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!
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.
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.