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On Ferris Bueller, Advertising, and the Fourth Wall

The good news, I suppose, is that he’s not actually playing Ferris Bueller. Still, there’s no question that the two-and-a-half minute Matthew Broderick-fronted, Todd Phillips-directed Honda CR-V Super Bowl ad that we told you about last week is positively loaded with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off references and iconography — more than two dozen of them, according to Honda’s “brand manager” (ugh), Tom Peyton. The ad went online Monday, with the predictable response pattern: snarky rage on Twitter, hand-wringing online, and then the required contrarian “In Defense of…” piece. It’s shaping up to be the big game’s most controversial ad (at least until Sunday, when we get the full-frontal assault of “women are nags” spots, but I digress).

So why do we care so much? It’s no longer a surprise to see pop culture icons shilling for big business; hell, I’m old enough to remember the giant controversy that followed the licensing of a Beatles song for Nike ad. (That uproar seems positively quaint these days, when a commercial deal is a giant coup for musicians of all stripes.) The commotion over Broderick’s Honda ad speaks not to “selling out” in general. It’s about the selling out of this character — and not just because he didn’t condone any “–isms” (including, presumably, capitalism). It’s about our connection with Ferris Bueller, who wasn’t just a protagonist. By taking us into his confidence and guiding us through his world, Bueller made us his co-conspirator.

Broderick’s Bueller, as written and directed by John Hughes, was far from the first comic lead to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. Groucho Marx (“I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby till this thing blows over”) W.C. Fields (“This scene was supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out”), and Bob Hope (“You can go get popcorn now, Bing is going to sing”) did it in old comedies; Bugs Bunny did it in cartoons; George Burns and Dobie Gillis did it on TV. Broderick’s closest contemporary was probably Woody Allen, who broke the fourth wall frequently — most memorably in Annie Hall (“Boy, if life were only like this!”).

There’s something powerful about breaching the proscenium of the movie frame and engaging the audience directly — and it’s not something that just happens in direct-to-camera asides and monologues. Not to be the guy that trots out that old saw about the eyes being the window to the soul, but it’s a notion that countless filmmakers have taken as gospel; the advantage of acting for the motion picture camera, in contrast to the stage, is proximity. The camera can come in tight, allowing an actor to concentrate a performance, should they choose, entirely in the face and eyes.

When a director chooses to use a subjective camera (whether it is in place of another character, an object, or the audience on the other side of the broken fourth wall), the actor can make direct eye contact with the camera — and thus the audience. That’s a powerful thing; it’s also a tool trotted out more frequently than you might expect. The addictive tumblr Look at the Camera collects hundreds of stills and screen captures (a few of our favorites are interspersed here) from the entire history of cinema in which the actor (and the filmmaker) engages the moviegoer with those mini-fourth-wall-breaks.

Eye contact is important, whether on a first date or a first reel. How much of our urgent attachment to Clarice Starling is a direct result of Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme’s decision to shoot her tense conversations with Hannibal Lecter subjectively — and, for that matter, how much of our vaunting of Lecter to anti-hero status is due to Demme (and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto) allowing us, via camera placement, to see Lecter through Starling’s eyes? Sam Mendes knew he would have trouble making his teen-lusting protagonist in American Beauty an object of even reluctant audience identification, so he constructs an elaborate fantasy sequence in the middle of a cheerleading routine in which Kevin Spacey’s fantasy girl (Mena Suvari) comes on to him; she does it directly into camera, of course, so she’s coming on to us as well. Michael Mann tinkers with the expectations of an audience breathlessly awaiting a DeNiro-Pacino face-off in Heat by using direct-to-camera framing to pit the titans against each other early — in a scene where they’re not even in the same building.

When John Hughes was faced with making an appealing leading character out of a habitually truant, irresponsible identity thief who lied to his parents and stole his friend’s father’s car, he had to do more than scatter in a few POV shots. He had Ferris address the audience directly, early and often, and he lucked out in casting Broderick, easily one of the most charismatic and likable actors of the 1980s. But (and this is key) he didn’t just have him give the occasional Alvy-esque aside or Groucho/Hope in-joke; his Bueller is an open book, laying out the intricacies and logistics of his subterfuge, laying out a case for his actions, and, in a few key moments, laying bare his ultimately altruistic motivations. Ferris Bueller doesn’t just “talk to the camera” (and thus, the audience) — he makes the camera his accomplice. And we’re therefore in it with him all the way, relieved when he pulls off that masterful switcheroo during dad’s back-seat double-take, rooting for him to pull off that mad dash and get back home before Jeannie, cheering when she gets him off the hook with Rooney.

And that’s why people are angry about the Honda ad. After all we’ve been through during those multiple viewings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (and it’s hard to find anyone who’s only seen it once, whether by choice or happenstance), we have a very firm idea of who Ferris is, and who he would become. Finding a Bueller-tinged Broderick hawking mini-SUVs is like tracking down your best buddy from junior high and finding him working at his dad’s insurance agency. This is not, it must be said, a righteous dude.

The Broderick-as-Bueller Honda ad is below; what do you think?

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