Let My Cameron Go: Why Everyone Loves the Museum Scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
I've watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) enough times that I can recite most of the dialogue by heart, presumably to the chagrin of anyone unfortunate enough to watch it with me. It's one of my favourite films, which is admittedly an extensive list, but it does rank highly. "It's the funniest film ever!" I exclaimed to a friend who had never seen it, "It's the best movie of the 1980s!" I insisted she watch it with me that night and, of course, she loved it too. And what's not to love? Ferris Bueller is an exceedingly clever and timeless coming-of-age teen comedy, rife with memorable characters and one-liners. "Bueller… Bueller…"
Yet the most beautiful, poignant and meaningful moment of the film is a glorious two-minute interlude in which no dialogue takes place: the legendary museum scene. Even The Smiths' magnificent ode to unfulfillment, "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want," is rendered instrumental here in a sublime cover by The Dream Academy. Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) arrive at the Art Institute of Chicago, seeing Kemeys' south Lion (1893) before bounding up the steps into the gallery. They join hands with a group of school children on an excursion and move off-screen, while the camera dances across Kandinsky, Modigliani, Gauguin and more. They imitate Rodin's Portrait of Balzac (1893) with folded arms and stern faces, and study a trio of cubist Picassos.
While Ferris and Sloane move on to kiss in front of Marc Chagall's glowing America Windows (1977), Cameron is mesmerised by Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 (1884/86). His gaze lands on a small pointillist child holding hands with her mother. His clear, bright blue eyes are mirrored in hers and he stares, unblinking, his mouth agape. The camera looks at Cameron, then at the girl, then at Cameron, and back, each time moving closer until Cameron is just a pair of wide eyes filling the screen and the artwork is just a blur of painted dots on canvas.
"This is my favourite scene in any movie, ever," I told my friend during our viewing and pointed out the small digital print on my wall of Cameron in front of La Grande Jatte. I saw the film once at Melbourne's Astor Theatre and Alan Ruck introduced the film and posed for photos afterwards – watching that museum scene, in the presence of Cameron Frye himself, brought tears to my eyes. I'm not alone in my adoration: a cursory internet search of the term "Ferris Bueller museum scene" generates hundreds of thousands of results analysing the power of art,1 boldly declaring it to be the greatest moment in film history2 and gleaning tidbits from commentaries and interviews to imbue further gravitas to Cameron.3 Why does this moment, perhaps above all others in the film, resonate so strongly with viewers? What is it that strikes at our hearts? Why are so many of us so attached to a wordless montage focused on a secondary character? After all, this is Ferris Bueller's day off, not Cameron Frye's.
We as viewers are chosen to be friends and co-conspirators with Ferris from the outset, when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly, providing us with dot-pointed advice in the art of faking a sickie. He's the cool kid, skipping school and not getting caught, and we are flattered by his invitation to hang out and talk with him in the shower, in the snooty French restaurant and when he drives us all home. Ferris is handsome, witty, charming and cunning. He seemingly has it all – adoring parents, a comfortable family home and a pretty girlfriend. His sister resents his success but even she comes around eventually (thanks, Charlie Sheen). Cameron, conversely, is ungainly and anxious. In his many fourth-wall-breaking monologues throughout the film, Ferris "explains" Cameron: he has a troubled relationship with his parents (who hate each other, as well); both are absent and his father potentially abusive. Where Ferris fakes illness to enjoy a sunny day, Cameron is plagued by genuine poor health; Ferris is ready to marry his sweetheart but Cameron has never had a girlfriend (or, "at least, nobody's ever been in love with him"). Ferris is going to get away with his day off but Cameron has kicked his father's 1961 Ferrari out a window. He's a mess, a product of his fractured home life and the internal dialogue that leaves him defeated.
We've all been there, haven't we? Life's rough. We've had troubles – issues with our parents, complications at home. We have struggled to find love or to keep love. Maybe we weren't the cool kids. We have friends who seem to have their shit so much more together than we do. We can't imagine how it must feel to live so free of care, to not worry about everything, and we would be startled to be thrown into a day of it (Ferris tells us, "Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you would have a diamond"). We love our friend Ferris but we can't identify with him, because who of us has sailed through life so easily?
But, we identify with Cameron. Because we are Cameron.
The museum scene resonates so strongly with viewers because we know what Cameron is going through. We recognise his introspection, his uncertainty, his fear, and we imprint onto his face our own crises. Ferris spends the film telling us about Cameron and, in doing so, encourages us to realise that we are not alone. Cameron's pieces fit our puzzle. He doesn't know what he is going to do with his life and, chances are, neither do we. We see ourselves in him and those two timeless, silent minutes reflect our angst. In filling the screen with a series of closer and closer close-ups, Cameron's anguish becomes overwhelming and the whole world appears to close in. We know that feeling. And although John Hughes (rest in peace) omitted lyrics from the soundtrack of this perfect, relatable moment, I can't help re-adding those Smiths lyrics and singing every time I watch the film:
Good time for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man
So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
Haven't had a dream in a long time
See, the life I've had
Can make a good man bad
So for once in my life
Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time
Lord knows, it would be the first time