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Remembering John Hughes and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

August 8, 2011

By John C.

When people ask me which directors have provided the most inspiration to me over the years as a writer and film critic, some very diverse people are sure to be the topic of discussion.  The names of classic directors as well as several more current and even independent artists would surely pop up throughout the conversation.  But in some small way, it is John Hughes who has remained one of my greatest inspirations over the years.

Beloved for his screenplays that were often perfectly in tune with both their time and characters, Hughes delivered something in his best work that many screenwriters these days still can’t figure out.  I’m not saying that every film he wrote or produced was equally great, because this wasn’t the case.  But throughout his best films, he knew how to make an audience laugh one minute and move them to tears the next.

This past Saturday marked two years since the untimely death of John Hughes in 2009, and this past June signified 25 years since the release of his seminal high school classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  What better way to celebrate both of these anniversaries than by paying special tribute to the film that made Matthew Broderick an icon, as well as the man behind the movies that defined a generation.

Hughes took problems that every teenager went through, and channeled them through characters that were universal and relatable, but most importantly unforgettable.  If someone else had written Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then the title character would have likely just been a slacker looking to score big with his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara).  Hughes wrote him as a ‘wiser than his years’ 17-year-old desperately trying to slow down and enjoy the crazy teenaged years of life, but never as someone who the audience found annoying.  In one way or another, we all wish we could have been just like him at a certain point in our lives.

Ferris Bueller’s best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) is in many ways an equally memorable character who provides the real heart of the film, as he sleeps his mornings away and keeps a tray of unnamed pills beside his bed.   “The place is like a museum,” observes Ferris as he describes Cameron’s house in the pitch-perfect voiceover narration.  “It’s very beautiful and very cold, and you’re not allowed to touch anything.”  Here is someone who’s always taken someone elses orders, and in many ways, he’s the one who needs the day off.  It’s impossible to forget the scene where Ferris crashes a parade in downtown Chicago or when the three friends go to an art gallery.  But perhaps the most empowering moment in the film comes when Cameron finally takes a stand against his parents and kicks his father’s Ferrari out the window of their garage.

John Hughes produced and wrote numerous films throughout his relatively short career, some a lot more memorable than others.  A lesser known fact is that he only directed eight of these titles himself.  Films like The Breakfast Club were able to work themselves so deep into popular culture, as Hughes took high school clichés and turned them around with a poignant and entertaining character study that showed us the common bond shared between a group of kids who would normally never find themselves all hanging out.  Another great example of this is the first film Hughes directed that focused on adults.  Planes, Trains and Automobiles was a road trip comedy that memorably paired Steve Martin and John Candy to great comedic effect, but took a completely different turn with the painfully effecting final few scenes.

John Hughes perfectly defined a generation with his films, and this decade was the 1980’s.  Then something shocking happened.  Hughes directed his last movie, the charming Curly Sue in 1991, and over the next several years proceeded to slowly disappear from Hollywood.  The landscape of entertainment was rapidly changing, but while here he managed to forever redefine the way that Hollywood treated teenagers and is arguably responsible for paving the way for countless other dramedies that have come over the years.

What remains most inspirational to me as a writer is the way that he was often able to strike the perfect balance between hilarious comedy and heart wrenching drama, creating films that above all else felt real.  At the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he told us that “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Times have changed and any hopes of a big comeback were dashed with his untimely death in 2009, but sometimes we all just need to stop, look around and realize that what we need is the bittersweet power of a John Hughes movie.

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