Ferris, Withnail and two very different days off

The Bromance might be a recent – and hideous – term but it’s been with us long before Matt Damon and Ben Affleck launched their love upon the world in “Good Will Hunting” or Judd Apatow began forging a career out of the awkward warmth of male heterosexual bonding. Think back to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, Jesus and his Disciples and Achilleus and Patroclus and you’ll see the flowering of bromance through the ages.

But now, in keeping with our current love of all things 1987 (see previous posts on that year’s Smiths’ swansong “Strangeways Here We Come” or Eurythmics’ “Savage”) we’d like to take a look at two very different bromances from the same year: 1987’s “Withnail and I” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. They also happen to be two of our favourite films of all time. But which do we love best? Clearly the only contrived device worthy of such a challenge is the ancient martial art of Top Trumps, so here’s our Ferris v Withnail face off.

The best and worst of friends. Cameron, Ferris, ‘I’ &Withnail. (courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Handmade Films)

Category 1: The rite of passage

Both Ferris and Withnail are conducted on the hoof; freewheeling from binge or prank without need of any discernible plot, just a need to establish a mood which is built to great effect in both. What drives the film is the ‘rite of passage’. The learning bit.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is brilliant and still held so affectionately because it captures the duality all teenagers feel between independence and dependence; childhood freedom and adult responsibility.  Ferris’ day off is, effectively, the final day of his childhood. Before his idyll slips away from his grasp and control, he takes one last photo of his best friend, his parents and his freedom. This involves pretending to be both a boy in his duvet and a man in a Ferrari and occasionally himself, wittering without meaning at the baseball with his best friend. It is a transition captured almost faultlessly. Ferris is scared of moving on but he will. Cameron does move on, liberated of the fear of his parents, aided dubiously, clumsily but affectionately by Ferris. There is plenty of learning, plenty of progress. It’s handled much less revoltingly than you might imagine.

Withnail is unwillingly saying goodbye to the very thing Ferris is about to embrace – being a young man. But he too, wants to drink it all in, before its passing. Or perhaps he just wants to drink it all . ‘I’ is trading the freedom and the excesses of youth for a job in Manchester; Withnail, not yet ready to let go, concludes in devastating fashion on his own incapability of doing the same.  ‘I’ moves on, Withnail regresses into darkness.

Withnail 8; Ferris 10.

Category 2: A sense of time and place

Ferris lives out his bright daydreams in the shiny, sunny Chicago of Reagan’s 80’s America. The kind of typical double fronted middle class suburbia with enormous fridges that were frequent settings for John Hughes films. Glass cathedrals of capitalism sit at the other end of the freeway. It is of its time – such unquestioned comfort and wealth is harder to imagine in the questioning and ironic times that we live in today – but not unique.

Withnail’s grey, drab dilapidated London and sodden Lake District of Wilson’s 60’s England is unique. The mizzle palate deployed throughout is practically a character in its own right. The exception is Monty’s lush flat which almost induces gout in its comparative opulence to a crumbling London and muddy Cumbria.

Ferris 7; Withnail 9

The ‘bro’mance

We have to believe in the central relationship for any bromance to work.

Both Ferris and Withnail need to snatch a day or a weekend from the progress of time is gratified at the expense of their best friends. Our film’s heroes effectively pimp their best friend’s integrity to do so. For Cameron’s Dad’s Ferrari, swap ‘I’s arse. Yes it’s dubious, ugly and uncomfortable but without it neither film would be worth watching. Superficially, neither Ferris nor Withnail are very good friends to their best friends.

Despite this, Ferris undoubtedly cares for Cameron – and we are convincingly led to believe that we have not been saving Ferris for 90 minutes but Cameron (see his willingness to take the rap for the Ferrari trashing). We are asked by the end to feel that love that is in no way sexual and we probably do.

However, Withnail needs ‘I’ more than he likes him and eventually we conclude this is not a friendship being clipped but a bully relinquishing his grip. Withnail has been attempting to save Withnail (see his acts of self preservation in the pub and with the bull included in the compilation below). We are asked to feel that self-loathing and stare into the rain….

Ferris 7; Withnail 6

The woman question

Neither film is set up of course to explore sexual politics but – like all bromances – the transition is measured in friendship and not romance. Women represent the change being negotiated or – if you are being all pop psychology about it – the threat of the other (for the Top Trump exploration of the ‘other’ you have to watch “Y Tu Mama Tambien” which scores a perfect 10).

Ferris is too keen to marry his school sweetheart. His girlfriend is necessary for one very good joke (the ‘dad/daughter’ snog outside the school gate) but otherwise feels like an add-on to underline the very straight bromance being played out. Ferris’ biggest fear is that Cameron will be henpecked and grateful to whichever girl he first gets with. It’s an either/or take on relationships which is clumsy and immature.

Withnail does not deal in either/or but a nihilistic neither/nor. His jaded asexuality is unable to envision any genuine connection with men, ‘nor women neither.’  The first meaningful reference to women is the last line of the film; off screen throughout and then shunted to the centre powerfully, representing a connection to a future not just an ‘other’.

Ferris 7; Withnail 8

Do we laugh?

So you have Withnail, teeth defeated by red wine, scowling at the world; Ferris, teeth victorious and pearly white despite the soda, beaming at his life. We have, behind both default expressions, a deceptively intense panic which drives their film’s unique energy & feel. However, the key measure is not if we care, but do we laugh? For this there can be no marks. Only You Tube……..

And whaddya know it’s a tie…..

You still here. FFS.


About PopLifer

bloggists at www.poplifer.com
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1 Response to Ferris, Withnail and two very different days off

  1. Pingback: Pop Lifer is six months old today – time for our infant check up | Pop Lifer

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