“How are you feeling? Do you like the show? Are you tired of it? Never mind, I don’t wanna know. Are you finding it boring? Too fast? Too slow? I’m asking, but don’t answer ’cause I don’t wanna know”Bo Burnham, Inside
Being locked inside for an entire year often felt like such a barren and apocalyptically mundane act that its hard to believe any art came from 2020 at all. That said, I have become intrigued by the genre of ‘lockdown’ which seeks to simultaneously convey the boredom and fear wrought by the pandemic. Indeed, while I’m sure we will be seeing more and more retrospective pieces over time, one thats already defined the genre and set the tone for a lot of lockdown art to come is the musical comedy special ‘Inside’, by Bo Burnham. Filmed entirely in one room and turning it’s attention not to the outside world but to the “much more real” online space, the work is lent poignancy by the fact that many of the experiences the film offers an insight into – the frustration at virtually interacting with family members, the familiar yet somehow empty feeling of becoming disassociated by experiencing all interaction online – are incredibly relatable.
Quite often, Bo is shown watching himself perform the scenes, partly to show his anxiety surrounding being a public figure, and partly to show that the cycle of worrying about how you’re presented through social media – an anxiety that companies from AT&T to Instagram are happy to exploit – is a system he is very much part of. For that reason, while Bo is quite critical of social media’s grip on humanity he never lets his criticisms obscure his empathy, making clear on multiple occasions that there’s a human behind the content and that underneath what is seemingly a shallow social media post there can be nuance and humanity. ‘White Women’s Instagram’ see’s Bo being critical of social media figures, but the bridge of the song see’s the frame widening, as the influencer character being sung about uses the platform to tell a moving personal story of coping through the loss of a loved one, and using anything to try and fill the void. While a song like ‘Welcome to the Internet’ may on the one hand be a zany if menacing embodiment of the all the dystopian and weird aspects of life online, the bridge acknowledges that the perception of having ‘the world in your hands’ can feel liberating, even if that emotional response is very much by design.
You’d be forgiven upon reading that last paragraph, for thinking that Burnham is mocking others but you quickly realise upon watching Inside that most of his jokes are incredibly self-deprecating. One of the funniest moments occurs when Bo reacts to ‘the song you just heard’ before the reaction starts playing and he finds himself reacting to his own reaction and so on, getting increasingly critical of himself as he ends up starting at multiple videos of himself, each trying to validate and seek approval for his actions. Indeed, the opener see’s Bo arrogantly adopting this role of a white saviour who’s going to use his comedy to save the world – “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke“. However, in the same breath our performer wonders if he should even be making light of a serious situation and wondering how that reflects on himself, with closer ‘Goodbye’ showing our his worries about irrelevance or losing control over his mental health, conscious that comedy could not help him in that scenario.
Of course, there is a sense of nihilism that inevitably bleeds into films like this one – Its not too detached from musical epics like The Wall and Tommy where a series of seemingly disconnected scenes coalesce in making the viewer empathize with an archetypal character, if only because we see the most depressing sides of ourselves in them. Similarly, in this film there are moments of harrowingly relatable defeatism – ‘Shit’, ‘All Time Low’ – sections of absolute absurdity laced with political commentary – ‘Bezos’, ‘How the World Works’ – and confessional fourth-wall-breaking moments which make the audience feel directly involved. Many critics have already praised the brutal honesty Bo shows around the mental health in this struggle, including crying on camera which marks a change from a lot of these types of pieces as while the ones I’ve mentioned already provided an insight into the minds of thier creators, they shrouded thier confessionalism behind metaphor and theatricality, while ‘Inside’ opts for a more vulnerable and stripped-back approach.
’30’ has rightly been lauded as a confessional and sharp-witted anthem about getting older in lockdown. This see’s Bo standing in a darkened room, illuminating himself using the torch from his phone, which he rotates around himself as if to represent the passage of earth around the sun – a stunning piece of visual art which also cleverly illuminates the grip of technology over our lives. I’ve seen some criticise this one for sounding like ‘millennial-woes the musical’ but I think that’s unfair. During lockdown, there was a very real sense of the hastening passage of time, and a very deep fear that as the days blurred together you were squandering what time you’ve got left. However old you turned in lockdown, its likely that you felt that ping of insignificance which keeps us awake at night at night, tossing and turning as we lose seconds to watching the minutes chase away the hours. Perhaps my favourite song here for the way the lyrics capture the perplexing state of unreality we find ourselves in, confronted with the apocalyptic scenarios of pandemics and climate change is ‘That Funny Feeling’. Surrounded by light and projections that give the impression of being hurdled in the woods, trying to savour the last remnants of a dying fire, the song exquisitely captures that feeling of being ‘burned-down’ – the exhaustion of being able to perceive the state of the world and yet not being able to find the right words or emotions to meet that. In a time when we’ve all resolved to stay in our homes knowing theres little we can personally do about the chaos outside our windows, this one resonates emotionally more than any other.
On that point about the visual aspects of this special, I feel that needs to be mentioned as its always been one of the aspects which has made his comedy stand out. In Eighth Grade – a film he directed, also about mental health in the presence of social media – many of the shots are illuminated using the light from computers or phones. Here, ‘Facetime With My Mom (Tonight)’ uses the same effect, the phone acting as a kind of spotlight, drawing our attention to the facial expressions. Likewise, rather than simply showing shots of Bo’s phone, ‘Sexting’ see’s Bo himself and the walls of this room he’s in becoming canvasses, partly for portraying what’s on his screen and partly for showing what’s happening in his head. ‘Problematic’ might be one of my least favourite moments owing to the fact that some of the ‘work-out montage’ visuals feel like very well trodden ground, and the song itself might come across as sneering or condescending to someone who hasn’t seen enough of Bo to know that he’s being genuine when he says that he regrets the offensive or crass aspects of his work. That said, the contrast of light with dark in this scene is very well-done and one that I can imagine took a while to perfect. Another aspect that’s particularly intriguing is how keen Bo is to remind the audience that what they are watching is a film. This is not something divorced from peoples lives, this is something he has been working on to get him through a situation we’ve all experienced. As a result, he’s often showed surrounded by his gear, setting up or testing his equipment, or else performing with some of the cameras in full view. This intentionally forces the audience to question the authenticity of the piece. To realise that this film has been planned, scripted and rehearsed, just like the rest of the online world.
Now, you might be thinking at this stage ‘this is all very well Alex, but what does Inside have to do with autism?’ The answer to that question is ‘not much’. Burnham himself is not autistic as far as myself or the wider public are aware. However, firstly, while all my work is from the perspective of an autisitc person its not necessarily all about autism. Secondly, while this may or may not have crossed Burnham’s mind when he was writing the film, its uniquely relatable from a neurodivergent point of view. Very often, autistic people, especially those who struggle with thier mental health, try to find comfort in solitude. One way many of us do this is through music and lights. I particularly find a kind of dim lamp light or coloured lights in a darkened room, accompanied by music helps to stimulate my senses, while also relaxing me. Naturally then, Inside had a similar effect on me. Also, to elaborate on the issue of the mind, in making a piece thats so open and confessional, many people on the spectrum will undoubtedly find comfort in this film, especially considering that so many of us aspire to be this expressive, but feel stifled by neurotypical norms.
The theme of social anxiety is also particularly pertinent. One of the most moving moments in the entire show comes at the climax with the song ‘All Eyes On Me’ where Bo appears to be performing on a figurative stage, his movements projected on to the wall behind him as he’s cast in in blue Light. As the song reaches its peak and the shot pulls back to reveal only a camera where there might be an audience, Bo talks about quitting live performance due to suffering frequent panic attacks on stage, recalling his process of healing and then finally deciding, in January of 2020, to start performing again. We all know, of course, what happened next. Indeed, while we see that Bo is terrified of a closed off and insular online world, represented here by the room he’s trapped inside, we also see him settled into a kind of comfort in avoiding the world, and a realisation that if he steps outside of that he will be stepping back into that role of the flamboyant comedian, which everyone expects of him. In the final moments of the special, the door to the room Bo is trapped in is seen to be slightly ajar. He walks toward the strange light emanating from the outside, opens the door and steps out on to the cold and exposed surface of a stage. He pulls at the door handle of his cage, desperate to get back inside, while a crowd is heard laughing at his futile efforts. As one line sounds:
“look who’s inside again. Went out to look for a reason to hide again. Well, well, buddy, you found it. Now come out with your hands up we’ve got you surrounded”Bo Burnham, Inside
Personally, I’ve documented in great detail, how much I disliked the loneliness of lockdown. Inside reminded me of that and in that sense its a film I’ll only want to revisit at certain moments in my life. More than that though, the film reminded me of my own deeper anxieties surrounding social interaction, autisitc masking and maintaining an outward image of confidence through all of that. It doesn’t matter how much we value the company or others, or how frightened we are by the disquiet of isolation. Sometimes even the smallest of experiences on the outside can leaving us want to turn and desperately look for a place to hide. The beauty of Inside is that somehow through just one room, a series of vivid lighting effects and a set of cleverly crafted songs, the piece captures both, still managing to be optimistic through an acknowledgment that we wont be trapped inside our anxieties forever. “hey, what can you say we were overdue but it’ll be over soon, you wait”.