My parents split up just weeks before the film's release (on June 11, 1986), and I was inconsolable. I was 19, just back home from my first year of college, still very sheltered and immature. With Mom and Dad's separation, I felt like the ground had crumbled beneath me. The foundation on which my carefully constructed little world rested had cracked wide open. If their marriage was a sham -- if my childhood had been a sham -- then my whole life was a sham. What was I supposed to do now? Who was I supposed to turn to for guidance?
An over-privileged teenage prankster in a stolen Ferrari, that's who.
After what seemed like weeks of watching me mope around miserably and act like a total wet blanket, a couple of friends took me to see 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' Maybe they thought it would cheer me up, or maybe they just wanted to get me out of the house.
At any rate, watching a cheeky Matthew Broderick take his girlfriend and his glum pal out on a day-long joyride did indeed cheer me up. For about an hour and a half, I completely forgot my own woes. And then I went home and went back into my deep funk. It was only much later when I realized what had really gone on.
After all, Ferris isn't just out to ditch school and have fun. He's actually on a mission of mercy, to pull Cameron out of his depression, maybe even to prevent him from committing suicide. At the end of the movie, Cameron is still in a heap of trouble and has a serious reckoning with his parents ahead of him, but at least he feels alive, with the courage to face his problems. And that's the same kind of gift (or intervention) that my own Ferris and Sloane were giving me, whether they knew it or not.
I didn't take the message of the movie ("Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.") very seriously. 'Ferris Bueller' is a cartoon, a fantasy of what teens wish they could get away with. On the surface, it's just a fun romp. But it does acknowledge pain, loss and the end of childhood. Cameron's depression is real, as evidenced by his catatonic state at the beginning of the movie and the tray of medicines by his bed. Also real are the boredom and responsibilities awaiting these kids in adulthood, as previewed by the droning lecture on voodoo economics given by teacher Ben Stein. Ferris knows he's about to graduate and leave high school junior Sloane behind, and that their romance may not survive that separation. And even if Ferris does eventually marry Sloane, what's to stop the two of them from becoming their parents?
Given such prospects, who can blame Ferris and his friends for wanting to hold on to their youth and freedom (and, let's face it, privilege and money) for as long as they can? Their enemy isn't their parents or Ferris's justifiably resentful sister Jeanie or the Javert-like Principal Rooney, who spends his day trying to crush their spirit. Their enemy is time.
Which is why two of the best sequences are the art museum and the parade. It's remarkable, really, that Ferris's pursuit of pure pleasure includes something as lofty and cerebral as an art museum visit. (It's hard to imagine that, if the movie were made today, it would include that scene, rather than impatiently move on to the next misadventure.) Yet Cameron is profoundly moved by the Seurat painting: He sees a moment of innocent hedonism and group fun that's been preserved forever, in a painting that looks like a jumble of dots up close and only makes sense when you stand back far enough to gain some perspective.
The parade is a similar paradox: defined by forward motion, yet seemingly stopped in its tracks when Ferris hijacks a spot in it and stops the film cold for a few minutes of pure joy as he sings 'Danke Schoen' and 'Twist and Shout.' The whole city of Chicago seems to stop and celebrate along with him. It just doesn't get any better than that, and, indeed, everything in the film that follows is a bit of a comedown.
A side note: Years later, a friend of mine who had become a successful, published author at a very young age, told me how she once was attending the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, pulled a Ferris and found herself on a float, singing and dancing before thousands on the street and millions more watching on TV. What a charmed life she lives, I thought, not without some Jeanie-like resentment. How incredibly lucky. But of course, it wasn't just luck. She made her own luck, just like Ferris. Because that's what you have to do if you want good things to happen in your life. It's not enough just to watch the parade go by.
After I saw 'Ferris,' it still took me many months to rejoin the parade. I went back to school and I buried myself in my studies, but I avoided much of what had once given my life pleasure and meaning: my writing, my music and my friends. I was going to soldier on, but damned if I was going to be happy about it.
And then, one day in the dead of winter, I woke up. What was stopping me from being happy? Not my parents. It was just me and my own stubbornness. Why shouldn't I enjoy myself? Like Ferris and his friends, I still had youth and freedom (and, let's face it, privilege and money, though not on a scale like those enjoyed by the Buellers, Petersons and Fryes).
Really, the only thing stopping me was my embarrassment over what a miserable wet blanket I'd been. I was certain that I'd alienated all my friends and that none of them would want to be around me now. But I should have taken to heart the words of the film's wisest, most generous-in-spirit character, Sloane, who responds to Cameron's meltdown by reassuring him, "Sooner or later, everyone goes to the zoo."
There was no shame in how I'd behaved; there wasn't even anything unique about it. Wallowing in despair had been a luxury, one my friends weren't interested in indulging by pretending it had been a big deal. I started writing again, started playing music again, and returned to the fold again among friends who acted as if I'd never left.
And in a way, I had Ferris, Sloane and Cameron to thank. The movie hadn't cured me of my gloom, but it had shown me a way out, and when I was ready, I walked through the door on my own. Today, when I watch the movie, I think about how despondent I was at the time, but also about how that despondence didn't last, how there was a pattern I couldn't see when I was right up against it, but which, from a distance, revealed itself to be life in all its impressionistic, colorful glory.
So danke schoen, Ferris, danke schoen. Thank you for all the joy and pain.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.