Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special Inside holds, at its core, a self-reflexive commentary on film-making in a world that has changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. It seems a revolutionary piece of art, exploring the process of film-making in a world slowly healing from a global disaster.
Burnham wanders around his apartment, cluttered with film-equipment, drawing attention to his own creative process. There are snippets of boxed laughter throughout, reminding us of how Burnham usually works: in front of a live, responsive audience. The effect is haunting: what is a performer without their audience?
The pandemic has polarised each of us into our own personal crises, forcing us to slow down and think, for better or for worse. We are aware of our status as individuals with collective difficulties, as Burnham shows masterfully. As the title suggests, Inside is about the experience of existing inside during a pandemic, of making a film alone in these conditions. But it touches on so much more than that. It comments on the socio-political issues highlighted by the past year. From racial inequality, to mental illness, the perception of social-media, and even cancel-culture, Burnham uses his film as a social commentary. He links a multiplicity of issues by creating a comedic persona alongside the more serious, unruly-haired artist who lives in the messy apartment that we see. This persona allows us to process the collective trauma of the past year by laughing at it, by accepting the sad absurdity of the world as it now is. It is thus emotional and personal, without being too uncomfortably serious.
In this way, Inside shows us what film-making could become.
Since we have long used art to understand trauma and to heal, it follows that the future of film will no doubt explore the Covid-19 pandemic. Films about pandemics do already exist – see, Contagion, 28 Days Later etc – but these are vastly different from Bo Burnham’s work. Made before Covid-19 hit, they narrate directly the experiences of people trying to survive a deadly disease. Perhaps, given the natural dramatized state of these thrillers, we will continue to make such films as a means of escapism, or catharsis from the rather more mundane, tragic reality of pandemics. Yet, it is also entirely possible that they could now be seen as a bit too close to home. Instead, for a little while now, we may decide that watching the News is enough for us and leave Hollywood Blockbusters about epidemics behind while we heal. Instead, we could address Covid-19 in a manner similar to Bo Burnham – by reflecting on our mental health, and on the social injustices we are strikingly aware of.
Regardless of the content of the films we will now produce, what has been made clear throughout the pandemic is how much people value the performing arts. Despite social-distancing, testing, and mask-wearing, films and TV have continued to be produced. Inside is a testament to how filmmakers can use the constraints of Covid-19 to expand and explore the art form, but even on as small a scale as within UEA itself, our Drama Societies have been continuing to perform, turning Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s play, Spring Awakening, into a film and having students write and direct their own short films, adapting to the conditions now required for safety.
Post-Pandemic film shows us, even in a landscape that consistently downplays their worth, the arts persist. They help us to heal and process, to grow and expand from our moments of trauma, and to reflect on what it is to exist in turbulent times.