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Film

Inside And The Avant-Garde

I wasn’t planning on watching the new special Inside from Bo Burnham, to be honest. I never got into stand-up and the only thing I knew about the guy was his name. And I especially wasn’t planning on watching it, even after I saw all the praise it got, because it has become progressively harder to do anything that doesn’t feel remotely productive, so I am careful with anything I watch or do in order to not waste even half an hour.

But a friend, a long-time fan of Bo, talked to me about the special. He’s now seen it three times, and when he first described it to me, it sounded interesting, with themes that would normally persuade me to at least check it out. So I asked him to tell me more just out of curiosity, without any intention of really watching it. Until he answered me, and went deeper into the structure of the special and how it was made, and that’s when I first thought that I may have to see it for myself. 

So the next day, I did. I left my phone charging at my side, put on my headphones, and started the special. And in the hour and a half that it takes to watch, I never once pressed pause or grabbed my phone. I was completely hooked. It was exactly what I thought it was going to be, only more. Inside is a journey that everyone will relate to, and for that, it takes what I believe to be the best approach possible; the avant-garde. Intentionally or unintentionally, Burnham made a movie (Or however you prefer to call it) that is, at its very core, reminiscent of works of the likes of Jonas Mekas and Nanni Moretti. A type of work that has become increasingly harder to find, at a time when blockbusters have become the centre of attention and movies made with 10 million dollars are considered small. 

This special, his fifth one to date, and the first one in five years, achieves a symmetry with the way it’s told and the way we all feel. It starts like any other movie and like any other day could start; with a normal room, and a person entering it. A bright flash of light comes from the outside, until the door closes, and then everything changes. Here’s when you realize that it’s not like any other movie, and when the avant-garde and the connections to the aforementioned artists start to show. It becomes an audio-visual diary, made up of fragments that he filmed throughout a whole year since the beginning of 2020, that go from random shots of him in his room, to monologues, sketches, and songs that could’ve been made by different people. But it was made all by himself, in the single room we see throughout the film. 

With a much more stylistic aesthetic and approach, it feels more accessible than the banners of the genre, but still using the resources it has to discuss similar general topics, like politics, in a way that avoids feeling like something entirely different. Any type of independent movie, be it traditional or experimental, is a political statement by its very existence. And just as other avant-garde artists before him, Bo Burnham is not afraid at all to get explicitly political concerning a lot of different topics, going from the involvement of his profession in the current socio-political landscape while putting its usefulness in question, to how the system of our world is built to be controlled by a few that are able to commit atrocities in order to maintain that hierarchy with the help of fascist groups like the police.

But while those are problems that have been talked about for decades, there are others that feel inherently modern. For example, making a sketch parodying the disingenuous attempt of brands to make the public believe that they care about anything more than profit, by trying to appeal to marginalized groups (Or, to be more exact, to those in the majority that support marginalized groups to some extent). 

And from there he also talks about regular, not so larger than life problems that happen every day to a lot of people. There’s a big focus on how prepared we were for the sudden connectivity with the whole world, and how it just makes more accessible and obvious the obscure and disgusting parts of people, as well as the toll social media, or any influential platform, can take for those who make their lives off of it. And it’s in those everyday problems that I think the connection with the avant-garde genre is more evident than in any other part of the special. Because as similar as the structure and execution is to other works, with the ever-changing rhythm, and style, and a sense of narrative incoherence being the only narrative coherence, I think what really sets apart this very special genre from others, is its sense of mundanity, the sense that we are seeing life just how it is, just how it happens to everyone. It creates something that couldn’t have been done any other way. 

Bo jumps around messily during the whole special, without the three-act rule or even any apparent structure, and while it may seem just what it sounds like; a bunch of things put together randomly lacking any thought or care at all, the truth is that it ends up being beneficial and giving it more meaning. Every song, sketch and random shot of his room feels like a representation of his thoughts, going around in his head, disordered and sometimes even contradictory, but real. All of it takes another meaning when it stops being seen as individual absolutes but as different parts of a single engine that just exist the way it does.

At the start he talks about climate change and how we have only seven years left before the damage that corporations have done to the planet is irreversible, but later, in the last song, he basically says that it doesn’t matter. We can’t do much of anything, so why bother? So you have two opposite statements present in one single vision. The thing is, neither is false, technically. I’m a very optimistic person about the world’s future, even though I’m able to see everything wrong with it. But since the pandemic started I became more hopeless without even noticing, not only because of the emotional implications that isolation has, but also because of all the problems that became more obvious than ever, like the economic system or the social injustice. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to try to change the world for the better, or if it was even possible at all. At the moment, both of those ways of thinking were true for me because that’s how we work. There’s not even one person that’s 100% mentally stable all the time, and since last year, that just worsened for most of us. So what better way to represent that instability than with random pieces of thought sewed together, each with their own meaning or lack thereof? What better way to represent us?

In my own opinion, I don’t think there is. I find that disarray familiar because I was also a mess in many different ways before and after the pandemic started, as I know so many people are. And I can also relate in some way with his failed attempt to come back to live comedy, since, at the start of 2020, same as Bo, I was planning a project, a really personal one that I wanted to do for a long time; my first short-film. And let me tell you, in retrospect, it was gonna be really bad. But I never even got the chance to do it, because everything just stopped, and now not only do I have to wait who knows how much time to do that, but I also have to deal with a lot of other things that have also been affected by the current state of the world and the problems that I already had.

So when I see this person that I know nothing about, saying that he isn’t well and starting to cry, in between lots of other things that have little to no correlation, I want to cry too. Because if I recall memories, or even if I think about the present, it will feel exactly like that. And it doesn’t matter how different the experiences are, if life is presented in such a raw and real way, everyone will see themselves in it somehow.

But because of the mere fact that it represents life in a very raw form, it means that it isn’t always all bad. When he talks with his mother, there are still some bad aspects about it, like his relationship with his dad, or more little details such as how his mother covers the camera with her thumb, but that time is still essential for him, and it’s a little bit of light when things are dark. It matters even if it’s something very small. Near the end, after one of the most euphoric songs I’ve ever listened to, that makes me feel chills even after I listened to it 20 times, Bo sits and watches what he just created, and a little smile comes across his face. And that’s the best thing about this genre, you get to see everything. You get to feel everything. Even when things are at their worst, you can catch those small moments that really matter. And when things are at their best, you get to see those moments that hurt. 

Maybe that’s why I not only felt sad after watching the special, but why I also felt a little bit hopeful. Maybe that’s why I suddenly had the urge to create and do things that can contrast all the bad there is, or some part of it, at least. And it’s something that we need, because as incredible as intrinsically wholesome or intrinsically sad movies can be, we also need this kind of work that tries to reflect all the spectrum of life. Sometimes, we need art to feel as real as it can be.