Friday, August 21, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Last Stand

One aim of this blog is to pick out unnoticed and interesting strands in the work of some of the world's great dead thinkers. I've already touched on Plato, Lincoln, Einstein, and, in my last post Kafka; so, as you might expect, there's no way I could avoid getting to John Hughes and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

In the era of Judd Apatow and Owen Wilson, we've had a procession of sad sack comic heros. The more banana peels the movie's slips on, the deeper his self loathing and the more intractable his hangups, the better. The comedy of the moment is one in which the main character is not only human, all too human, but virtually super human in his imperfections.These heros are the modern descendants of Charlie Chaplin's tramp and we love them for their hard won victories over themselves.

Except that, really, we don't. Or, at any rate, I don't. 
The thing about the Apatow school is that no matter how much sympathy you can muster for the main character, you'll never want to be him. You might, if you're nice, make a point of sitting down with him in the school cafeteria, but only if you're really secure about your own place in the pecking order.

Contrast this with the narrative style of Ferris Bueller, or the other great 1980s teen comedies. In Apatow world, the jokes always come at the expense of the hero. In John Hughes world, they never do. The Apatow hero muddles through in a hard evolution to self-knowledge. In the comedies of the eighties, on the other hand, the question is never how the hero will adapt, or (oh God, so much worse) “reform.” It's about how the protagonist will get over, get even, and, yeah, get laid. The hero's impossibly cool (Ferris Bueller) or impossibly smart (Winona Ryder's Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, the most clever nihilistic of those 80s movies). And always there's a scene—in Risky Business, much of the movie—where the hero's wearing dark glasses, the way of saying in a movie, “I see and know you, you don't see or know me.”

There's one thing that doesn't happen in all these movies. The lead character barely changes, sometimes not at all. Yes, by the end of Heathers Veronica does conclude that while's it's fine to kill some of the idiots, it's not okay to kill all all of them (if you've never had a moment when this was your overall appraisal of life, you're just not human). So the tired old question of Screenwriting 101—”How does the main character develop?”--is totally irrelevant. The answer, is that he (or in the case of Veronica Sawyer, she) doesn't.

This basic mode, in which the hero is always the one who is in the know and the joke is always on everyone around him, sums up the comedy I want. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the most unapologetic of these, but its variations span a huge range of comedy. All of Bill Murray's career is devoted to exploring the hero who never changes; the whole point of Groundhog Day is having Murray's deadpan act demolish the central conceit that it's a story about a man who has to change. Or, in a different vein, there's Hawkeye in MASH—a TV show that works because Alan Alda never swerves from playing him as a classic romantic lead. Why should he ever change? He is perfect from the start.

There are lots of ways to be perfect in a comedy--the idiot savant, a la Austen Powers or Peter Sellars' Inspector Clouseau are in their way the sine qua non of comic perfection--but they all come down to this: you have to always be right. In the comedy I like, the hero's dignity remains not only intact, but unassaulted. Ferris Bueller World is the opposite of Apatow World, where the geeks are always okay, the imperfect is sympathetic, the uncool get their shot. This is the world in which the wimp can win if he tries enough and awkwardness is a virtue. It's supposed to appeal to those of us who've felt befuddled, woebegone, and unpopular.

Well, screw that. Yes, I can recognize the skill of Apatow, or of Seinfeld, whose talent is in always being his own straight man. But I won't ever really like like it. Give me Ferris Bueller, or for that matter Juno, any day. Skip the awkward mumblers and give me the wise alecks. Those are the comic heros I really empathize with, the ones who are not sympathetic, but admirable. Because you know what? Take it from a guy who was the biggest nerd in the school: we dorks really do think we have all the answers.