ferris-buellerA couple weeks ago my girlfriend and I took a trip to Chicago for the weekend.  The weather on Sunday was practically identical to that during Ferris Bueller’s legendary day off: mostly sunny with a high temperature of 69 degrees.  It was the kind of weather that inspired Ferris (Matthew Broderick) to remark thoughtfully to the audience, “how could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?” before taking off for a day of surprisingly wholesome adventures in downtown Chicago with his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara).

“Breaking the fourth wall” is an expression that refers to the imaginary “fourth wall” of a theater – the portal through which the audience watches the events of the story.  Breaking the wall occurs when one of the characters acknowledges the fact that an audience exists, and speaks to them directly (or refers to them indirectly).  This happens copiously in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – in fact, it’s probably the most familiar example of this technique.  Ferris talks about all kinds of things; he provides a tutorial on how to fake an illness, gripes about his lack of a car, and explains his disdain for authority – and of any ideology in general.  Having Ferris speak directly to us is an important part of the movie’s charm, as Matthew Broderick’s smarmy charisma floats off of the screen and makes it clear why everyone in his high school – even the teachers in the English department – simply adore him.

The Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

The Song: “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”

The Artist: Dream Academy

During their adventures in Chicago, the trio catch a game at Wrigley Field (which we missed, unfortunately – the Cubs won both games while we were in town) visit the Sears Tower, and spend a healthy interlude at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Their visit to the Art Institute begins with the teens joining a line of elementary school students on a field trip, and reminds us that in spite of all the laws these teens manage to break over the course of the day, they’re still just kids, and fairly innocent ones at that.

It’s a touching scene from the movie, set to a lovely instrumental cover of the Smiths song “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” (which originally appeared in the Hughes film Pretty in Pink) performed by Dream Academy.  A number of famous paintings are housed at the Art Institute, including Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Ed Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath,” and Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and the scene takes us on a pleasant tour of them, showing that Ferris and his friends aren’t empty narcissistic jerks – they’re capable of being quiet and thoughtful and reverent and affectionate and appreciative.

Cameron’s moments alone with Seurat’s most famous painting are the centerpoint of the sequence.  While Ferris and Sloane are off in a different part of the museum kissing tenderly in front of a blue stained glass window, Cameron peers at the painting and his loneliness and angst is etched in his unblinking stare. Most of the subjects in the painting are facing out over the water, looking towards the opposite bank of the Seine.   The single exception is a little girl who is staring directly out of the picture frame, towards the viewer.  As the conflicted Cameron locks eyes with her, it creates a very curious moment; the camera’s focus moves increasingly closer to the surface of painting, eventually revealing the individual nubs of the canvas and the brushstrokes of paint.  The little girl in Seurat’s painting appears transfixed with what she sees – us – and it’s a brilliant moment as the fourth wall is broken yet again in the movie, this time by a character in a famous painting.

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