Saturday, August 08, 2009

FILM: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

I found myself oddly affected by the passing of 80s teen-flick guru John Hughes the other day. Discounting the likes of National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Home Alone (which he wrote and produced, but didn’t direct), at the time of writing I’ve actually only seen four John Hughes movies all the way through – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck. I generally try to resist referring to films as ‘classics’ due to the term’s over-saturation amongst people who haven’t the faintest clue what they’re talking about (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Pretty Woman? It’s a classic!”). John Hughes’s films are universally acknowledged as pop-culture classics, in the sense that they came to define an era and went on to influence countless film-makers whose work, for better or worse, would characterise a particular mode of delivery in the years that followed. However, amongst the critical establishment, Hughes’s films are considered just that, and little more. Perhaps what’s been nagging at me, then, is the thought that there’s one movie of his in particular which I believe transcends these narrow parameters, a film worthy of serious consideration as not just one of the very best of its genre, but as a consummate example of a specific film style honed to perfection.

I have seen thousands of films in my life. I’ve consumed those considered to be the ‘true’ classics; I’ve mulled over the masterpieces; I’ve studied the theory. I’ve devoted way too much time to the art of cinema over the years, and wouldn’t have it any other way. Of all those thousands, I honestly consider Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be one of the 50 greatest. I’d like to state this point again, however, so there’s not any misunderstanding: not one of my 50 favourites. One of the 50 greatest.

As Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright astutely noted in his recent tribute to Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of the best-directed comedy films of all time. Watching it back last night, I was once again struck by the attention to detail exhibited in Hughes’ construction of the piece: each frame is thoughtfully, often artfully composed for maximum comic impact, and the film as a whole is edited with a pitch-perfect feel for the rhythm of character, pace and timing. Its tone is alternately wry, droll, silly and laconic – often all at once. Each minute facial expression, line delivery or incidental gesture is perfectly rendered by a cast who have rarely improved on their performances here. The numerous set-pieces – most notably the climactic dash home - are staged with an almost arrogant flair, and the director’s use of both pop music and an original score to enhance the beats and comedic dynamics of the film is virtually flawless. More so than any other movie I can think of, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has its own unique, airtight comic rhythm which is beautifully sustained even past the final credit roll (“You’re still here?! It’s over! Go home!”).

Oftentimes with film comedies, the humour tends to date to a specific era: watching a movie like Harvey now, for example, it’s difficult to not find it ultimately rather tame, harmless or quaint – brilliant in its way, but stunted by the comic limitations and trends of the time. Don’t get me wrong, Harvey is still funny – very funny, in fact. But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is hilarious. There are so many great moments in this film – be they sly, throwaway details or laugh-out-loud antics - that it’s near-impossible to single any particular one out: between the eminently-quotable likes of “Bueller… Bueller…” and the life-affirming Twist & Shout routine, the movie is pure joy from start to finish.

But there’s more. Watching the film hot on the heels of a Marx Brothers retrospective, I was struck by the same strain of gleeful anti-establishment destruction being wrought throughout. In Jeffrey Jones’s beleaguered principal Rooney, we have the ultimate stooge, a man whose physical and mental degradation at the hands of his nemesis are satisfying precisely because they serve only to skewer his foolish pride and misplaced sense of moral authority. With charm, guile and a touch of serendipity, Ferris Bueller – the ultimate libertarian - outsmarts everyone, and wins. Indeed, the reason this film continues to resonate with audiences beyond its original demographic is because the adults in the movie – be they clueless parents, misguided officials or rambling teachers - stand for the crushing confines of society at large: its rules, its restraints, its self-imposed etiquettes and the hypocrisy of its moral imperatives. As Ferris so pointedly puts it to the hoity Maitre D’ when thanked for his understanding: “It’s understanding which makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself”.

Furthermore, the film’s breezy, carefree irreverence is consistently tempered by a more profound and serious undercurrent: an uneasy recognition of the fragility of the moment. Casting aside the film’s lone bum note (the cheesy 80s soft-rock tune that soundtracks Cameron’s final revelation), Ferris Bueller’s melancholy foundation speaks volumes without ever resorting to overt sermonising. The moment when Cameron falls into the swimming-pool is a heart-stopper each and every time: not one of the principal characters has any discernible clue where they’re heading in life, and seems to be struggling to find a tangible reason why they should even care. Faced with an uncertain future and the knowledge that what they’re doing right now is probably as good as it’s ever going to get, the only maxim worth following is one that’s alarmingly stark: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”.

Those acknowledged as the ‘great’ filmmakers – the directors bigger than the sum of their constituent parts, the auteurs – weave a sense of their own personality, outlook and ethos throughout their work. Taking his canon as a whole – and, regardless of whether you consider it a run worthy of serious study or merely a frivolous product of the times, his 1980s output nevertheless constituted a prolific and consistent body of work - it’s all there for John Hughes in that final shot of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

There’s a wonderful scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon where Anthony Hopkins’ beleaguered President stares balefully at a portrait of Kennedy and laments: “When people look at you, they see who they want to be. When they look at me, they see who they are”. So it goes, in a weird way, with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When we look at Ferris, we see who we want to be. When we look at Cameron, however, we see who we are. Taken one step further, John Hughes’ legacy comes more sharply into focus: when the world’s young adults looked at him, they saw a man who viewed us all with equal affection, regardless of our flaws or foibles. We saw someone who viewed people as most of us only wish we were able to: not as jocks, brains, criminals, princesses or kooks, but as human beings. Truly, a righteous dude indeed.