nearly as awkward and uncomfortable as OJ Simpson in the Naked Gun movies, Charlie Sheen's appearance as a strung-out drug addict in the police station is funny for its time, but even more funny now that we kind of know the kind of person Sheen is and how big a star he would eventually become.

 


 

As we still find ourselves in the wake of John Hughes's passing last year, it's hard not to reflect on the man's accomplishments. While Ferris Bueller isn't my favorite film of his personally, it's still up there and easily one of the best films of its era. Hughes managed to not treat his characters like children. He didn't treat them as "adults" either. You see, Hughes understood youth. He knew what they were interested in, what they talked about and liked to do and he certainly went against convention to showcase this in his "brat-pack" series of films. They were well-rounded, fully realized people, not just teens with angst or parent problems. They felt real, acted real, and he damn sure knew how to cast the perfect people for the role.

And that's what it really comes down to. A smart script is only as smart as the actors make it. Can you imagine any other actor, even popular 1980s actors, in the role of Ferris and Cameron? I certainly can't. Their deliveries of the dialogue is spot-on making for memorable quotes and banter, but also their entire look because both are expressive visually as they are vocally (Cameron sitting in his car, debating to go to Ferris's house, is still one of the funniest moments in film). If the characters were lesser, or not as convincingly, we'd just have another movie. Rather, they are familiar faces and showcases of everything we loved about growing up, as well as everything we feared. Through them, we find ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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