Director: Bo Burnham
Writers: Bo Burnham
Stars: Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham, who I believe to be the quintessential sad clown of the digital age, has long fascinated me. From the bizarre and almost incessant focus on his own juvenile embellishments (the joviality of masturbation seems to have a long-standing relationship with his work), to the poignant and nuanced poeticisms underlaying his self-study, Burnham has made his career as a comedian more focused on deconstructing the medium than embracing it. Following Burnham from his grass roots as a ‘meme-oologist’ of sorts (I once knew every word to ‘I’m Bo-Yo’ as, I’m sure, did many a reckless, white teenager at the time) had never taken me past the line of my own self-revelation until the discovery of his 2016 special Make Happy. Burnham’s follow-up, Eighth Grade, ranked as one of my favourite films in 2018.
And upon Inside’s announcement, I anticipated another entertaining, perhaps pretentious, if not quietly brilliant portrait of a man’s isolation. What I got instead, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “what I got in addition,” was a visceral depiction of depersonalisation, a revelatory examination into the inner workings of a high functioning mind, and my single favourite film to release in 2021. Burnham’s Inside features the meta-textual development of the character, Bo’s, comedy special as he manages to deconstruct ideas within pop culture and modern politics while trying to maintain a lifestyle that caters to his creative indulgences and simultaneously keeping sane.
The ‘special’ doesn’t merely denote grief in isolation, but rather it makes the astute connection that the modern age of technological advancement has placed an entire generation in a condensed echo chamber of comfortability; that the most isolating event spurned by a global pandemic was merely an amendment to the already pressurised containment of our everyday lives. Burnham has long spoken about the under-acknowledged horrors that accompany a life behind a screen, the nostalgia and anxiety we feel for events that have not yet come to pass, and the desire to occupy our minds with the endless streams of content provided to us by corporations who have commodified clicks at the expense of thousands of fragile minds and lives.
It may seem odd to casual viewers, particularly older viewers with a different relationship to technology and mental health, that a comedy special highlighting goofy songs about stereotyping the social media lives of white women or the hardships accompanying modern sexual fantasies in the digital space would garner such praise so as to be someone’s favourite film of 2021, and I don’t blame skepticism in that acknowledgement. But I caution and encourage readers and potential viewers to look deeper. Because beyond the aesthetics, the stylised lighting choices to highlight a more vibrant theatricality in such a confined environment, there lies an endless array of metaphorical subtexts, of ideas both internalised and expressed onscreen, about the feelings that lie dormant within us, the questioning of our own machinations that addict us to a life of esoteric suffering.
If you’re a fan of Inside, you’ve likely gushed about the ‘All Eyes on Me’ sequence, the spiral of a mind upended by their own manifestations of mental anxiety climaxing in a heart wrenching reveal as our perspective is quite literally turned and shaken to uncover a deeply disturbing isolation. It’s a moment as if to say our personal relationship to this film has been taken for granted and the protagonist has been distorting our perception of his wellbeing until the opportune moment where he shows instead that this is merely a finished product that we get to digest whereas he experienced it as a creative agonising over every facet. But, for me, I knew Inside was my number one film this year as soon as I listened to ‘That Funny Feeling’. The sequence itself is relatively innocuous, and perhaps for some viewers it may even be dismissed as one of the film’s more blasé playoffs. The camera simply and slowly pushes in and out on Burnham over the course of an unbroken four minutes.
The backdrop is an unassuming colour highlighting Burnham in a faux-firelight to give a better offering of the (illusion of) intimacy, and our hero quietly plays a somber, Buffet-esque acoustic piece that frames several bizarre ideas of everyday life as instigations of a ‘funny feeling’ within the lyricist. It was here that I was introduced to dissociation as a concept, something with which I am acutely aware of despite having never heard the term before. And it was here that I realised Inside’s central allegory (one of many that can be interpreted, and surely my favourite): That those of us who relate to the Burnham character in this piece know all too well that we were always taming the voices in our heads, keeping them distracted to look away from the horrors or anxieties lurking in the shadows behind them, and for us to be isolated together in a pandemic—together yet apart—is merely more of the same.
The film’s biggest knock is its inability to speak to everyone as succinctly as it spoke to me. To call it a comedy special is a disservice that sets an expectation for the ‘knee-slapping observations’ to unfold (we will leave the title of ‘Best Comedy Special’ to Michael Che for the year), and viewers with such an expectation are destined to be a bit perplexed by the introspective piece they no doubt got instead. Inside is a film about being inside. It is a film about the people inside who will watch it. And it is a film about the ones inside our heads clamoring for an opportunity to make a joke when no one is laughing in the background. 9.5/10