Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Being Bo Burnham: INSIDE

Bo Burnham had a rough year. No rougher than anyone else’s, but rough all the same. Like so many of us, he’s had time alone inside to think deeply about the state of the world, and himself. But unlike many of us, except Taylor Swift and a few others, he had the opportunity to turn it into his work. All that free time to compose and write and record. He’d already proven himself a talent to watch, turning silly songs (closer to the tradition of Tom Lehrer’s noodling social satire and observation than Weird Al’s parodies) that made him YouTube famous into something like a full-fledged comedy career he then pivoted into filmmaking. His directorial efforts, like Tamborine, a Chris Rock set with the stand-up special innovation of having good cinematography, and Eighth Grade, a small empathetic film about young teen angst, proved Burnham the rare YouTuber to grow a cinematic mindset. But 2020 gave him only things to worry about, canceled his plans, derailed his decisions, put everything on hold. So say we all.

So here’s Inside, Burnham’s new feature: a tribute to the influence of anxiety. He writes, directs, shoots, edits, performs, and stars. It’s an endlessly self-reflexive thing, preemptively self-critical and performatively nervous about its own narcissism. He tells us he’s been working on it for over a year, a collection of silly songs with a persistent undertow of fear and darkness. He opens by examining his own impulse to create — snarkily jabbing at himself as he asks why anyone needs comedy at a time like this. He wears his concerns on his sleeve: racism, climate change, income inequality, and the unnamed pandemic that is the reason he’s stuck in this little box. The whole film takes place in one room. He films it creatively, using elaborately simple lighting tricks, color filters, aspect ratio play, superimpositions, silhouettes and shadow. But there’s always a sense he’s trapped. He stages his tall, lanky frame so we don’t know if he’s big or the room’s small — both, probably. It’s inventive, capturing a window-to-wall one-room claustrophobia that’s recognizably 2020.

He traps himself in this small space, or in picture-in-picture stacks for sharp parodic riffs on digital media forms like reaction videos and Twitch streams. One moment of direct-to-camera address starts as chipper influencer speak but grows ominous through the uncommented use of a sharp knife as a prop with which he gestures. Sometimes amid all this formal foolery he sings the sort of light songs — like an extended bit about “White women’s Instagram” — that made his name, although his songcraft here, with shades of the late Adam Schlesinger (the chameleonic pop genius behind That Thing You Do and Music & Lyrics), is better than ever. And often there’s a bitterness sneaking in through negative self-talk, circling existential concerns. He sings about turning thirty, about having potentially problematic jokes from his youth, about the calamitous social dilemmas surrounding him, about thinking the world’s ending or maybe ending himself. But really, he wonders, should he really be the center of attention here? He asks that overtly several times, even as he puts himself on display. The picture is revealing in more ways than one. For a few numbers, he performs in his underwear; other times he leaves in dead air or flubbed lines. Even so, you have to think about the fact he decided to leave them in. And what he didn’t. It’s still all a show.

It’s both a finished product and a doubling-back on itself to be about its own making, surely mimicking the process of reflection and reassessment many of us have fallen into of late. If this endless self-reflection starts to make one wonder if his hand-wringing is all a bit overdone, a doth-protest-too-much worry about his privilege and status and narcissism, it’s undercut by a seemingly honest reflection of an artist in the middle of a mental crisis. He’s thinking about all the boxes we’ve built for ourselves, as among his new tunes here are hypnotic carnivalesque ballads in the personified voice of the Internet, or dripping poison odes to Jeff Bezos and soliloquizing about Silicon Valley’s profit-driven destruction of our societal capacity for mental health. (That his new work is streaming now on Netflix is just another irony stacked on top.) This world brought him, and us, so much. But at what cost? And now we’ve been inside for too long. What will we do when we get out? The key to Inside achieving escape velocity away from mere pity party is recognizing that we’ve all lost our minds to some degree over the last 15 months, and a full return to pre-pandemic life feels daunting as the world still confronts so many crumblings both global and personal. It’s like Tom Lehrer sang: “we’ll all go together when we go.”

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