Ferris Bueller Essay

Academic Writing

How does the gallery scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off use musical style topics, cultural references, cinematography and montage, to give an insight into Cameron’s character and inner life?

This essay will investigate how compilation scoring is used in combination with other techniques to represent the character of Cameron Frye during the art gallery sequence (53:49-55:40, as per the Bueller...Bueller release of the film). The art gallery montage is somewhat of a stylistic oddity amongst the comedic, narrative bustle of the film. John Hughes, the director and writer of the film, highlighted that one of the messages of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was to not take yourself so seriously (Hughes, 2006) and yet the music of this scene seems to reflect a more serious moment, despite being interspersed with comedic visual moments. In addition to this, it sets itself apart from various other sequences through a complete lack of diegetic sound for the sequence duration, the use of a practically photographic form of cinematography and the application of montage editing. In this particular scene, it could be argued that the music serves to act as Gorbman’s (1987) function of identification. An audience comprehension of the character’s mental state is achieved to some extent, in combination with the cinematography, direction and editing of the sequence.

In terms of narrative pace, the choice of 'Please Please Let Me Get What I Want', a Smiths song covered by Dream Academy, provides a much needed non-diegetic contrast to the previous scene which was almost completely absent of non-diegetic sound. At a reasonably consistent tempo of around 125bpm (with the minor exception of the rallentando at the end of the song), one function of 'Please Please' is to bring the different shots that comprise the montage into a cohesive, linear whole, keeping the audience engaged in the narrative progression of the scene as they watch the characters traversing the gallery (Gorbman, 1987). The pop ballad genre of the song also assists in providing the heartfelt emotional depth necessary for a sequence with no dialogue. The song’s genre and the nature of the dream-like, synth pads help to create a quieter, more contemplative atmosphere to match the characters’ perusal of a sophisticated art gallery, the bursts of synth trills creating moments of musical melodrama within the scene. The relationship between musical rhythm and the rhythm of editing to match characters adds to this effect (Hughes, according to the producer of the film, was particularly interested in using editing as a way to represent character personality to an audience) (Hughes, 2006). Bordwell (1985) argues that the speed and timing of cuts manipulate the viewer’s interpretations of a scene. In the case of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the use of this technique helps to slow down the narrative excitement that usually surrounds Ferris and focuses instead on Cameron’s considerably bleaker perspective of life.

Cinematography is used is to present the main characters (and the extras in the background, although to a lesser extent) as static beings, not too dissimilar from the abstract paintings that surround them, a fact particularly reflected through the use of shots that are comparable to photographs in their stillness. This is a very different portrayal of their antics in comparison to the prior events of the film. In this sequence, the stable beat of the music appears to move faster than the characters, as if they have become part of the gallery, in effect, living exhibits. In terms of discourse, this could be seen to provide a narrative parallel to Ferris’ earlier description of Cameron’s home as a cold 'museum'. Initially, the inactive shots apply to all three of the characters but this changes later on in the sequence to illustrate Cameron’s isolated, passive nature.

The representation of the characters as static within the montage is particularly obvious at 54:52 where the trio poses in an amusing reflection of the statue. The cinematography in this particular shot is one of the techniques which is used to present Cameron as a third wheel; Ferris is closest to the foreground to reflect his eponymous centre of attention status, Sloane stands between the two as the mental middleground (more refined in nature than Ferris but not as neurotic as Cameron) and Cameron is furthest back, almost part of the background (Hughes, 2006). Cameron’s status as a third wheel (Hughes, 2006) is further emphasised through later edits within the sequence where the assertion of static inactivity seems to apply more to him than Ferris and Sloane, who are shown kissing while he stands in isolation staring at a painting. This, in combination with the mournful oboe melody, helps to present Cameron as the lonely extra of the group.

Asides from kissing, the most physical movement in the entire sequence is apparent only at the beginning, where the characters rush into the gallery and join a chain of schoolchildren. The presence of childhood as a theme is hinted at throughout the sequence via both the direct reference to schoolchildren and the subtler references to the parent-child relationship. The latter is depicted in a few of the paintings that the cinematography deliberately directs the audience’s attention towards (Hughes, 1999). When Cameron looks at the picture of the child and mother, he could be perceived to be trying to comprehend the warmness of a relationship that he has never had. Hughes (1999) describes this scene as one of over-identification with the painting; ‘the closer he looks at the child, the less he sees... But the more he looks at, there's nothing there. I think he fears that the more you look at him the less you see. There isn't anything there. That's him' (Hughes, 1999: 57:35).

'Please Please' straddles the line between stereotypical male and female scoring, as outlined by Philip Tagg’s (1998) investigation of the music-gender relationship. The average tempo of the song is far closer to the 109bpm that Tagg (1998) cites as characteristic of male tunes and yet stereotypically female associations, such as legato phrasing and a relatively static bassline, are also present (Tagg, 2003). In addition to this, the instrumentation combines both stereotypically male and female associated instruments. The rhythm section comprises of standard pop ballad percussion, synthesised strings (Tagg’s 1998 gender-music tables imply that sequenced synths are characteristic of male tunes and strings are characteristic of female tunes providing another interesting cross-reference in terms of musical gender representation) and electric guitar but the melodic ornaments and lilting synth trills largely occur in a higher register on stereotypically female instruments such as the oboe. These more feminine elements of the music could be present as a result of Sloane’s presence in the gallery alongside the boys or, alternatively, could be interpreted as providing a musical link to Cameron’s psyche as the later shots increasingly focus on his inaction. Although the character identifies as male, he displays a few qualities that are deemed to be stereotypically 'female', in accordance with Tagg’s (1998) hypothesised musical polarities of gender; for example, his passive, inward-focusing nature, which is emphasised in the latter part of this sequence. In the director’s commentary, Hughes describes Cameron’s character as an extreme passive-aggressive, who constantly acts in grudging opposition to what he truly wants to do (Hughes, 1999) and this is reflected to some extent in both the melancholy oboe melody of the music and editing of this sequence; particularly when the shots of him staring blankly at the painting are briefly intercut with those of Ferris and Sloane kissing. Because of the way the sequence is shot, the audience literally stares into Cameron’s eyes as he stares at the painting, creating an uncomfortable feeling of psychological intimacy as we are given an insight into his uncertainty of the future.

The relationship between Ferris and Sloane provides a stark contrast to Cameron’s neurotic, over-analytical perspective of the relationship depicted in the painting before him. This painting, like a few others that are focused on earlier in the montage, illustrates yet another warm, nurturing parent-child relationship (Hughes, 1999), which provides a stark contrast to the cold, dysfunctional relationship that Cameron has with his own parents. Cameron’s parents, whilst frequently discussed, are never actually shown onscreen for the duration of the film; the audience’s perceptions of Cameron are trapped within Ferris’ larger than life bubble. Given the sense of isolation that Cameron supposedly experiences in his home life, the closest he seems to come to a healthy relationship is his friendship with Ferris. Hughes (1999) himself describes the relationship Cameron shares with Ferris as that of a best friend/father figure.

If this father figure interpretation is to be believed, then this raises the question of how Sloane is viewed by Cameron. Cameron clearly views Sloane as a desirable woman, as evidenced by his embarrassed non-admission to being a catatonic peeping Tom and further evidence for this idea is provided in bonus feature interviews with both the actors and director (Hughes, 2006). However, Sloane appears to act rather maternally towards Cameron; they are later shown holding hands while walking through the carnival crowd (58:08) and Cameron confides in her, as one would a mother. A Freudian interpretation of the relationship between these three main characters would suggest that Cameron is experiencing a late adolescent version of the Oedipus complex, reflecting his inability to develop past the negative experiences of his childhood (Creed, 1998). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is, in essence, the story of his transformation from unwitting, helpless child to a more capable adult who is willing to take back control of his life and relationships. In terms of the art gallery scene, evidence for this interpretation is provided from the cuts between Ferris and Sloane kissing while Cameron stands alone staring at the parent and child in the painting, encouraging an unconscious consideration of his relationship to the others. In this scene, Cameron is portrayed as their child, unable to adequately care for himself until the end of the film.

The choice of 'Please Please' is particularly apt for several reasons. It fits the length of the scene, thus providing an encompassing musical background for the micro-narrative of the sequence (Donnelly, 2001); it is a song that viewers will most likely be familiar with, since the cover peaked at 83 in the 1985 UK charts for 4 consecutive weeks (The Official UK Charts Company, 2017) and, most importantly, the lyrics expertly sum up Cameron’s feelings about his life at present. As Hughes (1999) notes, the character refuses to ‘speak his mind and then he whips himself for not doing what he wants to do' (Hughes, 1999: 01:23), a fact that the helpless nature of the lyrics reflect. Despite the fact that the version used in the film is purely instrumental, some of the meaning in the art gallery sequence could be said to rely on the unheard words of this song. The popularity of the Smiths’ emphasis on lyrics, ability to tap into the teenage demographic and the cover version of 'Please Please' might have guided the audience of the time to a better awareness of Cameron’s outlook (Savage, Kappala-Ramsamy and Boscawen, 2011).

In conclusion, although the narrative is largely focalised according to Ferris and his fourth wall breaking narration, the music and editing focuses the audience’s attention on Cameron in the art gallery sequence and the engagement in the narrative achieved through these combined techniques serve to create a state of suspended belief. This could be seen to aid the function of identification, despite the fact that popular music often draws more attention to itself than the orchestral alternative in film scoring (Braudy and Cohen, 2016; Gorbman, 1987). However, the stark framing and cuts between close ups focus the audience’s attention away from the music and towards Cameron; portraying the loneliness of his home life and neuroticism of his character through how the edits relate him to others (i.e: his reactions to the relationships depicted in the paintings and his friends).

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