Ferris Bueller and Seurat

7:00 AM


Georges-Pierre Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884


What teenager isn't familiar with Ferris Bueller's Day Off?  Everyone who has been through high school can understand the appeal of skipping out on droning teachers and playing hooky for one day of fun.  But Ferris's day off becomes an adventure intangible to the average high school student as he, his best friend, and his girlfriend lie their way into a high-end restaurant, catch a baseball at a Cubs game, and commandeer a parade.

Yet beneath Bueller's glossy, fun pretense lies a less happy story.  Cameron, Ferris's best friend, has a history that the film only hints at until confronting it at the climax.  Cam has an unhappy relationship with his parents, just as they do with each other, and his father seems more obsessed with his rare Ferrari model than his family (at one point, Cam says, "Look at my mother and father...They hate each other...He loves the car, he hates his wife.").  Cam needs to tap into Ferris's escapism to lessen his anxiety and self-consciousness.

The trio's gallivanting around Chicago, in Cameron's dad's Ferrari, eventually leads them to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Cameron becomes transfixed to Georges-Pierre Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (skip to around 1:11 in the video).  According to John Hughes in his voiceover commentary of the film, "...the more he looks at it, there's nothing there. I think he fears that the more you look at him the less you see. There isn't anything there. That's him."  The pointillism at its closest becomes an unintelligible array of meaningless dots.  Cameron, by Hughes's suggestion, feels no sense of identity.

But I believe that the significance of this scene and the painting in the film are greater than Hughes lets on.  The subject that he stares at in the painting is a young girl in a white dress whose mother does not seem to be paying her much attention, which clearly reflects Cameron's yearning for his parent's, specifically his father's, attention.  Seurat situates his people in groups that do not interact or pay much attention to each other,  as they look away and are cloaked in shadow.  These techniques may reflect Cameron's simultaneous identity crisis and mistrust of adults in general, extending far beyond his father.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off has plenty of humor and glamour, but upon a second or third viewing, you can see another reason for its genius.  Between the happiness on the surface, the unexpected adventures, the nearly unspoken hardships that we overcome, and the support of good friends, the film serves as a microcosm for high school life.

Editor's Note: While we may not want to date ourselves by saying we saw(and drove our 16-year-old-self)  Ferris at the Mid-State Cinema in Salina, Kansas, in June of 1986, we do want to mention the song in the above clip, a sweet Dream Academy cover of The Smiths "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want." The original song was also featured in Hughes' Pretty in Pink, seen in March of 1986 at the self-same cinema.

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