Ferris Beuller, You're My Hero

Certain movies have a totemic significance to the audiences, particularly the young audiences, which first view and embrace them. They are not merely popular, nor do they simply, cannily depict their era; they capture the zeitgeist, and even predict the psychic direction that generation will take. For example, in the fifties Rebel Without a Cause not only detected the baseline of angst felt by the middle class youth of America, but also predicted a union of the disaffected that would result in unconventional family structures and rebellions with causes. A decade or so later, Easy Rider emblematized freewheeling, youthful independence, and diagnosed the germ of destruction contained within that culture--drugs. In the seventies, Saturday Night Fever marked the apogee of the Disco Age. At the end of the movie, the characters seemed to have intuited as much, in the music, in their lives, it was all downhill from there.

The eighties had such a film, a cultural touchstone whose impact still reaches and resonates with the former youth of that era. That film is Ferris Beuller's Day Off.

Ferris was attacked in its day by critics as a meandering fantasy which when it dealt with social issues did so in a circumspect and flippant way. Which is true. These just aren't problems, no more than were mournful teenagers in Rebel Without a Cause, hippies in Easy Rider, or the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever--they are their sine qua non. Ferris's (and Ferris's) so called flaws are precisely what made the movie significant to its original audience and what identify it as a significant cultural landmark of the eighties. But for fun, let's have a look at the allegations.

Ferris Beuller's Day Off absolutely is a fantasy, God love it, with only occasional nods toward plausibility in the Rube Goldberg contrivances Ferris conjures to enable his escape. Ferris himself is possessed of nearly supernatural charm and luck, a sort of Gilgal to his peers. Or as the villain Dean Ed Rooney's white-out sniffing assistant puts it, "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads--they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." He has followers, acolytes, a cult. The influence he wields terrifies Rooney; "What's so terrible about a kid like Ferris is he gives good kids bad ideas. Last thing I need in my career is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body." He is fighting a war against charisma. He is fighting...the Reagan Administration. Think back to the Reagan years and the phenomenal personal popularity he inspired even amongst those most allegedly negatively affected by his economic policies. Reagan was more concerned with the eternal verities of right and wrong than mouthing pieties and doing the expected. Even when his foes thought they had him dead to rights in the Iran-Contra affair, for instance, the charges against him melted away like Ferris's absentee record on Rooney's pc. Reagan's seemly magical influence is even alluded to in Economics Teacher (and staunch Republican) Ben Stein's use of a quote from then Vice President George Bush about "something-d-o-o economics, 'Voodoo' economics." Ultimately, Reagan's crimes like Ferris's just didn't seem to matter to their constituency, and nothing their horrified critics did to change that seemed to make a speck of difference.

Another not unreasonable charge critics made against Ferris concerned its characters' lack of motivation. Students fall asleep in class, or ditch school altogether, have no ambitions, and only the sketchiest of plans for the future-hardly role model material. And yet, Ferris was a model of sorts for the Slacker generation--widely criticized for their aimlessness but seldom praised for their choice to value personal relationships over career direction, and the first in American History without the expectation that they would be financially better off than their parents. In fact, the quest for affluence takes a hit in Ferris Beuller's Day Off. Mr. and Mrs. Bueller, while generally benevolent, are too distracted by their jobs to notice their son's chicanery and their daughter's discontent. Even Ferris was amazed by how easily he faked them out with a phantom illness: "Incredible--one of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second."

The parents of Ferris's friend Cameron have the same symptoms but to a more extreme degree. Or as Ferris puts it, "I used to think my family was the only one with weirdness in it, then I saw how Cameron lived...His house is like a museum: very beautiful, and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything." The literal and metaphorical coldness of Cameron's surroundings have a detrimental physical effect on him, a concept that would be embraced more and more generally until now it is commonly accepted. The major trope of his parents' value system is his father's Ferrari (significantly, it is red, the color of the other villain in the movie Ed Rooney's hair). When the car first comes to harm, Cameron mimics a suicide and Ferris "saves" him. But Cameron's plunge into the pool is more along the lines of a baptism and rebirth, and Ferris is revealed not as savior but a catalyst to Cameron's reincarnation into self-confident maturity.

The car at that point in the film was, like Ed Rooney, not permanently damaged--it just had a few rough miles put on it. But as Cameron's issues with his parents are more serious even than Ferris's prospects of graduating from high school, that which has become emblematic of them must be more thoroughly destroyed. The car is accidentally propelled into a ravine and pronounced dead by Ferris, whereas Rooney gets off with a gigantic dose of largely self-induced humiliation. And neither Ferris nor Cameron indicates any desire at all to follow in their parents' footsteps.

Virtually endemic to movies about white kids from wealthy families are accusations of racism and classism. There may be something to this. Minorities and poor people are so seldom glimpsed in Ferris Bueller's Day Off that their every appearance smacks of tokenism. We could to a large extent dismiss the charges with Ferris's own words, "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism--he should believe in himself," but with one final observation. Ferris's bitter sister Jeanie finally finds if not love then release in her interaction with a stoned detainee she meets at the police station. They kiss and it's the Cinderella story in reverse: rich white princess has a fling with a commoner and is charmed by the possibilities of downward mobility.

Okay, one more observation. Jeanie has spent the entire movie furious because her brother ditches school and gets away with it. Then the stoner guy tells her, "You could ditch school," and her life is changed. For although Ferris Bueller's Day Off is on the surface the story of a lark, it actually extols the virtues of self-determination. That's a quality Ferris has in spades. His determination to live life to the fullest is so all consuming it hardly matters if he ends up, as Cameron predicts, a "fry cook on Venus," he will be happy and content. Cameron himself decides, "I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life." Jeanie chooses to cover Ferris's butt rather than bust his chops, and maybe will pick up some tips on ditching school in exchange.

And damn it, I might just call in sick to work tomorrow.

(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)

From vol. 10
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