Bo Burnham and the Possibilities of the Cinematic Selfie

The search for a personal cinema – for films that reflect the first-person voice of a novel or essay together with the gestural immediacy of a painting or drawing – culminates in directors pointing the camera at themselves. Filming yourself is a monologue, but filming yourself, filming yourself creates a virtual dialogue, which is why reflective cinema is the essence of modernity in film. And since film production is severely restricted because the pandemic, cinematic selfies were a matter of course last year. Now, in the comedy special “Inside,” which hit Netflix on May 30th, Bo Burnham has made one – with fascinating but ultimately daunting results.

The premise of the special is the isolation caused by a pandemic – the lack of public performances, the social distancing that has largely prevented film teams from congregating on sets. Burnham has previously directed live performance films and the dramatic feature film “Eighth Grade,” and he shows off both his sense of form and technique in “Inside,” which Head Credits claims was written, edited, filmed and directed – and did this in his house according to the credits. The show is rooted in his songwriting and singing alone during the year – and it suggests he spent the year at home. He doesn’t say the words “pandemic” or “COVID” or anything like that, but he does track the passage of time through the length of his hair and beard. At the beginning, when he enters his long, narrow house through the low door, his hair is trimmed, his face is shaved smooth, his workplace is clean and tidy; Then he sings a song that spent about a year working on this very special piece at home (“Writing jokes, singing stupid songs … it’s a nice day to stay inside”) with his scruffy ones and long hair and the area around him electronic keyboard lined with cables, lights, and other devices.

The song begins with him looking into the camera with an exotic-looking headgear – which ultimately delivers a few moments of film magic in the form of a powerful beam of light that he emits and with a specific tilt of his head he aims at a disco ball that spins on his ceiling, turning his cramped home into a fake cornucopia of spectacle (which he mocks by calling his work “content” and singing the line “I made you some content”). He did this brief wizardry himself, and he reveals – very easily – how he did it, with clippings of a camera test and other technical preparations showing up in different outfits and different hair and beard stages, which suggests the ongoing experiments went into his solo production. This short, early interlude is exemplary of the entire show: it conveys the idea of ​​the first-hand perspective, but in a way that only conveys a bit of backstory and a slight, elusive sense of Burnham’s actual presence. His direction emphasizes the pictorial over the physical.

That’s not to say we see little of Burnham as the show progresses. He’s on screen almost all the time, and his current songwriting in the style of a current Tom Lehrer often references the fact of his fame and its reinforcement on the internet. Burnham is fixated on – or maybe even against – the Internet, at least in its current form. (He gets nostalgic for how it used to be in the late nineties – at times he seems like Tom is meeting teacher Andy Rooney.) The platforms and codes of existence online are his main target of commentary and satire, and the result is that a work about the “inside” feels neither inside nor outside, but rather is caught in an infinite discourse hole.

The ghost hovering over 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 one Comedy director, embarrassed about making comedies during the Depression, plans to direct a socially significant drama about poverty – a subject he has no experience with. In order to learn something about the hard knocks world that he wants to film, he (in a fictional plot that is reminiscent of the real production of “Nomad land“Takes to the streets disguised as a tramp to mingle with the real people. 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 steps onto the screen with a touch of self-deprecating guilt and looks for a way to redeem it. “A white guy like me who heals the world with comedy. . . metaphorically make a literal difference, ”he sings sardonically. Worried about the real disasters his viewers might face – a fire at home or the Ku Klux Klan on the street – he sarcastically offers to tell them a joke. He wonders, “Should I be joking at a time like this?” But he also makes fun of his presumption of doing good in his job by showing a Venn diagram of him being the crossroads of Malcolm X and Weird Al Yankovic as he prays, “Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side ‘to channel “. ”

The self-irony of his virtuous intentions is a mere gesture of self-awareness that Burnham quickly waves away in a scene that is one of the most accomplished and provocative on the show: his embodiment of a kids show host who is a sentimental. sings songs about “how the world works”, in which every living being “gives what it can and gets what it needs” (a “Animal farm”-Like twist of Marx’s slogan about“ from everyone ”and“ to everyone ”). But Burnham then shows a white sock on his left hand – his puppet Socko – singing to the same tune, a crucial corrective: The world is unjust, education is full of euphemistic falsehoods, capitalism is predatory and bloody, the world functions on “genocide “In favor of” the pedophile corporate elite “and a white man like Burnham falsely uses such political affirmations for his” self-actualization “. (The sequence ends with a whiplash Möbius twist of politics and personalities.) The other strongest sequence in “Inside” – not by chance the other one that is turned into a virtual dialogue by a cinematic trick of video self-multiplication – shows Burnham a song sing on the subject of unpaid internships and then watch each other sing while he comments on what he sang. The loop is long, and his commentary is then doubled and then tripled as he reacts on camera to his previous reaction on camera, explaining that by singing about “labor exploitation” he is trying to express a “deeper meaning” and ” to be seen as intelligent “- and then criticizes his own reflexive self-criticism, adding:” Self-awareness does not release anyone from anything. “

Absolution is the point, because Burnham wants to do good for the world, not just for himself – while also admitting that the special is essentially a matter of his own good. Burnham was unhappy, he says, to be “inside”; After a four-year hiatus from performing on stage (which he says he gave up due to panic attacks), he prepared for his return in January 2020 – and then the pandemic happened. He does his special as a desperate search for emotional stability in the midst of the crisis (which he does not name) and in the hope that it will do for the audience what it did for him: my head with a gun. ”(He says later that he doesn’t want to harm himself and admonishes viewers not to kill themselves either.) He says that he dreams of not finishing it so he can just keep himself busy working on it; the show gives him something to do while he’s stuck inside.

This is where the show’s apparent self-disclosure collides with its actual self-concealment. People have been stuck in the house for a year, with the exception of the main workers who have been working non-stop, whatever that entails, and those who have been unable to work at all. Staying inside was largely a class privilege; it was also a basic form of civic responsibility (people longed to see their friends except those who never stopped), and the Venn Diagram, which connects the privileged and the socially responsible, is the target demographic, the one in “Inside.” Maybe a few good laughs would be enough to give Burnham and his viewers a boost, but it wouldn’t be enough to polish up his self-image – or hers.

This mutual self-selection is the underlying fiction on which “Inside” is based. As the show progresses, Burnham’s home studio is filled with film equipment that wasn’t there when it was first shot – how did it get there? He eats a bowl of cereal while he works in the studio – where did he get it from? Even if all of the production was done “inside,” it couldn’t have been done if the outside hadn’t somehow come in. Did he collect his things or were they delivered to him, left at his front door, paid for online? , him boxes with equipment to unpack, food to prepare or warm up or just put on the shelf? There were friends and family to connect with somehow. (He makes a song that makes fun of his mother’s problems using her cell phone to make FaceTime calls.) The credits include a dedication: “To Lor, for everything,” presumably a reference to his alleged relationship with the Author 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 work life, and a narrowly defined version of it at that – he shows finished products, with just a hint of the practicality and effort on which they depend and without any meaning whatsoever everything material and emotional that made up his life while he did the work.

In that sense, “Inside” is less about Burnham’s public image than it worries him; it is instead an act of forming that image. His reluctance to look at the peculiarities of the real world that he is confronted with while inside is paired with a reluctance to look at the substance of his life during the time he was working on “Inside”. The special creates the illusion of being a documentary recording of its own production, but in the end it is just a polished product of its own production. Nonetheless, “Inside” is an exemplary template, not only for the type of films that filmmakers and actors could and should have made while standard productions were discontinued, but also for what can be done beyond pandemic times when there is no cinematic infrastructure, that independent filmmakers can reliably access. “Inside” deserves no comparison with the outstanding masterpieces of personal cinema such as Chantal Akerman’s “No home theater“And Jafar Panahis”This is not a movie“That offer perspectives for self-discovery and exploration that go well beyond Burnham’s narrow domain. But he deserves credit for engaging in a more extreme – and extremely limited – way of firsthand production than many filmmakers would dare to do.

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