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Totaling the Ferrari: Ferris Bueller Revisited

December 26, 2011 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

If Ferris didn’t happen to have a knack for phreaking, some other future would be given to him.

My husband and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) the other night. He’d never seen it before, to the consternation of his Facebook friends, and I last saw it a decade ago, when I remember having been vaguely entertained. Not this time, though. “God, he’s kind of awful, isn’t he?” Peter commented, about ten minutes in. I agreed but was fascinated. Before my eyes, the rentier class was daydreaming a special dream, a dream of getting away from the drudges and the scolds ...

I was not fascinated by the plot, which is thin. A high-school senior named Ferris Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, feigns illness in order to play hooky and persuades a hypochondriacal friend and a bland girlfriend to follow him on a tour of Chicago, visiting a fancy restaurant, a baseball game, an art museum, and a German-American heritage parade. The movie depends heavily on Broderick’s charm as an actor, on his mix of too careful enunciation, direct address to the camera, and pale pink pubescence in the shower. In the opening scene, director John Hughes takes a rather large risk: Ferris lies to his parents with large calf eyes, giggling and lapsing into baby talk. What kind of movie hero consciously presents himself as infantile and duplicitous? What kind of movie hero begins by seducing his parents?

The answer seemed to be hiding in two places: in the comically flagrant symbol of a red Ferrari, which I’ll get to in a moment, and more cleverly, in moments protested by the movie’s characters as not worth paying attention to at all. Why, when Ferris wants to convey how boring high school is, does he say he’s skipping a test on European socialism? Why does Hughes feature as a sample of academic ennui the actor and conservative pundit Ben Stein’s explanation of the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 and the supply-side economics of the 1980s?

Stein’s drone may be the most revealing voice in the film. The Smoot-Hawley tariff, as Stein explains, was an attempt by the U.S. government to protect American businesses by raising taxes on imports. It “proved to be one of the most disastrous pieces of legislation ever enacted in America,” my copy of the Reader’s Companion to American History observes, “for other nations had no choice to follow suit with beggar-thy-neighbor tariff hikes of their own.” The lesson of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, in other words, is cherished by those who believe that the only way to regulate capitalism is not to. Stein goes on to discuss the Laffer curve (the idea that American taxes before Reagan were so high that lowering them would actually bring in more revenue) and supply-side economics (the idea that taxes and government regulation generally are burdens on wealth creation more costly than their purported benefits). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a movie rife with Oedipal conflict, and there is a strange instance of it here. According to Wikipedia, Stein’s father, the Nixon economic adviser Hebert Stein, is the first person known to have used the phrase “supply-side economics," a concept that the actor Stein glosses by quoting the early judgment on it by George H. W. Bush (weak son of Reagan, weak father of George W. Bush): “voodoo economics.”

How to read Stein’s irony, or Hughes’s, in this scene is a nice question. (Is Stein pretending to be a liberal economics teacher?) But I would like to argue that the movie advocates not supply-sider ideology per se, or not only supply-sider ideology, but something more pernicious.

The contradictions of the movie are most wince-making in the bad faith of Ferris’s attempt to cure the malaise of his friend Cameron. Cameron, Ferris tells the viewer, has a wealthy father who quarrels incessantly with his mother and who cares more about such possessions as his 1961 red Ferrari convertible than about his son. The paternal cruelty has made Cameron sick. The boy fantasizes physical ailments and is so fearful of breaking rules that he is unable to enjoy life. Late in the movie, Ferris reveals that he in fact engineered the whole scheme of a day off in the hope of freeing Cameron from his father’s shadow. Ferris’s strategy seems to have depended on persuading Cameron to borrow his father’s Ferrari without permission. The car’s odometer, Ferris calculated, would force father and son into an éclaircissement, not depicted in the movie, in the course of which Cameron is going to have to face down his Oedipal fear and at last take ownership of his desires.

A pretty theory, but if Cameron’s father is as ogreish as described, he may retaliate: He may refuse to pay for Cameron’s college education; he may disinherit him. By what right, moreover, does Ferris advocate painful honesty in father-son relations? The last quarter-hour of the movie sees Ferris racing across suburban lawns in order to reach his fake sickbed before his parents do, in order to avoid having to speak to his parents anything like the truth. It is hard to imagine a ranker example of a son trapped in a false, compliant self by his shyness of conflict. The viewer is distracted from this character flaw by the frequent confessions that Ferris shares across the fourth wall; he always seems to be telling the truth to us, even if he isn’t telling it to anyone else in the movie. (He tells his girlfriend, for example, that he wants to marry her, even though he tells us that he knows it’s going to be “tricky” when he goes away to college in the fall and she remains behind for another year of high school.)

There is further misdirection in the invitation to see Ferris’s evasiveness as an achievement. Ferris has mastered a technology newly emergent in the 1980s: the combination of computers, telephones, and digital audio sampling. We see answering machines that Ferris has rigged to play false messages; we see his stereo amplifying digital samples of his coughs and snores to create the illusion that he’s at home in bed. The director Hughes has cleverly divined what this new technology will come to be used for; it is for not being there. A few years after the movie, one imagines, Ferris will start a company that designs phone trees and voicemail systems; he will be a millionaire by 1990. The frustration, the sense of having been hoaxed, that is felt by the dean of students when he realizes that he isn’t really listening to Ferris through the intercom of the Bueller family home but only to a recording of Ferris, delivered to the intercom by a computer—you felt the same frustration yesterday when you dialed your health insurer and were led into a maze of cheerful, obtuse recorded voices that by design denied you an opportunity to say what had made you angry enough to call.

When Cameron first decides to stand up to his father, he has reasonably solid grounds for self-defense. Though a lot of miles have been put on the Ferrari, it remains unharmed. As Cameron dwells on his grievances, however, he starts kicking the car; he busts headlights, dents the hood, and (spoiler alert!) sends the vehicle careening out a window of his house, totaling it. The totaling is unintended, but Cameron did mean the damage that precedes it, and that damage seems, as a matter of psychology, not to mention strategy, to be a bad idea. As soon as the car is dented, Cameron can no longer claim to be a trustworthy son impatient with his father’s refusal to recognize him as such. The outburst has the effect of proving his father right before the argument begins. My father is mad at me, and now I’ve done something naughty in order to give him a reason to be.

The destruction also suggests something rather dark about the new relationship to pleasure that Ferris is pushing. Cameron’s parents and Ferris’s parents are rich at a historical moment, the early 1980s, when the rich were beginning to move further and further away from the rest of society. Wealth was no longer going to provide the rich with a place in society, as it might have in earlier generations. Ferris will not be taking a job in his father’s firm; he is certainly not going to become the foreman at the family-owned factory. If the Bueller family’s wealth is invested in manufacturing at all, it will probably be invested abroad; much of their investment income will no doubt derive from predatory financial arrangements, designed to siphon money and quality-of-life away from fellow citizens. When Ferris and his friends run into his father at a fancy restaurant, they overhear him say to one of his colleagues, “You have to spend money to make money.” It’s one of several indications that Ferris’s father is a bit of a patsy. In the legacy American economy being born, the spending of money is a virtue in itself. Money is made, however, by figuring out how not to spend it—by offshoring, say, or by implementing labor-saving devices like phone trees. (So much for the affable, beehived school secretary.)

A child of wealth, Ferris isn’t worried about skipping school, nor are his parents. If Ferris didn’t happen to have a knack for phreaking, some other future would be given to him. He doesn’t need to please the world but only his parents, as the unsettling hints of parent-child incest scattered through the movie suggest: Ferris makes out with his girlfriend in the school parking lot while impersonating her father; Ferris’s girlfriend makes goo-goo eyes at Ferris’s father when their eyes meet by accident from the back seats of cars adjacent in traffic. Ferris and Cameron are two sides of the same predicament. Cameron fantasizes about being as clever as Ferris, so as to get away with pleasures without his parents’ knowledge. Ferris fantasizes about being as brave as Cameron, so that he could stand to let his parents see him for who he really is.

Why put your capital in a bank?

And the Ferrari represents capital. Cameron’s father, a miser, has accumulated it and doesn’t want to let it go. His son expects to drive it someday and resents having to wait. When the son anticipates and takes it for the day, he faces the problem of what to do with something so valuable that he could never replace it. Once the children bring the Ferrari to downtown Chicago, they sensibly park it in a garage—that is, they place the capital in a bank. But capital doesn’t stay in the bank where it’s deposited. No sooner does a depositor walk out the door than his money, too, leaves the building, in the hands of someone in need of a loan. While Ferris, Cameron, and Ferris’s girlfriend aren’t looking, the Ferrari is driven off for a joyride by the somewhat Hispanic-looking garage attendant and his black coworker, ethnicity here serving as a marker of socioeconomic class, as so often in movies. Why put your capital in a bank, why invest it in business, when the interest you earn is so low? the movie asks. Such an investment is tantamount to loaning your money to the middle and working classes for their mere pleasure. Why not just take it for a joyride yourself? Spend your capital instead of investing it. Why not take all the pleasure you can out of its destruction?

Thus the totaling of a Ferrari comes to be understood as an act of self-expression.

Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.

31 COMMENTS

24 Comments

  1. Minus | January 20, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Overanalyze much?

  2. Jack Gladney | January 20, 2011 at 10:04 am

    But if the message of the joyride in the Ferrari is that the wealthy should enjoy their capital without sharing it with others, doesn’t this ultimately lead to the wealthy spending all their money and being left with nothing, or at least leaving their children with nothing, which shatters a familial dynasty?

    This is reinforced by the idea that “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t slow down, you could miss it,” which suggests that you should live for the moment rather than plan for the future. Living for the moment invariably leads to a day of reckoning when the future arrives.

    Trying to break up large intractable wealth – and making children work to earn their own wealth rather than living off what their parents earn: these are liberal ideals! Ferris (the movie) is trying to trick his parents (the rich) as the movie tries to trick the rich! I knew I loved this movie!

  3. Plus | January 20, 2011 at 11:44 am

    haha what UP minus

  4. Gabriel d. | January 20, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Cameron’s character flaw in the film is his fear to live life to the fullest. Destroying the Ferrari is his catharsis and by doing this he has finally stepped into the game of life and can now enjoy all of the consequences (good and bad) that come with it. It doesn’t actually matter if his dad yells at him later, because Cameron is finally alive. Trashing the car may not have been the best strategy for confronting his parents, but hey, Cameron’s only human.

    Ferris on the other hand, is not human. He’s a superhero who’s superpower is the ability to deceive his dopey parents so he can eat cookies for breakfast if he wants to. Essentially he’s what every frustrated kid who lives under the tyrannical rule of their parents wishes they could be. If Ferris were to expose his true identity to his dopey parents, he would lose all his power. This film essentially presents the fantasy of having control over your parents and from that, your life.

    Great movie.

  5. toasteroven | January 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Ferris’s girlfriend has a name (Sloane).

  6. Dylan Hicks | January 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Excellent essay. I’m not sure if Richard Edson’s character is “somewhat Hispanic looking” or intended to look as such, though I haven’t seen the movie since its release. Edson is to my mind one of the all-time great supporting actors, in only for his work in “Stranger Than Paradise” Plus he was Sonic Youth’s original drummer.

    Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I ever even saw “Ferris …,” though it feels like I did.

  7. GZ | January 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    In a previous comment, Gabriel d. presented a concise analysis of the film in question. The things said weren’t incorrect but they were superficial and obvious. The intention of Caleb Crain was to subject the film to sociological and to a small extent, semiotic analysis. The article was a bit desultory and raised more questions than it answered but could probably be expanded to form a more complete monograph. I believe it’s critical that analysis of popular culture is taken on in depth and in the public sphere as Crain has attempted to do. We, the generation which venerates Ferris Bueller is largely entrenched in unapologetic nostalgia; it behooves us to peruse modes of thought which don’t dead end in irony that lacks conviction or in complacent acceptance of media propaganda.

  8. Barry | January 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Why do we have to grow up and look at how things truly are, rather than how we want them to be?

  9. Angel | January 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Excellent analysis. Please draft extended socio-economic/Freudian deconstructions of the following pop culture phenomena and then compile the pieces into a monograph as GZ suggests. In reading it, we all will better understand our world.

    -The White Album
    -WALL-E
    -Norman Rockwell’s paintings
    -Jerry Seinfeld’s decision to return the astronaut pen
    -Fur Elise

    I suspect that all of these texts have Oedipus and/or Marx at their core. Some clever writer must parse their contradictions so that I may cease to enjoy them.

  10. Chris Duffy | January 20, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Stein’s dialog was improvised on the spot, wasn’t it?

  11. GZ | January 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    The notion that one cannot enjoy or appreciate a particular element of culture, such as a film, once that film has been deconstructed or subjected to any variety of rigorous analysis is troublesome. To understand that a film, a book, or a ribald joke might function at multiple levels only increases my own enjoyment. If the written words of another could somehow rob one of enjoyment, this implies that a subtle sense of inferiority is at work; perhaps one of intimidation and really, there is nothing here that should be intimidating. All of the commentators’ perspectives are valid, just as the author of this post. If you enjoy something, no outside source should be able to impinge on that. Let us be entertained and stimulated by art and criticism alike.

  12. Sean S | January 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    The lesson to learn here is that this movie was released before the corrupting influences of political correctness. If FBDO was released now it would be throttled by conventions and cliches, literally another teen movie. Cameron would be black/mixed race, Ferris would be the son of an Indian doctor or perhaps a rebellious young man of Muslim parentage, and of course Sloane would be Asian (Although it is notable that the original leftist-nonsense author — a gay male who literally could not look more like a guilty white liberal and who also looks uncannily like Walter White from Breaking Bad — apparently feels much like the Bible does that women deserve no identity of their own but are better referred to as Girlfriend of Ferris or Wife of Potiphar).
    There is absolutely no way in hell, if the movie was made today, that it would have the wonderful art museum scene. Instead, as trite hip-hop or a pop punk cover of eighties rock played in the background, the gang would be seen at a yogurt shop flicking pomegranate at each other, they’d never go to a baseball game, they’d be at a Tower Records spouting lines like “Look at all these old people buying CEEE-DEEEs, who the hell pays for music?” while mugging ostentatiously into the camera.
    And of course Charlie Sheen’s character would be played by Bieber, Jennifer Grey’s by Selena Gomez, and Rooney would be a way more clueless and sinister white guy with a mustache (I personally would cast Thomas Lennon, aka Lt. Dangle from Reno 911 and he would be the saving grace of the otherwise awful and strangled-by-PC-ness remake).

  13. Sean S | January 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Oh, and to Gabriel D: Well said! ‘Catharsis’ is exactly the right word for Cameron taking out the car. But leftists (with the possible exception of true visionaries, ie: Jello Biafra) would never use the word ‘catharsis’ in regards to a fucked up, introverted skinny white kid in the suburbs. They save that rhetoric for Mookie throwing the trash can through Sal’s window. You may now start a side discussion comparing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with Do the Right Thing, an interesting companion piece essay awaits of two late 80s masterpieces. Though as important as Do the Right Thing is, I would probably argue that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is actually the better film. I honestly think its genius ranks among the top comedies of all time (alongside much of Chaplin, Airplane, Sideways, Clerks, A Fish Called Wanda, Quick Change, Say Anything, Dr Strangelove, and the oeuvre of Howard Hawks) and it’s definitely in my all-time top 100 films period. Spike made a groundbreaker, but it’s not even his own best film (25th Hour is an oft overlooked masterpiece and the sprawl of Malcolm X is more audacious and ambitious, if a bit biopic-by-the-numbers after the incredibly ballsy Rodney King/burning flag intro).

    Sean S

  14. Jeff Kent | January 21, 2011 at 9:09 am

    ‘It’s only a movie.’ – Ernie

  15. GZ | January 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

    The prevalence of mixed race, and dark skinned immigrant characters in Hollywood films is quite appalling. Gone are the days when I could turn on the television to see nothing but smiling white faces… Things were so much better back then, so much more authentic and pure. And who is this Justin Beiber guy anyway? Just a skinny like twerp with a cute smile, huh? Now Mathew Broderick on the other hand; he was a stalwart of real American values, a ‘man’s man’, a consummate actor and a true artist. Why must the elite liberal class force culture and technology change over time? Visionaries such as Jello Biafra would have agreed: the eighties were a golden age; we lived on the very cusp of paradise and we didn’t even know it. If only I could walk into a tower records right now and surreptitiously slip a couple cassette tapes into the pocket of my jean jacket: an act of suburban rebellion like that would really ‘take the edge off’. Well people, it’s a fallen world!

  16. save ferris | January 21, 2011 at 11:39 am

    1. “Why does Hughes feature as a sample of academic ennui the actor and conservative pundit Ben Stein’s explanation of the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 and the supply-side economics of the 1980s?”

    Wikipedia answer: Ben Stein’s famous monotonic lecture about the Hawley–Smoot Tariff Act was not originally in Hughes’s script. Stein, by happenstance, was lecturing off-camera to the amusement of the student cast. “I was just going to do it off camera, but the student extras laughed so hard when they heard my voice that (Hughes) said do it on camera, improvise, something you know a lot about. When I gave the lecture about supply side economics, I thought they were applauding. Everybody on the set applauded. I thought they were applauding because they had learned something about supply side economics. But they were applauding because they thought I was boring…It was the best day of my life,” Stein said.

    2. Also, “bland girlfriend” – ? Can you please check yourself next time? The character of Sloane Peterson, played with extraordinary restraint and quiet dignity by Mia Sara, has most genuinely empathetic line in the movie: when Cameron flips out, she gently murmurs “sooner or later, everyone goes to the zoo.” She is coolly rational, yet utterly humane.

    3. The many analyses and critical methods employed in this essay are all essentially as patriarchal in structure as the capitalist ideology under critique.

  17. StephQJ | January 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I remember seeing this in the theater with a potential boyfriend, the day before I started the 9th grade. I went because there was a Sigue Sigue Sputnik track in the first of the movie, and I was a huge SSS fan. I loved it then, and I loved it now, though I completely recognize how dated and over-the-top it is. But I knew kids like Ferris; I was a little too much like his sister during the scene in the police station with a delinquent Charlie Sheen. The plot is thin and ridiculous, like all Hughes movies, but the characters are people you *know*, so you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and have fun.

    I was in Chicago in November 2010, waiting for a bus in front of Willis Tower, right down the street where the parade scene was filmed. A red Ferrari was stopped at the light in front of me, and I almost wet my pants with glee. It was ridiculous, but it instantly reminded me of being 14 again.

  18. LisaB | January 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I think this is a gross over-analyzation of a movie that was really vicariously being the person we all wanted, but were all afraid, to be: Ferris.

    After reading this, I went to my husband. I said, “Remember the movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Remember his friend, Cameron? Remember the Ferrari? What was the deal with the Ferrari?”

    To which my husband replied without missing a beat, “He thought his dad loved the car more than he loved him.”

  19. Terry | January 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    What of the “Save Ferris” meme, especially the high school kids giving up their money to buy Ferris Bueller a new kidney? Couldn’t that be seen as a nod to the middle class’s fascination with protecting the wealthy even to their own detriment? After all, who doesn’t believe the Buellers would have fine health insurance, yet here are these high school kids pooling their cash in a pitiful attempt to help one in need of none.

  20. Martin Snyder, Beadle of the Recruiting Blogosphere | January 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    This reminds me of people not used to big bong hits taking a few tubes and then imagining that their associative ramblings are really superb insights worthy of publishing to the world.

    The Ferrari was most certainly NOT the capital- it was the toy, the frosting, the garnish, the interest on the interest. The beautiful house was the capital. The missing dad, off earning more money, was the capital. Cameron’s whole future (pre-funded) life was the capital.

    The whole worship of the symbol of the capital was the point of the subplot. The black and brown garage workers took sheer joy from the object, as they understood the point of money to be its use, while the rotten, sterile worship of money was the mental state of the car’s owner. Seeing it as a banking transaction is just dumb, dumb, dumb.

    The destruction of the car was not to destroy the capital, only its symbol and the object of its worship. The value of the capital was never in question- hence the adventure to the fine dining establishment (where of course Ferris’ father was also dining).

    Reading the content of Stein’s famous role is also dumb, dumb, dumb as it was clear even then they were just look for boring things that adults talked about. Do you really need more than that as explaination ?

    I can only imagine the blandness of a life with someone unable to take anything at face value, such as a light comedy aimed at young people from a simpler time, and god forbid an acid trip, where we would then be subject to a deconstruction of the socal justice issues revealed in SpongeBob Squarepants.

  21. Billy D | January 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Tough crowd, yeesh.

  22. Media Concerns | January 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Martin Snyder’s observations are good, though his angry and belittling tone is disheartening to say the least.

    Martin: What you said and the bong etc., it really isn’t funny. You disagreed strongly with the article and expressed your differences well. You are obviously an intelligent person, but your vitriol diminishes you and your arguments.

    To say that a life in which “someone unable to take anything at face value” is a bland one seems a nonsensical statement, especially when made by one who seems preoccupied with psychedelic drugs.

    Maybe some of you don’t realize it, but the media which you are exposed to on a constant basis does function on levels beyond the superficial. More obvious examples would be ‘official propaganda’ or ‘subversive media’. Popular entertainment, which is utterly ubiquitous, often contains many of the same characteristics as these. Consider whether it would be advisable to obviate deep analysis of the following:

    . well produced, catchy music which glorifies materialism, racism and the degradation of women

    . reality television which promulgates hedonism and narcissism

    . childrens’ programming and music which sexualizes and commodifies childhood

    . news outlets which function to generate highly polarized and opinion based content

    Perhaps not all readers share all my concerns, but would it serve us well to exempt these, or other popular entertainment from analysis? There’s no sin in enjoying Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it is a mistake to treat it or any item of popular entertainment as sacred. It does no harm to question the film’s underlying values. There is no element of culture, such as film which can be sociologically neutral.

    My comment is not meant to endorse the original article, but to promote the notion that this sort of critical analysis is a useful and important thing.

  23. incorrect | January 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Three things you get wrong.

    – Cameron doesn’t “resent having to wait” to drive the car. He resents that his father loves the car more than him. While kicking the car Cameron bitterly cries, “Who do you love? You love a car!”

    – The car does not leave the garage/bank “in the hands of someone in need of a loan.” It leaves the garage in the hands of a thief, the very thief who pledged to protect it; kinda like if a bank teller stole your money.

    – A garage is not a bank. A car’s placement in a garage does not raise its value, it merely protects one’s property, like an interest free safety deposit box. Cameron leaves his car in the garage to prevent it from declining in value, not to get earned interest. If anything this isn’t about working-class joyrides on upper middle-class investments, it’s banks unethically using that which they’re supposed to protect.

  24. Beadle of the Recruiting Blogosphere | January 22, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Now thats wonderful Media Concerns !

    Firstly, I used my real name- angry and vitroholic or not, at least I’m not hiding anything. Second, I am not preoccupied with psychedelic drugs. Occupied maybe, but actually I’m a complete straight edge- not even booze.

    Thirdly, my tone reflects the gestalt of the interwebs- if you put this kind of work out there, expect some serious kickback, because as you note, serious literary criticism is a very important thing that people do, and when it’s done badly, it’s a special kind of insult, and I felt insulted reading this item.

    My handle is the Beadle- a small time rule enforcer. That’s who I am, and always will be.

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