Rushmore vs Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
There’s nothing like ‘sticking it to the system’, but, what if you’re a teenager and the odds of the whole adult world are stacked against you?
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Rushmore (1998) both feature young adults who use their ingenuity to beat the system. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the hero, Ferris, decides to pull a sickie and take the day off school to hang out with his girlfriend, and his best friend. His fun day becomes a celebration of his time at school (which will end when he goes to university), and the importance of friendship. Ferris is a cheeky, geeky-but-cool, teenage hero, an alfa male in-the-making. A natural salesman, whatever life throws at him he can talk his way out of it.
Max Fischer in Rushmore is also geeky and intelligent, but less of an alpha male and more of an odd-ball character destined to be a playwright. Both characters are masters of their own worlds – they shape the things that are happening around them. Through their persistence, charisma and conviction they’re able to keep their followers (their band of heroes) energised and motivated, ensuring that these supporters can fill a part in one of his upcoming plays, or provide an expensive sports car for a joyride.
Rushmore is different from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because of Max’s vulnerability. He uses fantasy to escape from the reality of his impoverished working-class background and the death of his mother. There’s a persistent fantasy and reality theme, which is accentuated by Max’s passion for producing and directing extravagant theatrical dramas with adult themes. Max’s comic likability comes from the disconnection between his aggrandised self-perception, and his real place in the world. This is especially true with his crush on the adult teacher Rosemary Cross with whom he doesn’t stand a chance. The outcome of Rushmore sees Max finally accepting reality, and his own limitations. In becoming himself he can see beyond his selfish motives and salvage his friendships. It’s only through this process that earns true friendship and can form a working romantic relationship.
The tension in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes from fear of Ferris being caught out by his parents or Principal Rooney, and less overtly from a concern that while Ferris gets everything his way, his friend Cameron Frye will lose out: not only is Ferris using him, but Cameron will get the blame for destroying his father’s precious sports car. Ferris turns the disaster around by using the moment to convince Cameron to stand up to his dominant father, and in that moment Cameron realises that his depression and inadequacy are derived from his fear of his father – and by standing up for himself he will become a new person. This change of thinking is only possible because Ferris has already saved Cameron from drowning, which cemented the trust between them. Despite Ferris’s self-centredness, he’s still there for his friends.
The Third Man vs The Long Goodbye
Set in an atmospheric, post-World War Two Vienna, the pulp Western writer, Holly Martins, in The Third Man (1949), goes in search of his missing friend. And, private investigator, Philip Marlowe, in The Long Goodbye (1973) searches for a woman’s absent husband, along with his missing friend (not knowing that the two mysteries are connected).
The two stories involve an honest, ‘average guy’, as he attempts to solve a mystery, one which will prove to be a tragedy, with personal implications. Holly Martins, searches for Harry Lime (allegedly run-over by a lorry): and, Philip Marlowe, a Private Investigator, attempts to work out what happened to his friend, Terry Lennox (who apparently took his own life). Both these ‘average guys’ are seeking the truth – and their friend is at the centre of the puzzle.
The writer, Holly Martins (he’s writing a crime novel called, The Third Man) should be more clued up about Harry Lime, and his dubious, criminal activities – but, Lime outsmarts him almost to the very end. Meanwhile, Philip Marlowe lives in his own world, detached from other people, focused on his cat, seemingly unaware of his unsavoury, scheming friend Terry Lennox.
These are stories about friendship, and trust – or the lack of these qualities. The two ‘nice guy’ characters, or ‘saps’, are really playing to the tune of their amoral friends, who view everyone around them as objects for their own advancement.
Films, time and space
Reflecting scientific theories, a number of modernist art movements sprung up in the early 20th Century – Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism – representing a new and exciting vision of the world. The old order had, as they viewed it, been destroyed by ‘The Great War’, and had been replaced by new, often revolutionary, –ism’s. The new world required a new aesthetic. They no longer saw the world from the ‘naturalistic’ perspective of a traditional Renaissance painting, which mimicked a person’s normal vision. Instead, they created an artistic interpretation of reality as seen through a 4th dimensional lens – a place where space and time was one, and the hectic, concurrent buzz of the modern world could be ‘realistically’ depicted; a place where the mishmash of mental experience and sense perceptions included the multifaceted and multidimensional experience of the modern 1930s world.
Blurred photos taken at 1/8th of a second showed that the world was not made up of static moments, but continuous movement, and the human experience of that movement in space and time – the speed of modern transport systems, and the abundance of information being communicated through the mass media. Even in the 1930s there was a perception that there was an overwhelming amount of information, too much to process, and this excess spilled over into collages and mixed media artworks.
In Cubist art the conventional perspective became fragmented into a multiplicity of viewpoints, reflections, impossible perspectives, distortions of space, and time – an amalgamation of interpreted experience. In Futurism that experience was manifested in blur, in Cubism by a geometrically fragmented aesthetic, almost as if light had been separated into mathematics. Space, and the experience of it in time, had never been portrayed like this before. For screenplay writers the big question was not how to represent the 4th dimension as an aesthetic, so much as, what story could they extract from it? Monsters, aliens – intriguing new worlds of storytelling material.
The premise of ‘other worlds’ is reflected in the popular parallel worlds of science fiction. The existence of these worlds, independent of one another, but existing simultaneously, caused a problem: how did people get from this dimension to the next? In The Matrix the divide between the two worlds is the difference between a simulated computer experience of reality, created by machines to enslave humanity, and actual reality. The only giveaway being the occasional errant code. The ‘doorway’ between the worlds is developing a special consciousness, and literally waking up from the simulation. The passage between dimensions (or storytelling worlds) occurs through a portal of some kind: in Interstellar (2014) it’s a tesseract located deep in space; in Poltergeist (1982) an apparently ordinary house harbours creepy paranormal activity, which appears through the walls, and out of the static signal of a television set. These new dimensions offer new worlds of possibility and opportunity, providing storytellers with new contexts, new rules, new environments where danger may lurk, and discoveries made, changing our perception of the current reality.
- Moonlight (2016) chronicles the transformation of a quiet child into adulthood – struggling to survive in a dysfunctional and violent world. The story is framed in three acts: child, young adult, and adult – betraying the structure of the source material, a stage play. Produced on a low budget and shot rapidly, the film possesses the cinematic quality of a more lavish production, and coupled with excellent acting performances, apt real-world locations, and a sharply written script – it feels remarkably natural , almost documentary. These ingredients come together to produce a vivid picture of Chiron’s world. This is a story about identity – male identity, Black identity, and sexual identity. It explores social expectations in a working-class community where young adults and men are subject to repressive social conformity, under relentless pressure to act out ‘macho’ stereotypes. It’s a story about Chiron’s search for humanity in a world devoid of tenderness and compassion. In this drug-dependent culture everything is for sale. Everything has a price. Chiron’s journey or quest, if you like, is a search for humanity in a remorselessly brutalised and broken world. Luckily, he’s able to find some guidance from an unlikely mentor, a drug dealer called Juan. Juan takes him to the sea, and teaches him to swim. The sea becomes a reoccurring motif, a pseudo-baptism, associated with free expression, and emotional connection – a kind of bridge from repression to self-transcendence, becoming ‘the real person’ Chiron must be to shed his passive shell.
- At the Earth’s Core can be interpreted as a yearning for a simpler, pre-industrial world; the desire to explore exotic new places, and the need for adventure. This exciting environment requires a classic male hero, a leader capable of taking on rigorous physical and mental challenges. The classic, ‘all male’, hero encounters a woman who personifies natural beauty and there is an instant attraction between them. He also has a companion, or two, which brings the context of his world along with him. The hero in At the Earth’s Core has an eccentric professor, an older mentor, much like the hero in Back to the Future (1985) has a scientist to guide him. These characters provide advice, background information for the audience, and light comic relief. The astronauts in the underground ape world begin their journey in a survival situation much like Robinson Crusoe (1719), marooned in a strange land, having to cope with the harsh environment. This allows for a low key approach that eases the audience into asking questions about where they might be; it builds up anticipation and tension. Initially, this new environment is mysterious, but it soon turns into a dangerous one. The underground world has a strange eerie ambience with prehistoric dinosaurs lurking in the jungle. The ape world looks remarkably like an American landscape (later on, the audience learns it is the ‘American’ landscape). When the hero comes into contact with the Sagoths, or the apes, the rules of the game change from exploration mode (surviving in a harsh landscape with random threats) to a dramatic fight for survival with a known enemy.
- The television series Kung Fu ran on US television from 1972 to 1975. It featured a half-American half-Chinese Shaolin monk called Kwai Chang Caine who travels around the American Old West searching for his half-brother. Episodes are interspersed with flashbacks to his monastic training. The flashbacks provide an insight into his spiritual development and offer clues about how he might outwit his adversaries. The philosophical points are inspired by ancient Chinese texts including the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu. King Fu’s plot-lines include dystopian situations where absolute power has accumulated in the hands of the few and this has resulted in corruption and abuse. But there are ‘good folk’ willing to stand up and fight the ruling elite – people willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the common good. Caine is able to work with these peace and justice loving members of the community to fight injustice. Sometimes he must face criminals or unruly gangs of ‘good old boys’ whose racist and abusive behaviour is tolerated by townsfolk, because they consider it harmless fun or are too afraid to speak out. In a world of bullies and sadistic racists where people are turning a blind eye to hateful behaviour it takes a special kind of hero with moral integrity to restore harmony.
- ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan is essentially a lone operator, who is contemptuous of authority, departmental politics, and especially the Mayor’s office. He sees himself as fighting both the criminals on the street – who know how to use the system to their own advantage – and the flabby, bureaucratic system that’s ‘easy’ on them. The status quo: ‘the system’, the city’s liberal local government, and excessive departmental paper work are all combining to distract the police from carrying out their real work – apprehending the criminals. Dirty Harry is against what he sees as needless form-filling, which is really a method of managerial control, a way of enforcing a liberal consensus (that’s ‘soft’ on criminals), and ‘political correctness’ – all of which amounts to ‘red tape’, which is tying down the police.
- Reflections in a Golden Eye is a tale of repression and desire. Set in the South, at a US Army training facility about a decade after the end of World War Two, it’s a conventional domestic drama with some unusual stylistic choices. What the film does convey is a series of characters who are unable to be true to themselves. They are locked in a repressive, socially conventional world. Major Penderton is torn by his inadequacy and self-loathing, which originates from his repressed sexual urges for Private Williams. Williams, on the other hand, is portrayed as virile – riding a horse bareback – and paradoxically obsessed with the Major’s wife who he creepily watches at night, even breaking in and sniffing her underwear: his apparent virility disguising his own dysfunctional impotence. And although Williams plays a prominent role in the story he has almost no dialogue. The entire film is cast in a heavy ‘golden’ filter, which adds nothing to the story and feels overbearing. Most of the film is shot conventionally, apart from a couple of key scenes that seem bizarrely jarring.
- I, Daniel Blake (2016) is a socially conscious, interpretation of one man’s experience of Government bureaucracy, and the deliberate loops and hurdles put in place by social services to stop people, within their legitimate rights, from claiming benefits they have a legal, and moral, right to. The story is told in a straightforward manner, in the realist tradition, using a restrained ‘natural’ aesthetic. This allows the audience to focus on the characters and their situations without distraction.
- In Passengers (2016), Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, two travellers abroad a spaceship, are released from stasis about 90 years ahead of schedule. They cope with isolation, and are forced into a challenge of saving the ship from destruction. The story plays with a number of themes beginning with Jim Preston’s stasis pod malfunctioning, which puts his character into the marooned mariner scenario. The difference here is that this desert island is a spaceship in deep space, a technological island 90 years away from ‘rescue’ (when the crew and passengers will be woken up and the ship will arrive at its destination). The irony here is that although Jim Preston will die alone, he has everything he needs to survive – except human companionship. He is in a kind of limbo, in transit; on a journey without a destination. This dislocation like Viktor Navorski in The Terminal is a place where Jim is alive but unable to live a normal life. He is surrounded by people, but they are asleep. He might as well be the hero from 28 Days Later: the last man on earth. The scenario is given a contemporary twist, as he has access to digital information, which he uses to learn about Aurora Lane. She’s a woman he spots in one of the stasis pods that he becomes obsessed about. Passengers is really a story about two people, their relationship, falling in love, overcoming mistrust, and, finally, working together as a team.
- Work hard and thrive: this is the powerful message of the American dream. Millions of people are attracted to its democratic potential. Anyone, regardless of who they are or where they have come from, can be a success. And in America success means wealth – preferably riches beyond the wildest imagination. This is American dream. But there is a flip side. This is a world where success has been unfairly gained, the system has fallen apart and injustice is rife – this is the dark side of the failed American dream. In The Grapes of Wrath (1940) the boom and bust economy of the Great Depression has wrecked the economy. Drought has turned viable farming land into a dust bowl. The whole American system is in a state of collapse. And in Idiocracy (2006) society has become lazy, infantile and ineffective. Incompetence and failure are the norm. In a corrupt system those at the bottom will do anything to get to the top – to get rich quick or die trying. When society is fixated on the rapid accumulation of wealth and nothing else matters, criminal characters will go to any length to make their own dreams come true: the drug dealer in Scarface (1983) lives an ultra-violent version of the American dream where nothing counts except showing off his money and using violence to defend his business interests. When you’re in business selling a product, it’s all the same whether it’s a can of cherries or a bag of cocaine. In The Godfather (1972) the normalcy of people lives, the births and marriages hide a dark truth about people’s roles within a ruthless mafia organisation. In a nowhere town the nowhere people in The Last Picture Show (1971) brush up against one another, the small moments of their friendships offering the last vestiges of hope. While in Citizen Kane (1941) the newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane has it all – money, power and influence – but he is consumed by memories of childhood innocence.