June 11, 2011

A quarter century of Ferris Bueller

I am stunned that this day is passing with nary a pop-culture-scape whimper: Today, June 11, 2011, is the 25th anniversary of the release of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You all recall how last fall, the world seemed to stop spinning on its axis (well, there was a rerelease and I blogged about it) when Back to the Future reached 25, but today…pfft. (Well, there's some commentary.) Yes, BTTF is a better movie (compared with anything, really), but Ferris is no less beloved, no less emblematic of the mid-to-late '80s, a period of almost indescribable psychological importance to me and I suspect many of you. The freedom that Ferris and his friends pursue—and manage to find, for one magical day—is among the primal desires of every generation, and the film so expertly captures a specific 1986 variety of it. Ferris's ultimate quote:

(Incidentally, then–First Lady Barbara Bush quoted that line in a 1990 college commencement address. Better than Reagan quoting Springsteen, I suppose.)

Briefly: Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the story of a hypercool and competent high school senior in suburban Chicago with spring fever, who decides to ditch school and give himself a perfect day. He recruits his hypochondriac best friend (played wonderfully by Alan Ruck) and his major-babe girlfriend (major babe Mia Sara), they finagle a Ferrari and cruise into Chicago for a series of misadventures. Excellent subplottery is provided by Ferris's jealous sister (Jennifer Grey, en route to un-putting-in-a-corner-ability Babyhood) and a weaselly school principal (character actor extraordinaire Jeffrey Jones), both trying and failing to catch Ferris red-handed. It's not the most original plot of all time—the lovable rogue as protagonist is as old as the hills—but John Hughes earns his rep as the teen-movie king by alchemizing the ingredients so perfectly. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is lighthearted yet rigorous, funny yet introspective, silly yet totally life-affirming.
Usually when people use the word fantasy in reference to cinema, they're talking about something truly fantastic: bizarre creatures from another world, talking furniture, a unicorn that jumps over a rainbow into a pool of chocolate pudding, that kind of thing. By that token, I am not a particular fan of fantasy films (I consider The NeverEnding Story to be aptly titled). But there's a different shade of meaning inherent to fantasy, having more to do with the day-to-day fantasies we all experience: the lives we wish we were leading, or believe we might, if only one or two other things were different. By this reasoning, I don't think there's anyone in the world who doesn't enjoy "fantasy" films. We all have fantasies, and no matter who you are, there's a movie that at least roughly caters to it (unless you're the weirdest kind of sociopath, since snuff films are pretty much a myth). I suppose this means that pornography can be considered fantasy film, and sure, why not? Nobody honestly believes that the pizza guy gets laid every time he makes a delivery.

My point is that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the ultimate fantasy film for so many people in my demographic. Twenty-five years ago, we were on the cusp of adolescence, and there was no greater—and no more potent, because maybe it will happen—fantasy than being the most charismatic, the most capable, the wisest kid at school. I didn't quite get there—my high school girlfriend was a product of my imagination, and she still wasn't as hot as Mia Sara—but even today, it's nice to revisit the time when I thought I might. (This is part of the reason why people like me continue to enjoy superheroes; the adolescent power fantasy becomes ingrained.) I became a quizmaster because I knew I'd never get to sing "Danke Schoen" on a parade float.
I realize this doesn't speak well of me from a movie-geek perspective, but I actually like to see people remake great movies of the past…provided it's done with a fresh perspective, which it almost never is. I think the greatest stories are so much more effective when they're expressed in the vernacular of the audience at a particular place and time. So I can't think of a favorite movie of mine that I wouldn't like to see updated as a modern story: Citizen Kane about a blogger, Rosemary's Baby featuring a modern young New York mother, even Back to the Future with a 21st-century guy finding himself trapped in the '80s. Ferris Bueller's Day Off set in 2011 could be fabulous: What's a perfect day like for the suburban 17-year-old who's got 500,000 Twitter followers? How much more resonant could this movie be to the pre-adolescents of today if it isn't saturated in Yello's "Oh Yeah"? I suspect it wouldn't be so different from what Ferris's was like, and that's a message I think we'd all like to hear.

Finally, since we're all about trivia here, some factoids:

—This film launched the careers of a number of familiar faces: Matthew Broderick was already fairly well known (WarGames had freaked everyone out), and Alan Ruck and Mia Sara kind of faded away, but it was the first big moment for Jennifer Grey (whom Broderick began dating during filming; they were even engaged for a time) and fellow game-show host Ben Stein (for better or worse). I suppose you could even credit Ferris with the career of Jennifer Aniston, since her first TV role was as Jeannie Bueller on the Ferris Bueller TV show, which didn't appear till 1990 and lasted only 13 episodes. Reaching, but still. And then there's Charlie Sheen, who had starred in Red Dawn, but received a serious boost, playing the scene-stealing role of the druggie in the police station. He stayed awake for 48 hours before filming to achieve the effect. And thus it began…

—Hey, remember the late '90s? Remember the totally bizarre rise of modern ska? Yeah, me too. Possibly the most irritating of those many irritating bands was these jokesters, named in homage to the film:

—Lately, I've been watching a lot of old Siskel and Ebert movie reviews online; they're very entertaining, and often enlightening. Here's Gene and Roger debating Ferris (stick around for some Rodney Dangerfield magic):

I like Gene Siskel, but he's being a big old crabbypants here. Interesting, Siskel's replacement, Richard Roeper, is among the world's most prominent Ferris Bueller fans, apparently even having a "SVFRRIS" license plate. Intellectuals!
—One of my favorite films of the past ten years is Election (by one of my favorite directors, the brilliant Alexander Payne). Matthew Broderick plays a bottled-up high-school teacher who clashes with an overly perfect Type A student, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, and I love watching the film and imagining it as an extremely sad sequel to Ferris Bueller. All these years after his teenage glory days, and Ferris discovers that Ed Rooney was right: The real world did bite him on the ass, he retreated to a quiet life of teaching, and here was Little Miss Perfect, following all the rules he broke as a young man and succeeding, and it pushes him beyond his breaking point. Kind of sad, when you think about it; I praise Ferris Bueller's Day Off to the skies for its movie magic and life-affirming qualities, and there I go, imagining a grim and gray post-ending future. Maybe I should rewatch the movie right now…


Bill Scurry said...

Alan Ruck has gone on to star in a slew of TV shows, each appearance eliciting a cry of "Cameron!" He was a right hand man on "Spin City," a scared tourist in "Speed," and a rogue dentist in "Justified," among others.

The wonderful Jeffrey Duncan Jones ran into some trouble with the law a few years back, and is now a registered sex offender in California after pleading guilty to charges of imprisoning a teenage boy. However, Jones's film and TV output has been prolific, with great turns in "Ravenous" and "Deadwood" chief among them.

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