Despite it being a silly teenage film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has an enduring value. Its artistic substance, or what Ira Glass calls “a moment of reflection,” is the classic dialectic of fun vs. responsibility. At this Japanese restaurant we frequent, my wife and I talked about different people we know who are like Ferris and his sister Jeanie.
We all know people like Ferris who don’t prepare anything for the future. They make every decision on a whim, convinced that everything would work out in the end, even if it’s at the expense of others, which drives the responsible ones crazy, like Jeanie. Their worst-case scenario is where they warn the reckless ones of possible consequences, but they manage to get away with it. The teaching moment the responsible ones had been waiting for—where they could say, “I told you so”—never arises. Even worse, the responsible ones end up helping the reckless ones avoid the consequence, which is what happens in the film.
It’s a double-bind. If the responsible ones don’t help, they would be made to feel mean, petty, and vindictive because, after all, they are capable of helping. If they do help, the reckless ones never learn the lesson, which in turn means the responsible ones would have to keep helping them, perpetually enabling the very behavior they condemn.
In many ways, Ferris’ world view symbolizes the American one. Typical Americans, for instance, don’t save. It’s about maximizing the fun now. On the other hand, Jeanie’s world view symbolizes for me the Japanese one. Typical Japanese are big savers. They always try to do the socially responsible thing and criticize the reckless Americans but, at the same time, feel envious of them.
I’ve come to accept that these two value systems are fundamentally irreconcilable, but I’ve also come to realize that we can embrace this contradiction without having to synthesize or resolve them. This capacity to peacefully sustain this contradiction within ourselves, I believe, is the key to appreciate life fully, as neither a life entirely of responsibility nor of fun is capable of transcending the water in which it swims.
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