Ten Degrees of Eighties continues: Ferris Bueller's Day Off
posted by Mickey and Mike on 4/01/03
I don't know if Jen, who wrote so many great posts on this site, plans to ever get married, but if she does, I am going to have a quiet word with her husband to-be before the ceremony. I can just see the two of us there in our wedding threads, in the grounds of the church. It is a beautiful day. From where we are sitting I can see the limousine that is going to take us to the reception afterwards. Jen's intended is handsome. He has a chiseled jaw and if he seems a little nervous, that is probably only because it is his wedding day.
VON HANGMAN. Dude, these are some pretty awesome vows you are about to make.
GROOM. I know, man.
VON HANGMAN. You are about to made a holy vow to Love, Honor and Obey this woman, for as long as you both shall live. I mean, whew, that's a long time, man, do you know what I'm saying?
GROOM. I know. It's going to be, like, for the rest of my life.
VON HANGMAN. And that's how long you're gonna love Jen, and honor her, and obey her?
VON HANGMAN. That's good. That is really good. That is exactly what I wanted to hear. Cos if you don't, I'm going to kick your ass. When Jen told me she was engaged to someone who spoke like Shaggy in 'Scooby Doo,' for a while there, I was worried for her, but I can see now you're a good guy. Now, a word to the wise, man. When Jen says she is going to love and honor and so on and so forth with respect to you, what do you think that is going to mean?
GROOM. It is gonna mean, like, she's gonna do it. Right?
VON HANGMAN. Because she has made a commitment, eh? Is that what you are saying?
VON HANGMAN. And what if I were to tell you that this same woman once made a commitment that she was going to write about all these movies that were made during the 1980s, and was going to write not just about one movie, and not just about two movies, but was going to do this TEN times. If I told you that, what would you think about that, man?
GROOM. I'd say ten is a lot of movies from the 1980s to have seen, let alone write about.
VON HANGMAN. Yeah, but if she SAID she was gonna do it, you'd trust her, right?
GROOM. Yeah, I'd trust her, sure. By the way, did you remember to bring the ring?
VON HANGMAN. I've got it. And when you slip it on her finger and when the priestly dude asks her, 'Do you Jen etc etc,' and she says, 'I do,' just to confirm this, you are telling me you seriously think that means she is signing up for those vows.
GROOM. Hey, where is all this, like, going?
VON HANGMAN. Nowhere, amigo. Nowhere at all. Say, isn't that Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' I can hear? I believe that means it is time for us to be taking a walk down the aisle.
That's how I see the conversation going, anyway. I will not say anything more. When the ceremony gets to the bit where the minister says, "If anyone knows any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace," I assure you I am not going to jump up and start babbling some incomprehensible nonsense about "Whatever Dude" and "10 Degrees of 80's movie separation" and about how the project went idle for months and months because nobody on the site seemed to want to write about a movie starring Matthew Broderick. I have got way too much class than to try and pull a trick like that on Jen's wedding day. But, just because I won't actually do it, though, doesn't mean I won't be thinking it.
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Just before I get onto "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," I just wanted to mention that there is no truth at all to the rumor that the recent space shuttle disaster had anything to do with Jen's failure to close a door of the capsule that ought to have been shut before a takeoff was attempted. First of all, so far as I aware, Jen had no involvement either with that particular shuttle project, or, more broadly, with the space program at all. Secondly, and more importantly, I think I can scotch that particular rumor because I am satisfied that if Jen said she was going to do it, she would have done it. I just wanted to make that very clear. And if she had been meant to do it, but for some reason hadn't done it, one of the other alert members of the W-D staff would doubtless have stepped-up and made sure that the capsule door was shut.
Actually speaking of Jen, reminds me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago, when I was walking along the street and this rather attractive woman in cargo pants bailed me up. I may as well admit right now that she had me at something of a disadvantage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE. Miguel!! Mickey!!!
VON HANGMAN. Oh, hi there.
FEMALE. Hey!!! It has been way too long, old friend. How long since I saw you? Too long. What's up?
VON HANGMAN. Not a lot. Look, um.
FEMALE. Yeah? What is it, Miguel?
VON HANGMAN. I'm sorry. This is kinda embarrassing. You see ...
FEMALE. You don't know who I am, do you?
VON HANGMAN. Well, your face is familiar, but ...
FEMALE. I'm Jen.
VON HANGMAN. Jen?
FEMALE. Yeah, Jen. You know. Hey, maybe if I took off these diamonds that I'm wearing. [Clink clink clink clink clink] Well, do you recognize me now?
VON HANGMAN. I feel like such a fool. Jenny. Or course! From the block. Yeah, sorry. Look I must have had some mental whiteout or something.
FEMALE. No. Don't apologize. Honestly. For some reason people sometimes find me hard to recognize. It must be, I don't know, the jewelry or whatever.
VON HANGMAN. Yeah, well anyway. It's good to see you. What's up with you? How is the old block? Etc etc.
Not that that has anything to do with either our Jen, or come to think of it, with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".
So, where was I?
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
I am going to start now. No, really, I am.
FBDO is a much-loved movie. There are people who say it is THE quintessential 80s movie, and it would certainly make just everybody's list of the 5 or 6 most characteristic movies of that decade. I presume everybody reading this post has already seen it and so I won't summarize the plot any more than to say the movie follows the fortunes of Ferris Bueller (played by Matthew Broderick) and his girlfriend and best friend over the course of a day's truancy while the Dean of Studies at his school attempts to catch him out.
My particular spin on the movie is that while it contains some of John Hughes's deftest film-making, and a series of fine performances, and plenty of memorable lines, and a big parade with Matthew Broderick frugging his way through "Twist and Shout," it is, nevertheless, a film that I have always found a little difficult to embrace. I can explain my reservations about the movie in a sentence. I don't like Ferris Bueller.
I don't dislike Matthew Broderick. On the contrary, he produces an efficient performance as a puppy-eyed adolescent. It is the character he is playing that I dislike. In a previous post on this site, I pointed out, in reference to Laurence Olivier's performance in "Richard III," that this movie anticipated "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in the way Gloucester/Richard would break off from the action and address his lines directly to the camera in a cheery and conversational way. By doing so, Olivier brought a rather alarming charm to his portrayal of a tyrannical and murderous dictator. The obverse of this, of course, is that Ferris Bueller contains echoes of Richard III. Already a conman and a bully, it always seems to me that being a puppy-eyed adolescent is the only thing holding Ferris back from a lifestyle of concupiscence and avarice.
OK, there are plenty of movies featuring anti-heroes, or flawed heroes, and there are plenty more movies that have protagonists who are meant to be heroes but who strike me personally more as assholes; but I usually feel that the film-makers and myself have basically the same conception, at least, or whether or not the main character is meant to be a likeable character or not. With "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," I am honestly just not sure. It is clear that the movie is set up in such a way that the audience is supposed to be rooting for him, regardless, but whether or not or to what extent the audience is supposed to realize it is rooting for a monster remains ambiguous.
The characters I identify with in the movie are Rooney (in the same way I identify with The Coyote in Roadrunner cartoons), Cameron (in his few moments of insight into the true character of his so-called buddy) and, more than anyone, Ferris's sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who, while she ends up displaying (I suppose) admirable loyalty to her brother, also provides the only character in the whole film who seems to notice his true personality. Her exasperation with Ferris provides a mirror for my own feelings.
JEANIE. I'm sick of the little dope. He manipulates my parents, he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants and he never gets nailed.
FRIEND. I think he's cute.
JEANIE. Sweetie, it's an established fact that you have no taste. Ferris is not cute. He's not charming. He's not nice. He's not a wonderful person. He's an ignorant mule and the sooner everybody in this school comes to that realization the better off we'll all be.
The presence of Jeanie in the movie is the thing that persuades me that John Hughes, surely, must have had some insight into the fact that his main character is a manipulative bully. Despite this, almost everybody who I've ever met, and certainly every audience I've ever seen the film with, takes Ferris at his own estimation. Accordingly, I am never sure whether I am the only person not getting the message of the movie, or whether I am the only person who does get it.
The only observable difference between the values of Ferris Bueller and the values of the authority figures in the movie is that Ferris is lazier. At no point in the movie does he display any concern whatsoever for the feelings or well being of anyone other than himself. The best thing that can be said about his relationship with his girlfriend, Sloane, is that she gives every indication that between his complacency and her blankness, she is not going to be too badly damaged by hooking up with Ferris. For one insane moment, after Ferris proposes to her that they get married, she appears to consider this suggestion seriously. It later emerges that the reason he made this proposal is that he is feeling inconvenienced by the fact that he will be graduating at the end of the year and Sloane will not.
The other relationship of Ferris's that is explored in the movie is less harmless. The psychic damage he inflicts on his best friend, Cameron, borders on the sadistic. Can you honestly tell me, that when John Hughes wrote the dialogue that appears below, he expected his audience to think "Good Ol' Ferris"?
CAMERON. Why'd you hit me?
FERRIS. Where's your brain?
CAMERON. Why'd you hit me?
FERRIS. Where's your brain?
CAMERON. Why'd you hit me?
FERRIS. Where's your brain?
CAMERON. I asked you first.
FERRIS. How can we pick up Sloane if Rooney's going to be there with her?
CAMERON. I said for her to be there alone and you freaked!
FERRIS. My God, you're so stupid! I didn't hit you. I lightly slapped you.
CAMERON. You hit me. Look, don't ask me to participate in your crap if you don't like the way I do it! I was home, sick. You get me out of bed, bring me over here, make me jeopardize my future, make me do a phony phone call on a dean of students, a man who could squeeze my nuts into oblivion, and then you deliberately hurt my feelings.
FERRIS. I didn't deliberately hurt your feelings.
CAMERON. Oh, really?
FERRIS. Yeah, really.
Apart from being a monster of self-gratification, and not wanting to have to expend any effort in achieving his gratification, Ferris's aspirations are completely vulgar. He wants to have a trophy wife (Sloane), drive a vintage Ferrari, and enjoy the same lifestyle as his (rich, materialist, shallow) father.
The scene at the swanky French restaurant (which, as it turns out, is not only the kind of place his father would frequent, but is in fact the very place his father is frequenting) illustrates Ferris's aspirations. To be honest, I always find fantasies of revenge that find their expression in orgies of Consumerism to be slightly questionable. In "Pretty Woman" where Julia Roberts gets her revenge on a sales clerk who has been snooty towards her for no better reason than that she felt it lowered the tone of an establishment to have a hooker pawing all over a lot of overpriced garments, it has always strikes me as petty when Julia Roberts shows up, newly affluent, and announces she is going to go and spend a lot of money in some other boutique (especially since the clerks at this alternative shop would probably have thrown her out of that one too, if she had showed up there the day before, dressed as a hooker). The scene at Chez Whatever in FBDO presents a refinement on this grudge-shopping theme. When a maitre'd is snooty towards Ferris and his party, Ferris determines that the best way to get his revenge on this poor schmuck of a maitre'd is to impersonate Abe Frohman, the small goods king, in order to get the table after all, and then spend a lot of money in the restaurant, wolfing down pancreas. That is the sort of revenge that is really going to hit the maitre'd just where it hurts. Basically, he is saying to the guy, "Here take this (my credit card)." And it speaks volumes about Ferris that while he thinks nothing of tooling around in Cameron's father's car, despite knowing the risk this involves to Cameron's emotional well being, he really really wants to impress some snooty waiter at a fancy restaurant.
At various points in the story, Ferris muses to the camera about how Cameron has been damaged by his relationship with Cameron's father; and at one point Ferris soliloquizes about how, in the future, he himself will no longer be friend of Cameron's, and how poor Cameron will marry the first girl he sleeps with, and will go on to have a horrible life because other people, starting with this imaginary wife, are going to exploit him. Poor Cameron! Ferris does not paint a picture of his own post-Cabaret-Voltaire-posters-in-the-bedroom future. My feeling is that if Ferris was a real life character then, by now, 2003, he would resemble, not so much his own father, who at least displays a certain level of affection for his children that Ferris gives no indication he would be capable of, but Cameron's father, the movie's invisible ogre, the film's other Ferrari fancier, the man with the mileage on the speedometer tattooed onto his wrist.
Anyone who has ever read Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" will be aware of the kind of critical issues that can be raised by a work of art that has an unsympathetic protagonist. Despite having the mildly saucy name of Fanny, the heroine of "Mansfield Park" strikes a modern readership (or any readership) as a meddling joyless mewling little creepmouse of a character who does everything she can to interfere with the innocent fun that her relatives are trying to enjoy. Despite this, the clearest reading of "Mansfield Park" is that Jane Austen thoroughly approved of her heroine. In the (dreadful) movie of "Mansfield Park" that was made a couple of years ago, Fanny was played by the radiantly beautiful Frances O'Connor, despite the fact that she is portrayed in the book as "plain," but even with one of the loveliest actresses in films playing her, and despite the fact that movie audiences (including, let's face it, myself) are hardwired to find physically beautiful characters sympathetic, Fanny still came across as a prig. "Mansfield Park" is not such straightforward good fun as "Persuasion" or "Pride and Prejudice," but it is one of the richest and most complex of Jane Austen's novels, not only because of it analyses a substratum of society in more depth than any other of her novels, but also because of the questions it raises about economic exploitation, artistic morality, religious morality and sexual morality.
In the same way, every time I watch "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," I am always struck by a series of questions. Is Ferris meant to be such an unsympathetic character? Why does everyone like him so much? If Jeanie can see through him, why can't everyone else? Are we supposed to be rooting for him, even though he has the personality of a death adder, or for the authority figure, Rooney? What is going to happen to poor Cameron when he has to confront his father with the wreckage of the Ferrari, a circumstance that could not be more of a total disaster for him. After pretending to be concerned about this for about 10 seconds, it is clear Ferris could not give a shuttlecock., but I don't think anyone would predict that Cameron's interview with his father is going to go well. What are we to make of the fact that (in what I have got to admit is one of the funniest scenes in movies) the lines that offer the sole explicit criticism of the policies that provided the likes of Ferris's parents and Cameron's parents with so much affluence during the 1980s, at the expense of the trailer-park white trash, black trash and Latino trash underclass, are these:
"Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this. Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics."
Conversely, given that Ferris is a poltroon, what are we to make of the fact that he is character who is given the famous (and beautiful) line, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."?
If I am being too solemn about "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", what the hell. It is a wonderful movie, but it arouses oddly mixed feelings in me. It isn't my favorite John Hughes movie (I prefer the darker tones of "The Breakfast Club") but it is ridiculously rich in memorable scenes. Although I didn't enjoy the film "Election" from a couple of years ago as much as most other people seemed to, Matthew Broderick's performance in it as a hang-dog beaten-down put-upon teacher obviously derived all of its poignancy from the fact that the same actor who had once played Ferris Bueller was cast in the role. I think I can promise that the next installment in the 10 degrees series is going to arrive on this site a lot quicker than this one did. I began with Jen, so I am going to leave you with another Jen. The actor to be watching out for next time is the only one who tells it like it is in FBDO, Jennifer Grey.
In the end though, this post belongs to Matthew Broderick. And when Matthew Broderick outgrew teen roles, what a career he went on to have! The memory of the image above, from FBDO, was probably what convinced the producers of the "Inspector Gadget" movie that they had found their man. Yowzah! I like to think of "Inspector Gadget" as the culmination of Matthew Broderick's post-teen career. Not any actor could have played Inspector Gadget. For instance, a successful actor, or an actor with a good agent, or an actor who had read the script, would have turned the part down.
During the 80's, perhaps no other character embodied the ultimate fantasy of the typical American teenage male than Ferris Bueller, the guy who could do anything he wanted, whenever he wanted, and never get caught. The film stands up, to this day, as one of the quintessential teen flicks, a success in every aspect of its creation. Even now, its influence can be seen in modern comedies, Van Wilder being the most recent example. Leave it to television producers to take a good thing and fuck it up. What's that you say? Television? Why Mike, whatever could you mean? Well, I truly wish I was making this up just to give the guys filler for this article, but sadly, the following is all true…
After the resounding success of the film, the bigwigs at Paramount were hot for making a sequel. As John Hughes' career carried on, he grew warm to the idea of sequels, but 15 years ago, it was a big no-no with him. And he was right. Any sequel to this film would have been just another day when Ferris, in his own unique style, would cast off the chains of high school and bound away on another adventure, without getting in trouble for any of it, of course. Short of taking Ferris out of the high school environment and seeing how he would react to being a member of the American work force, there was little room for ingenuity, and Hughes knew it. He also knew that the film had made Matthew Broderick a household name, thus meaning a larger paycheck for the young teen heartthrob. And so he gave Paramount a resounding no. So then they attempted to make the film without him, only to find that none of the original cast were interested in returning without Hughes' involvement. So how could Paramount make more greenbacks off their teen angst cash cow? How indeed. The results are almost too horrifying to contemplate:
I wanted a sequel, I got a shitty TV show. How's that for bad karma?
And so six years after the film's release, a new show entitled "Ferris Bueller" found its way onto NBC. The show was a prequel of sorts, chronicling the younger life of Ferris Bueller, now played by Charlie Schlatter (perhaps best known for the film 18 Again, where he played opposite George Burns as a teenager whose spirit is swapped with that of his ailing grandfather.) All of the major characters from the film returned, including the neurotic Cameron, his jealous sister (who was played by a then unknown Jennifer Aniston), his hottie girlfriend Sloane, and his arch nemesis, Principal Ed Rooney.
The show attempted to mimic the film in every detail, including Schlatter's attempted imitation of Broderick, right down to his mannerisms and speech patterns. But whereas Broderick's Ferris was a witty, happy-go-lucky kinda guy, Schlatter's Ferris was a sarcastic, smart-ass high school con artist. He turned a fun-loving prankster who viewed each individual second of life as one huge opportunity into the high school equivalent of the Red character from the Shawshank Redeption. In the film, Ferris lived by the motto that "Life goes by fast." On the show, Ferris was the guy who "could get it for you."
Schlatter poses for pics during his audition for Godzilla: The Series.
For example, in one episode, while going through his locker (as if the movie Ferris would ever be at school long enough to USE a locker) a girl comes to him complaining about the disgusting cafeteria food. He replies "I'll take care of it," and whips out his trusty cell phone. By the time she goes to lunch, the cafeteria staff have been replaced by an in-house Pizza Hut franchise. In addition to his cell, he also carried around a laptop computer that he used (without a phone line connection in 1990, I might add) to hack into the school's computer system, and a remote control he'd devised that could apparently control any electronic device in the school, which he most often used to wreak havoc on the projection and sound systems during school functions.
Some of the more minor plot points of the film were changed as well. Instead of being in Chigaco, the show was based in California. And instead of being the younger sibling, Ferris was now the older brother. Cameron was still neurotic, but less of a loser, and Sloane became a blonde.
The show also attempted (in an astounding display of bad judgment) to poke fun at its cinematic ancestor. In one episode, Ferris discovers that a movie is being made about his life. He spends half the episode carrying around a cardboard cut out of Broderick in his trademark "Ferris" jacket saying things like "I can't believe they hired Broderick to play me!" and "He doesn't look a thing LIKE ME!"
All of this was bad enough, but I think I can sum up what cut short Ferris' TV career to a thirteen episode run in four words: Parker Lewis Can't Lose. Parker Lewis was Fox's TV answer to Ferris Bueller in almost every detail, but cranked it up a notch when it came to the comedy aspect of it. Where Bueller's creed was "If you don't stop, you could miss something," Parker's motto was simply "Not a problem." From his neurotic friend Jerry (whose pre-Columbine era trenchcoat had pockets deep enough to house an entire Wal-mart stockroom, and a security system that included sirens and two attack Dobermans) to his arch rival principal (and evil bitch who cavorted around like Cruella Deville on mescaline and was followed around by a pony-tailed kung-fu fighting henchman) to the school bully Kubiak, a neanderthal-like football player who rarely uttered more than "Eat now?" to his secret lair hidden behind Jerry's locker (an idea stolen, in my opinion, from the classic Val Kilmer film Real Genius, which ironically also concerned a school prodigy who seemed to get away with everything), Parker was everything that the TV Ferris was not. It was also innovative for its time. It had fantasy cut scenes before Ally McBeal ever dreamt of having sex in a giant coffee mug. And Parker talked to the camera, breaking the fourth dimension of film (just as Broderick did in Bueller), much like the current hit Scrubs does today.
Knowing that Fox had a potential hit on its hands, NBC rushed Ferris onto the air ten days before Parker's debut. The shows were aware of each other in a sense, poking fun at each other in not-so-subtle ways (for example, episode seven of Ferris Bueller was entitled "Ferris Bueller Can't Win." But in the end, Ferris was sent packing, and Parker Lewis went on to have a successful three year run, only to be cancelled after its third season, which had taken the original formula and swapped it for that of the typical 90's teen dramedy, causing fans to abandon it. Still, it had succeeded to do what Schlatter's show had failed to even come close to: it represented the mindset of Ferris Bueller in a television format, and it did it well. As for Ferris, he still shows up in reruns on TV Land and other places, but for the most part, the TV watching public, much less fans of the film, are unaware that the show ever aired (Schlatter's career is equally non-stellar…he has since gone on to play bit roles in shows like Diagnosis: Murder, and has provided voice talent for the New Adventures of Captain Planet and Butt Ugly Martians.) The fact that the final 13th episode aired six months after the 12th is a good indication of why. No one cared. Much like New Coke, fans didn't care for the flavor of the "new" Ferris. It took the carefree life-loving buffoon of the film, and gave him the sarcastic hard edge of the 90's mentality, perhaps remaining as a testament to why so many of us look back on that decade with a sense of loss for what once was. The movie was about everything that was new and wonderful about the 80's. The TV show was a life lesson into how it all went so wrong. Now I'm depressed. I'm going to go put on my Rush tee shirt and listen to Duran Duran for a few hours on my fifty pound tape-only ghetto blaster and hope beyond hope that a new best friend will come along whose father owns a vintage Ferrari. Maybe we can hook up later at St. Elmo's…