Bo Burnham and the Possibilities of the Cinematic Selfie
The quest for a personal cinema—for making films that reflect the first-person voice of a novel or an essay along with the gestural immediacy of a painting or a drawing—finds its apotheosis in directors turning the camera onto themselves. Filming oneself is a monologue, but filming oneself filming oneself creates a virtual dialogue, which is why reflexive cinema is the essence of modernity in movies. And, with film production sharply limited because of the pandemic, cinematic selfies were a natural thing to do the past year. Now, in the comedy special “Inside,” which dropped on Netflix on May 30th, Bo Burnham has made one—with fascinating but ultimately disheartening results.
The special’s premise is pandemic-induced isolation—the absence of public performance, the social distancing that has largely prevented film crews from gathering on sets. Burnham has previously directed live-performance films and the dramatic feature “Eighth Grade,” and he puts both his sense of form and his technique on display in “Inside,” which the head credits say he wrote, edited, shot, and directed—and did so, according to the end credits, in his house. The show is rooted in his songwriting and singing, alone, in the course of the year—and it suggests that he has spent the year confined at home. He doesn’t say the words “pandemic” or “COVID” or anything related, but he charts the passing of time, through the length of his hair and his beard. At the start, when he enters his long, narrow, trailer-like home through its low door, his hair is clipped, his face clean-shaven, his workspace clean and uncluttered; he then sings a song about a year spent sitting at home working on this very special (“writing jokes, singing silly songs . . . it’s a beautiful day to stay inside”), with his hair scruffy and long, and the area around his electronic keyboard hemmed in with cables, lights, and other equipment.
The song starts with him looking into the camera wearing an exotic-seeming headpiece—which eventually delivers a few moments of movie magic, in the form of a powerful beam of light that he streams from it and that, with a well-aimed tilt of his head, he targets at a disco ball rotating on his ceiling, turning his cramped home into a faux cornucopia of spectacle (which he mocks by referring to his work as “content,” singing the line “I made you some content”). He did this brief blast of wizardry himself, and he reveals—ever so slightly—how he did it, with snippets of a camera test and of other technical preparations showing himself in different outfits and different stages of hair and beard, suggesting the ongoing experimentation that went into his solo production. This brief early interlude is exemplary of the entire show: it conveys the idea of firsthand, first-person work but in a way that communicates only a bit of backstory and a slight, elusive sense of Burnham’s actual presence. His direction emphasizes the pictorial over the physical.
This is not to say that we see little of Burnham in the course of the show. He’s onscreen pretty much constantly throughout, and his topical songwriting, in the vein of a current-day Tom Lehrer, makes frequent reference to the very fact of his celebrity and its amplification online. Burnham is fixated on—or, perhaps, against—the Internet, at least in its current form. (He waxes nostalgic for how it used to be, in the late nineties—at times, he seems like Tom Lehrer meeting Andy Rooney.) The platforms and the codes of online existence are his primary target of commentary and satire, and the result is that a work about being “inside” feels neither inside nor outside but, rather, caught in an infinite sinkhole of discourse on discourse.
The spectre hovering over the current cinema is “Sullivan’s Travels,” from 1941, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges and starring Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan, a rich and successful comedy director who, embarrassed to be making comedies while the Depression still rages, is planning to direct a socially significant drama about poverty—a subject he has no experience of. In order to learn about the hard-knocks world that he plans to film, he (in a fictional plot that brings to mind the real production of “Nomadland”) takes to the road disguised as a hobo in order to mingle with real ones. In “Inside,” Burnham, like Sullivan, is driven by doubts about the value of comedy in troubled times. The show is a work of self-questioning and self-doubt, in which he takes to the screen with an air of self-deprecating guilt and proceeds to search for a way to redeem it. “A white guy like me who is healing the world with comedy . . . making a literal difference metaphorically,” he sings sardonically. He frets about the real calamities that his viewers might face—a fire at home, or the Ku Klux Klan in the street—and sarcastically offers, in response, to tell them a joke. He wonders, “Should I be joking at a time like this?” Yet he also mocks his presumptions to do good in his work, showing a Venn diagram in which he’s the intersection of Malcolm X and Weird Al Yankovic while praying to “channel Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side.’ ”
The self-deprecation of his virtuous intentions is a mere gesture of self-awareness, one that Burnham quickly waves away, in a scene that’s one of the most accomplished and provocative in the show: his impersonation of a children’s-show host singing a sentimental ditty about “how the world works,” in which every living thing “gives what they can and gets what they need” (an “Animal Farm”-like twist on Marx’s slogan about “from each” and “to each”). But Burnham then displays a white sock on his left hand—his puppet, Socko—who sings, to the same tune, a crucial corrective: the world is unjust, education is filled with whitewashing falsehoods, capitalism is predatory and bloody, the world works with “genocide” for the benefit of “the pedophilic corporate élite,” and a white guy like Burnham wrongly uses such political affirmations for his “self-actualization.” (The sequence ends with a whiplash-witty Möbius twist of politics and personae.) The other strongest sequence in “Inside”—not coincidentally, the other one that turns into a virtual dialogue through a cinematic trick of video self-multiplication—features Burnham singing a song on the subject of unpaid internships and then watching himself singing it while commenting on what he has sung. The loop runs long, and his commentary then becomes doubled, and then tripled, as he reacts on-camera to his previous on-camera reaction and explains that, in singing about “labor exploitation,” he’s trying to express “deeper meaning” and to be “seen as intelligent”—and then criticizes his own reflexive self-critique, adding, “Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.”
Absolution is the point, because Burnham is intent on doing good for the world, not merely for himself—while admitting that the special is essentially a matter of his own well-being. Burnham has been miserable, he says, about being “inside”; after a four-year hiatus from performing onstage (which, he says, he quit because of panic attacks), he was preparing, in January, 2020, to make his return—and then the pandemic happened. He is making his special as a desperate quest for emotional stability amid the crisis (which he doesn’t name), and with the hope that it will do for viewers what it did for him: “Distract me from wanting to put a bullet into my head with a gun.” (He later says that he does not intend to harm himself, and exhorts viewers not to kill themselves, either.) He says that he dreams of not finishing it, so that he can just keep himself busy by continuing to work on it; the show gives him something to do while he’s stuck inside.
It’s here that the show’s apparent self-revelation bumps up against its actual self-concealments. For the past year, people have been stuck working inside—except for the essential workers who have been working uninterruptedly, at whatever risk that entails, and for those who haven’t been able to work at all. Staying inside has been a largely class-based privilege; it has also been a basic mode of civic responsibility (people have been dying to see their friends, except for those who have never stopped doing so), and the Venn diagram that connects the privileged and the socially responsible is the demographic that’s targeted in “Inside.” Maybe a bunch of good laughs is enough to buoy Burnham and his viewers, but it wouldn’t be enough to burnish his self-image—or theirs.
That mutual self-selection is the underlying fiction on which “Inside” is based. In the course of the show, Burnham’s home studio gets filled with filmmaking equipment that wasn’t there in the first shot—how did it get there? He eats a bowl of cereal while working in the studio—where did he get it? Even if the entire production was made “inside,” it couldn’t have been made if the outside hadn’t somehow come in. Did he go and get his things or were they delivered to him, left at his doorstep, paid for online, giving him boxes of gear to unpack, food to make or heat or even just put on his shelf? There were friends and family to connect with somehow. (He does a song mocking his mother’s trouble using her cell phone for their FaceTime calls.) The end credits offer a dedication: “To Lor, for everything,” presumably a reference to his reported relationship with the writer and director Lorene Scafaria. Where was she while he was stuck inside? The part of Burnham’s life that he shows is narrowly confined to his working life, and a narrowly defined version of it at that—he displays finished products, with only a hint of the practicalities and efforts on which they depend, and with no sense whatsoever of everything material and emotional that his life was made of while he was doing the work.
In that sense, “Inside” isn’t so much about Burnham’s public image, much as it worries him; it’s instead an act of shaping that image. His caginess about the real-world specifics that he confronts while being inside is matched by a reticence about the substance of his life during the time he was working on “Inside.” The special provides the illusion of being a documentary-like record of its own production, but in the end it is merely a polished product of its own production. Nonetheless, “Inside” is an exemplary template, not only for the kind of movie that filmmakers and performers could and should have been making while standard productions were shut down but also for what can be done, beyond pandemic times, in the absence of a cinematic infrastructure that independent filmmakers can reliably access. “Inside” doesn’t merit comparison to the towering masterworks of personal cinema, such as Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” and Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” which offer perspectives of self-discovery and exploration far beyond Burnham’s narrow purview. But he deserves recognition for engaging in a mode of firsthand production more extreme—and extremely constrained—than what many filmmakers would dare.