Bo Burnham has grown up online, which means he has grown up, like so many of us have, in a panopticon. That means we’re always aware that everything we do and say is being watched. The traditional definition of the panopticon was that you believed you were being watched by authoritative figures, like guards. But the definition can now be extended to say the forever judgmental hive mind that keeps watch on human behavior, art, journalism, and content to make sure it’s aligned with the current ideology.
That would mean if you were a YouTube content creator, or blogger, or social media user you know that people are always watching you (if you’re noticed at all) and that you have to be “accountable” for everything you put out. While that dynamic has been part of our collective experience for a long while now, not until 2020 were we really trapped with the internet as the only mode of human contact. And 2020 was a hell of a year to reckon with that.
Burnham distilled the experience of being completely isolated, in the same place, and cut off from human beings and human contact into his film Inside, which is probably going to end up being among the best films of the year – and yet another potential “musical” that can’t get a Golden Globe nomination, if it was deemed eligible for film awards. (It should clean up at the Emmys).
For those of us who really were completely isolated – with no human contact, no work events, no movies, and only the internet to bounce our humanity off of – this film nails that experience in a way only great art can. It offers relief from misery. It offers a shared experience and defines the best and worst things about it. No doubt there will be an abundance of films and television shows about that year we all lived through together, if separately, but Burnham is coming from the unique perspective of someone who has spent most of his formative years as a content creator on YouTube before he evolved to movies.
Burbank’s YouTube channel started in 2006, the year The Departed won Best Picture. 14 years ago. Here is his first video, at the age of 16:
And here he is in 2021 from his new Netflix special, Inside:
Burnham knows from years online and on YouTube what it is like to have a running dialogue with your fans or your followers. He knows what might stand out and cause stress. He knows what criticisms will be forthcoming. Mostly, he knows what his audience wants to see. And in this case, that means opening a vein (not literally).
Inside is the second movie out this year that blends the online experience with cinema. Another one is called Profile, and it’s about a British journalist who is researching Isis recruiting efforts. The entire film is on the desktop (made by the same director who made Friended). This, along with last year’s brilliant film Spree, and a few other notable films, we have a new genre of films that are stories about the dimension of online life that we have manufactured for the past 20 years. Considering how long we’ve been living with the internet, it’s a little surprising that it has taken this long. It is a new cinematic language that most certainly does not depend on the traditional mode of a real live theater, people buying tickets to see the movie and an audience watching it. This movie, and others like it, already assume you spend at least half your time staring at smaller screens. Your computer, your phone. It is how we experience so much of our daily stimulation – how we find love, sex, products, influencers. It is all funneled through these algorithm-driven platforms.
Burnham and other filmmakers who have embraced this new language and use it to make movies do not limit themselves to the singular frame – they play around with all different perspectives that are available to us, and used by us, every second of every day. This is all about the image we project versus who we really are when no one is watching us. All through Inside we’re aware of Burnham’s very human need to reach people, something that comes clear through even his YouTube videos. Anyone on YouTube, or really anywhere online, has that same fundamental need to reach out and connect, to remove the electronics between us. And yet, we only seem to be more and more isolated.
It isn’t that everyone lives this way, or grew up this way, or know this world the same way, but for those who do – Bo Burnham has made a movie for you. I can promise you that it will do for you what it did for me. And that is, to remind me of the power of art. This is why we need artists who reflect their experience honestly. Burnham explores things like the altruistic nature of a “white woman’s Instagram,” and corporations that are getting in the activism game, to being held “accountable” for being “problematic,” to not having actual sex but “sexting” instead. He shows just how insufficient it all really is, despite the image we can reflect to others.
He digs down deeply to find his vulnerability, his narcissism, his loneliness and he does it, always, with his lifelong innate talent at putting compelling content on screen. It is so many things all once and it reminded me of the performance artists of the 1980s, like Laurie Anderson.
But when someone can do that, when they dig deeply like that, when they can share it with you – it moves you emotionally in a way nothing else can. That, my friends, is the power of art.
The reaction by many to Inside, I would imagine, is going to revolve around the mental health aspect of it, or to see it as a confessional about Burnham holding onto his sanity, and trying not to kill himself. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as pure art – an expression of an idea and a feeling that takes the shape into something outside of the artist’s personal life and becomes its own living thing that exists for others to consume, to reflect off of, to appreciate, to learn from, to get relief from.
If i saw it as his own mopey experience I would not like it that much. But if you only see that, you miss how he plays with structure, voice and format. You’d miss the wonderfully diverse collection of songs. Burnham is now and has always been an entertainer and artist. That is what he is doing here, to express what living through 2020 was like for many of us trapped INSIDE and ALONE.
I myself realized that I had barely been touched by another human being, and my primitive brain could not manage the many algorithms manipulating it. Humanity began to look to me like a sea of angry screaming people. Sadness was everywhere but it somehow translated to hate, not love. I could not make sense of any of it. There was not much relief in sight. There was pain everywhere you looked. Now that we are all processing what happened, waking back up to the world outside, crawling back to sanity and normalcy – now and only now can we open the door and let the light back in. And with it, the beauty and brilliance of all that humans can do. It is our saving grace, our ability to create art. It is the best expression of who we are. It transcends almost everything else, even time.
When I say art is worth saving it is for this reason. It can’t be replaced. It can’t be micromanaged. It can’t be forced to convey a specific message. The new medium of the internet might not destroy us after all. As long as we have artists like Bo Burnham to help put it in perspective.
Inside is easily the best thing I’ve seen this year. It is a work of a highly talented, prolific, unique storyteller.