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Ferris Bueller, Quentin Tarantino, and the Construction of Whiteness in American Cinema

I remember seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the big screen in 1986, back when I was nine. I was amused at what I was watching — and yet, I felt even then, at that young age, that the protagonist was an arrogant, bratty little shit. Kids playing hooky is nothing new, but writer-director John Hughes presents Bueller (Matthew Broderick) as more than just a typical teen playing sick so he can spend the day seeing the Chicago sights. He makes him a folk hero. He’s the most popular kid in school (“They all think he’s a righteous dude,” Edie McClurg’s secretary memorably says). When word gets around about his supposed “illness,” his home is overrun by get-well bouquets and sexually suggestive singing telegrams. “Save Ferris” soon becomes a mantra that spreads like wildfire. (A skacore band later adopted the name.) He even has the respect of both cops and criminals.

Ferris is among the several vexing and enduring heroes of “BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness,” a fascinatingly curated series (Steve Martin’s The Jerk is even in here!) kicking off this Wednesday. He paints the town red with his girl, Sloane (Mia Sara), and his less-confident buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck). He exudes rock-star swagger, literally taking over a parade and wowing the crowd by lip-syncing the Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.” (I guess he didn’t think the versions made by Black groups the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers would sound right coming out of his mouth.) He is the coolest person in all of Shermer (the fictional town where Hughes set many of his movies), and when uppity haters like the high-school principal (Jeffrey Jones) or his jealous sister (Jennifer Grey, Broderick’s then-girlfriend) try to catch him in the act, they somehow end up abused and reprimanded while he gets away with his mad-dash adventure.

By making his ideal version of the Greatest Teenager Ever a cocky, scrawny white boy, Hughes subconsciously reminded audiences of a fact of American life: how white men usually get away with a lot and yet are still beloved and embraced by the (predominantly pale-skinned) populace. This is true even when it seems like the figure in question doesn’t appreciate the love all that much: We know school can be a pain in the ass, but what does it say about Ferris that he’d distance himself from the place where people treat him like a fuckin’ king? In fact, you could argue Hughes’s entire Shermer-set filmography comprises a universe where self-centered white kids roam free, while the minorities they meet — whenever they’re actually represented — are often characterized as shifty or intimidating. And, eventually, the white kids still come off as the cool ones. (Remember that scene in Weird Science where a shitfaced Anthony Michael Hall won over a blues bar full of black folk with a story about a “crazy little eighth-grade bitch” he was in love with?) If someone made contemporary sequels to those movies today, many of the beloved characters — Bueller, especially — would probably be Fox News viewers.

Much of “On Whiteness,” which is presented in collaboration with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, communicates a general impression that being white can save your ass — if not the whole day. Several selections envision twisted takes on the white-savior story: Gran Torino (2008), where director-star Clint Eastwood assumes the role of a racist old man who evolves into a Christ-like figure, laying his life on the line to protect an innocent family in his minority-filled neighborhood; Claire Denis’s White Material (2009), with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-plantation owner who stubbornly stands her ground amid a bubbling civil war in Africa; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where Robert De Niro’s unhinged Travis Bickle emerges as a local hero after saving child sex worker Jodie Foster from depraved men by blowing out their brains.

Even Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is essentially a trilogy of stories about cool white dudes coming to the rescue, whether it’s John Travolta’s druggie hit-man Vincent bringing his boss’s wife (Uma Thurman) back to life or Bruce Willis taking a samurai sword to slash the hillbillies who sodomize that same boss (Ving Rhames) whom he previously double-crossed. Or take Tarantino himself, who cameos as a guy who lets Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), temporarily stash their corpse-filled, blood-and-brain-soaked car on his property — but not before infamously clarifying to his good buddy Jules that there isn’t a sign outside his house that says “Dead Nigger Storage.” (In an ironic twist, the movie ends with Jules as the final savior, taking mercy on small-time thieves Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer during a diner robbery.)

In “Pulp Fiction,” the writer-director Quentin Tarantino (right) cameos as a man who shouts racial slurs.

We also have films that deal with assimilation, particularly as it pertains to Black girls passing for white. In the opening title in the series, the 1949 melodrama Pinky, Elia Kazan cast lily-white Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned Black woman who can pass for a sista. There’s also Shadows, John Cassavetes’s aptly-named 1959 debut, about a trio of African-American siblings, two of whom (including the fair-skinned Lelia Goldoni) are more light-skinned than the other. Black girls play white in a pair of shorts: Illusions, Julie Dash’s 1982 film with Lonette McKee infiltrating Second World War–era Hollywood by passing as a white studio assistant (this also screened during BAMcinématek’s “Strange Victories” series last November); and Free, White, and 21, a jarring 1980 piece wherein African-American artist Howardena Pindell verbally reveals the injustices she’s experienced while also going whiteface and playing a woman who simply dismisses her for being ungrateful.

Another extreme example of this identity-swapping theme is the madhouse 2004 farce White Chicks, in which co-writers-stars-brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans (with big-bro Keenen Ivory directing) perform a racial spin on Some Like It Hot by starring as FBI agents who pretend to be a pair of Paris and Nicky Hilton–esque socialite sisters in order to foil a kidnapping scheme. But being a privileged white girl isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, as evidenced by the inclusion in “On Whiteness” of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, which shows what happens when you keep a quintet of isolated sisters from going out and experiencing the world. (If you want to see white, middle-class ennui from the male perspective, the series includes the 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer.)

Additional intriguing selections deal with Italian-Americans taking on the throne of the white, all-American hero. In 1974’s The Godfather Part II, we get the origin story of the Corleone family’s immense crime empire; in his underappreciated 1999 Summer of Sam, Spike Lee dramatizes how Italian-Americans were on the lookout for the notorious killer Son of Sam; and, of course, the legendary 1976 Rocky features Sylvester Stallone’s Italian palooka going up against Carl Weathers’s Black-and-proud Apollo Creed.

It seems fitting that the series ends with Get Out, Jordan Peele’s surprise hit from last year. Besides it being among the best paranoid thrillers ever made about creepy-ass white people (take that, Stepford Wives!), the movie concludes with our hero Daniel Kaluuya literally taking out, one by one, a deranged white family who tries to turn him into a brain-dead brotha who can unthreateningly mingle with the white folk. The spectacle is virtually a violent battle cry for Black folk to stomp away white superiority and proclaim their blackness. You may not end up as cool and awesome as the Ferris Buellers of the world, but gotdammit — at least you’ll be yourself.

‘BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness’
BAMcinématek
July 11–19

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Grim Kiddie Dystopia The Maze Runner Blames the Adults

It’s tough to be a teen in 2014. When your parents’ generation went to the movies, they cracked up at sex comedies and John Hughes. Today, Hollywood wants you dead. Between Katniss’s nightlock berries and The Giver’s daily dulling injection, you can literally pick your poison.

In Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner, a grim kiddie dystopia about a pack of boys who’ve woken up in the middle of a labyrinth with their memories wiped, the guys fear “being stung,” an infection that turns the victim into a violent killer. According to leader Alby’s (Aml Ameen) rules, the tribe must shove the stung into the Maze, a mechanical deathtrap filled with murderous metal spiders called Grievers and walls that shift so loudly that the sound design rattles the enamel off your teeth. A few members of the group have been selected as Runners, athletes who race through the halls trying to find the exit.

The rest are content to stay safe in the center and accept their fate, even if that means expelling rebels who disrupt the status quo. Is the true enemy this all-testosterone Lord of the Flies clan? Nah, faulting your fellow kids is so 1950s. For the millennials, adults gotta be to blame, even when we never see them. The Maze Runner is so bleak that it almost convinces us to take it seriously. Don’t bother — James Dashner’s original novel makes a lot more sense. But Ball gets all the genre beats right: adrenaline escapes, a hazy anti-corporate cynicism, and a hero (Dylan O’Brien) who is assured from the start that he’s Very Special.

Hey, who cares if today’s kids survive a movie, as long as their egos are intact.

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It’s Only Kickball, Stupid Isn’t Either

It’s Only Kickball, Stupid is the no-duh title of kef productions’ latest play, but the themes of this piece set mostly on a playground — and perfectly timed to open in sync with New York City schools — are neither obvious nor childish. Caroline Prugh’s text borrows the exuberant language and mannerisms of sixth graders growing up in the late ’80s (totally! awesome!) to dig into complex matters of identity, memory, and sexuality with the nonchalant shovel swipes of kids in a sandbox.

Fortunately, the glanced-over premise of the MTV generation’s coming of age is given two opposites-in-attraction protagonists worthy of a John Hughes film and a ferocious pair of actresses who carry them off. As playground newcomer Fiona, Lori Prince is brooding and tomboyish in jet-black ponytails, slouchy pants, and Doc Martens. Sporting a ruffled skirt, pink crew socks, and a cascade of auburn ringlets, Autumn Hurlbert is an exultant, fearless, and flirty Margo. They’re in each other’s faces from Scene One, rebounding off one another with the bouncy resilience of the title’s rubber ball. It’s easy to imagine Margo, who struts with such intensity that she sometimes clutches her side in pain, as the captain of the girls’ kickball team that’s “creamed” on a daily basis by a stronger boys’ lineup.

But kickball is not Prugh’s subject and no innings are played in this purportedly interactive piece, in which the role of the audience, seated at folding tables strewn with colored paper and crayons encircling a room at the Hartley House community center, is limited to providing a listening ear to Fiona’s reminiscences of those recess-hour skirmishes. In the group-therapy session that ensues, we meet the girls’ male counterparts: Henry, Margo’s jocko boyfriend (Eric T. Miller, perfectly doltish in acid-washed jeans and floppy hair); and his effeminate sidekick, Ian (Debargo Sanyal), who lends nervy counterpoints to the raging hetero hormones.

The question of why Fiona should need to relive their sparring matches becomes the elephant in the room about halfway through the 90-minute performance — likewise, why these should be consistently pitched at a register barely below a shouting match, under Adam Fitzgerald’s direction (a bit too “annoying!”). It’s just then that Prugh boots a towering sacrifice fly, leaping the action to the present and a surprising new thematic field of gender equality. In the context of exploring Fiona’s “hopeless crush” on Margo and, to a lesser extent, Ian’s homosexuality, Prugh has the pair, now best friends sharing an apartment in Astoria, debate the easier road to coming out for gays than for lesbians, at the same time reuniting a “hopeful” Fiona with a greatly diminished Margo, who’s now in an unhappily traditional marriage of unequal domestic responsibilities. But Margo makes clear she “isn’t like” Fiona, and the play finally becomes a lament of unfulfilled desire and memory’s alluring chimeras. So it was only kickball they were playing at after all.

Though admirable in its attempted range, Prugh’s story expends its formidable energy and a potentially interesting riff on the gender-and-equality conversation in nominally explored, tangential concerns. And beyond a few pop-culture references, kef’s production never relaxes enough to capitalize on the latent humor of the ’80s context. But despite the lost opportunities, Prince and Hurlbert turn in endearing, nuanced performances near the end to kick home a final winning run.

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The Modest Where We Started Is an Engaging Two-Character Portrait of an Affair

Where We Started, the third feature film from writer-director Chris Hansen, is a modest, unassuming two-character portrait about a couple of married strangers — mechanic and struggling actor Will (Matthew Brumlow), unsatisfied housewife and mother Nora (Cora Vander Broek) — who meet at a motel and end up spending a long night together.

Their connection is formed over cigarettes, cosmopolitans, late-night diner food, a shared love of John Hughes movies, and flirtatious arguments about make-out music.

Hansen, the director of the Film and Digital Media program at Baylor University, crafts their conversations with a delicate mix of shot/reverse-shot cutting and longer shots that contain both actors, giving each of them space and time to nurture the dueling psychologies and motivations. (Brumlow and Vander Broek both receive “additional dialogue” credit.)

This is a much more confident film than Hansen’s Endings (2010), which tells a badly misjudged and manipulative interlocking story about three near-death people, including a heroin addict played by Brumlow, finding companionship in their mutual sorrow. Where We Started does away with such overdetermined narrative ambition in favor of its simple, two-in-a-room scenario.

Hansen still falls into some traps: The few soundtrack-heavy sequences, particularly near the end, tug at heartstrings that have already been breached through more organic means, and the awkward recurrence of the characters’ references to Hughes films further threatens the air of naturalism.

But the movie, on the whole, remains an engaging platform for its actors, and Hansen’s ability to maximize their work, as epitomized by the most sublime moment: a nearly five-minute take in which Hansen’s camera patiently moves in on Vander Broek as she unpacks the depths of Nora’s character.

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SAVE US, FERRIS!

In 1986, our incomparable mentor John Hughes introduced us to a new witty hero: Ferris Bueller, a Chicago teen who ditches school in the most over-the-top way possible—and gets away with it. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which Hughes called his “love letter to the city,” follows Bueller, his girlfriend, Sloane, and his mopey best friend, Cameron, to a Cubs game, the Sears Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Von Steuben Day parade. One of the most entertaining teen classics, it screens outdoors tonight. If we’re the only ones who get up to dance to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” during the parade scene, then Ferris Bueller has taught you nothing.

Thu., July 11, 6 p.m., 2013

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PRETTY IN BOOKS

Chances are high that most people who buy Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut, When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories, will be John Hughes devotees. But this book will be much different than the anecdotes found in her bestselling memoir, Getting the Pretty Back. The story centers on Phillip and Greta, a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks after Phillip cheats on his wife with their daughter’s violin teacher. We might not be used to Ringwald taking on such heavy stuff, but, as children of the ’80s, we’ll always love her anyway. Tonight, she talks about writing with Emma Straub.

Thu., Sept. 13, 7 p.m., 2012

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ParaNorman

Another handsome handcrafted charmer from Laika, the stop-motion shop that gave us Coraline, makes up for lacking its predecessor’s delicacy by also lacking its dispassion. In scenic Blithe Hollow, whose main industry is the window-dressing of its own witch-hunt history, and whose founding fathers return one night as marauding zombies, a lonely little dead-people seer finds his calling at last. Customarily shunned and necessarily groupthink-resistant, young Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, stands poised to transpose middle school estrangement into redemptive proto-adult empathy. This occurs by way of agreeably domesticated grind house tropes, tricked out with snazzy F/X. At Comic-Con, debut writer and co-director Chris Butler called it “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” and that does just about sum ParaNorman up, though the actual math still feels a little fuzzy. Butler and co-director Sam Fell, of Flushed Away, have more vernacular command than tonal harmony; if they achieve roughly equal parts lulz and lulls, at least it’s through a steady pressure of avidity. Better still, animation affords a supporting cast playing contentedly against type: Anna Kendrick as a vain ditz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a dopey bully, and Casey Affleck as a meathead jock.

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SLUDGE MATCH

Crossing the fertile soil between heavy metal, ambient noise, and weird, disgusting bullshit, this four-band bill at Europa is like an expressionistic rendering of a thunderstorm or slaughterhouse. Leading the pack is Chicago’s wildly prolific Locrian, whose ritualistic, smoke-soaked live show is rooted in metal’s brooding overcast skies, but has a sound that leans more toward meditative drones, spectral hums, ghost rattles, and slow-moving foglike drifts of sludge. Similarly, openers Gnaw have metal’s glass-gargling screeches (courtesy of Khanate’s Alan Dubin), and monster drumming (courtesy Jamie Sykes of Thorr’s Hammer), but lean more toward sprawling, smeary sound pieces that mix traditional doom with a colorful slurry of deafening static, back masked horror, and homemade noisemakers. The bill is rounded out by two more quietly creepy local bands on the perennially chilly, defiantly austere label Wierd Records: The hopelessly (new-)romantic band Blacklist, who’s equal parts wistful and moody, making them like a John Hughes soundtrack to a vampire flick, and Martial Canterel, who embraces the most minimal ends of the darkwave spectrum.

Sun., April 17, 7 p.m., 2011

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Desert Flower: A Tale of Genital Mutilation With Oddball ’80s Humor

Combining a harrowingly frank account of childhood genital mutilation with ’80s-style goofball humor, this adaptation of Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie’s 1998 autobiography only narrowly escapes PSA purgatory. The film begins as 12-year-old Waris (Soraya Omar-Scego) flees an arranged marriage nine years after her traumatic cutting, and picks up a few years later in London, where she has been reduced to homelessness and low-paying grunt work. Waris (played as an adult by fellow supermodel Liya Kebede) simultaneously gloms on to a shop girl with a heart of mush (Sally Hawkins, bearing the burden of Desert Flower’s anachronistic zaniness) and gets discovered by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall), who brings her an agent (Juliet Stevenson at top volume) and, eventually, fame. The latter part of the film shifts between past and present-day, until its final 20 minutes illuminate what “female circumcision” precisely entails in excruciating detail. Director Sherry Horman deserves props for resisting the travelogue-with-a-message route here, but her straightforward approach is practically derailed by several tension-relieving but perplexingly John Hughes–esque comic flourishes and a generally dowdy visual palette. Luckily, her cast makes up for the lapses, and Kebede is especially effective at showing how triumph over culturally sanctioned brutality remains a tentative prospect at best.

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MAKE ME LAUGH

What do John Hughes, Chevy Chase, and Conan O’Brien have in common? If you answered that they’ve all made you pee in your pants at some point in your life, you’re getting warm. All three started their comedic careers at the Harvard Lampoon, and its spin-off, the National Lampoon Magazine. Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: A Tribute to the National Lampoon dives into this historic and iconic publication and its stage show that saw the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, and many of their contributors, rise to fame on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and other shows and films. Tonight’s talk with original Lampoon alums includes artist Rick Meyerowitz, writer Danny Abelson, the Lampoon‘s “poet laureate” Sean Kelly, cartoonist Arnold Roth, and former Lampoon editor Mike Reiss, who will serve as the moderator.

Thu., Nov. 11, 8:15 p.m., 2010