By 1986, John Hughes had written, produced, and/or directed nine films. His two most famous were Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. These films explored the challenges of being a teenager, and all the emotional instability that accompanied that difficult time. Hughes followed those with two more teen films, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink, then many many more as the years went by. While these films truly have the Hughes fingerprints all over them, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the first Hughes film to capture the radiant joy and reflective inquisitiveness that can sometimes be the flip side of all that passionate upheaval.
I’m not going to describe the film. If you’re not already familiar with it, then stop reading and go watch. I will instead focus on one particular scene in the movie, the museum scene. This scene is, in my very informed opinion, the greatest scene in any movie from the 1980s with regard to the range of feeling associated with it. If you need a refresher, watch the scene again. It is beautifully scripted, acted, and accompanied by both visual and musical nuances, and it plumbs the depth of the innocence we lose when transitioning into adulthood.
The musical accompaniment is the instrumental version of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” by The Dream Academy. Originally recorded by The Smiths, I believe Hughes chose to use this instrumental cover version because it is both clinically cold (Cameron) and uniquely optimistic (Ferris). The song juxtaposes these two very strong emotions and perhaps points to the future direction that the lives of these two characters may take. Will Cameron’s life continue to be a continuing cascade of stress and worry? Will Ferris keep the insouciance that has been his hallmark to date?
The museum scene itself is a juxtaposition of famous art and the reactions of the main characters. In some instances the characters are mirrors of the pieces, and in others they are diametrically opposed. The pieces in the scene are varied in both style and artist, yet they flow seamlessly to create a beautiful scene. Lasting less than two minutes, Hughes created a beautiful piece of cinema that endures.
The museum scene opens with Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron as a part of a chain of elementary students. The students are visitors to the museum as well,and they are representative of the innocence of the main characters. By this point in the film it would be understandable if one forgot these three are still, in fact, students themselves. The first painting seen is “Nighthawks,” by Edward Hopper. The contrast of characters - the attractive couple bathed in light, the solitary figure shrouded in darkness - represents Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron at this point in their lives. It is up to the viewer to determine if this scene happens in the dark of night or more towards the dawn. We then see two paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, on the left is “Improvisation 30 (cannons)” and on the right is “Painting with Green Center.” These paintings represent the maturity of Kandinsky, in a period he often referred to as his period of maturation. It could also represent the inevitability of maturation for the protagonists. These paintings resonate with me mainly because I have a Kandinsky hanging in my house, “Squares with Concentric Circles.”
Next is “Nude Under a Pine Tree,” by Pablo Picasso, followed by two more paintings - “L’Homme qui marche I” by Alberto Giacometti, and another Picasso, “Old Guitarist.” From there the scene moves fairly efficiently through other pieces - Mary Cassatt’s “La Toilette,” Amedeo Modigliani’s “Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz,” Gauguin’s “Day of the Gods,” Pollack’s “Greyed Rainbow,” Matisse’s “Bathers by a River,” but then the camera frames the characters in reaction to a sculpture.
Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron are seen standing mirrored to Rodin’s “Portrait of Balzac.” Each has his arms crossed and his right leg extended in a reaction to the sculpture. Ferris is in the foreground, Sloane in the middle, and Cameron in the back. This could represent the measure of perceived importance to them. We next see the three standing before three more Picasso pieces - “The Red Armchair” (Sloane), “Portrait of Sylvette David” (Ferris), and “Seated Woman” (Cameron). These pieces from Picasso’s later life, represent an amalgam of influences. These were pieces that weren’t defined as his earlier works were. Instead they could stand for transition or change, just as the three are preparing for change. This leads us to the last two pieces, arguably the most important of the entire scene.
Ferris and Sloane are together on a bench and kiss in front of Mark Chagall’s “America Windows.” This isn’t a traditional piece of art, but rather a series of stained glass. These are the newest pieces of art, completed only after 1977. Chagall created it as a celebration of Chicago. There are six panels of “America Windows,” and each is unique like the people of the city. Ferris and Sloane are of Chicago, and can be considered a celebration of its spirit and joie de vivre. While beautifully shot, this is only prelude to the most poignant part of the scene.
Cameron stands in front of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” by Georges Seurat. This is possibly the most famous piece of pointillism art in the world. Pointillism is the act of painting small dots (points) of various colors to create a larger image. Pointillism is a very time consuming and risky venture, originally mocked by critics. It has since gone on to achieve respect. Here the camera switches back and forth from Cameron to the painting, each time zooming closer and closer to each subject. The result is the self-awareness of Cameron. He sees that when you look closely at something beautiful like this painting, it ceases to be beautiful and nobody knows what it is. The viewer sees the painting closer and closer each time, until we can see each point of paint and realize that there really isn’t anything there deep down. Cameron feels also that the closer that people look at him, they might see that there isn’t anything there at all.
I have long debated with friends that this is the crowning achievement in any John Hughes film. While other of his films may have more cultural or social impact, no scene in any other movie resonates so deeply. The term “hauntingly beautiful” can be applied without the slightest sense of hyperbole.