My father and brother were in town this weekend, at the conclusion of my family’s annual spring break/Passover road trip. Being serious movie buffs and very loyal to Chicago, when they discovered that my partner G had not seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, they insisted that we watch it on Saturday night. I, of course, have seen said movie many times before, so I decided to watch it with a particular eye towards what it said about ’80s culture, and cities in particular. Ferris is of course primarily a story of escape from a boring teenage life, but it (and seemingly every other John Hughes movie) also has a lot to say about escaping the staid, oppressive suburban life lived by the protagonists and their parents. But Ferris was also made at a time of significant transformation for the urban-suburban relationship in the US. The ’70s and early ’80s were probably the roughest times for most of our cities, as many of the few remaining white families fled the city for ever-expanding suburbs like those featured in the films, and decades of disinvestment from cities and subsidies for suburbs took their roll. By the mid-to-late ’80s, though, American perception of cities had begun to shift a little, and I think we find Ferris on the cusp of a significant cultural paradigm shift.
That, though, is not to say that Ferris (or Ferris) has anything particularly profound to say about cities, or really about much of anything other than privileged leisure. As Jeffrey Jones, who played red-faced Dean of Students Ed Rooney, noted, “What’s amazing about Ferris Bueller is that we’re asked to, and do, sympathise with a kid whose only complaint in life is that his sister got a car for her birthday and he got a computer.” A spoiled suburban brat Ferris might in many ways be, but he’s a spoiled suburban brat whose journey of exploration takes him from the posh surroundings of the North Shore into the city of Chicago without a second thought.
Ferris’ Chicago, of course, isn’t the Chicago that the people who lived there in 1986 experienced; it’s not even narrow slice of cultural Chicago celebrated in The Blues Brothers, made six years earlier. To Ferris and his buddies, the city is above all a massive entertainment district, where one can eat lunch at a fancy restaurant, examine the world-class works at the Art Institute, sing in a parade, and go to a ballgame. But what’s remarkable from a cultural standpoint is the utter lack of menace felt in and from the city by Ferris and his friends. Even in The Blues Brothers, Ray Charles has to shoot (literally) blindly into a wall to prevent a street kid from stealing a guitar from his store.
The only danger to Ferris and his friends (other than having a hand bruised by a foul ball) is that the sketchy parking attendants might take the famous Ferrari for a joy ride, an encounter whose damage to the car (if any) is far exceeded by what Cameron himself inflicts.
Like other aspects of their privileged lives, Ferris’ and his friends’ “discovery” of the city has its problematic aspects that, in turn, signify many of the downsides to the gentrifying rediscovery of American cities by privileged young suburbanites. After a day spent touring Chicago’s most prominent tourist attractions and participating in parts of city life reserved for the few (Chez Paul) or the lucky (the Von Steuben day parade), Ferris remarks to Cameron that “We’ve seen everything good, we’ve seen the whole city.” Actually, of course, they haven’t even come close. They’ve seen the parts most attractive to them, used them to their own ends, and erased the rest of the city from their consciousness. Most striking, of course, is the near-complete absence of people of color from the movie, even in the Chicago scenes. OK, one of the sketchy car attendants is black (though in a perhaps-progressive twist of the usual stereotypes, the slimier one is white), but the only lasting memory of people of color in Ferris is this:
People of color–in 1980, 51.4% of Chicago’s inhabitants–are nothing more than a prop for Ferris’ and his friends’ playtime.
In many ways, Ferris and his friends’ day off represents the quintessential suburban gaze on the city–the idea that you can drive your fancy car in, do exciting things, and go home at the end of the day. But Ferris also contains the beginnings of the re-animation of the American city for white, upper-class audiences. Ferris‘ Chicago contains only a hint of grit, illustrated by the joy ride incident, but even that encounter is played for satirical effect more than anything else, with Hughes using it to make light of the minor paranoias of insecure suburbanites. For Ferris and his friends, the city isn’t just there to be used, it’s transformative. Though we’re initially led to think that Cameron’s re-awakening at the end of the film is induced by his near-drowning, he reveals that it was actually a direct result of his (mis)adventures in Chicago. Could it be any other way? In the answer to that question, I think, lies some of the cultural groundwork that made gentrification, with all of its warts, and the revitalization of many American cities over the last 25 years possible. These suburban kids need the city to make their lives meaningful.