My home state experienced severe flooding in the early spring of 2019. My parents’ house was inundated with five feet of water, and they, along with two of my siblings, stayed at my house for a few weeks. During that time they would frequently check periodic reports to see if the floodwaters had subsided and to speculate on whether the house was even still standing, and if so how much damage they could expect. I found myself in the strange position of being able to mentally understand what they were going through, but not able to fully share in their emotional journey.
When coronavirus lockdowns began in March of 2020, the company I work for was declared “crucial infrastructural support”, and we stayed open. I continued to go to work each day, and since I don't go out to eat much, or watch any live sports, my life did not change much at all. I followed the news, like everyone else, but a large part of the coronavirus experience was not my experience.
It is difficult for me to watch Bo Burnham's Inside because it is about only one kind of coronavirus experience, one which I did not share. I am afraid I'm not bringing the right kind of empathy to my viewing of the work; a part of me can't relate. But it’s important to remember that a lot more than the pandemic happened in 2020, and Burnham touches on a wide spectrum of the events of that crazy, complicated year. The movie could even be thought of as a snapshot of the current cultural moment, mediated through one person's experience of lockdown.
Burnham is a master of genre, of lighting, of editing. I don't know of anything I could find fault with in Inside's production or style. But Burnham is self-aware enough to know that his technical skills don't amount to much without a message behind them. In the first part of the film, he struggles with this, puzzling over what the role of a comedian should be when serious questions are being discussed. Is frivolity or lightness really appropriate during “these troubled times”? (I remember the same questions being asked after the events of September 11, 2001.) Burnham does not address this question conclusively in the beginning—but towards the end, he returns to it, except not directly.
A lot of this film is comedic, but a lot is not meant to be funny at all. As it progresses, Burnham increasingly concerns himself with the new, more upfront role that the internet played in people's lives once the lockdowns became prevalent, especially the way interpersonal relationships were affected by being conducted almost exclusively online. He certainly promotes the notion that having only the internet to unite us is not satisfying. His take is that something is missing from our experience of interpersonal relationships—something is muted—when they are mediated by a screen. But, as was made evident over and over to us throughout 2020, the world can be a very scary place; being stuck in a room, watching all the world's terror and confusion through the internet, sometimes feels like the safer choice.
Burnham struggles with this dilemma and in the end is broken down by it. He cannot hold those two opposites in tension, and suffers a nervous collapse as a result. The answer to the question of “what can comedy do for us now?” turns out to be: nothing. Comedy can't help.
Inside is the first art to come out of the long, big, wild, scary, crazy, confusing, bizarre year that 2020 was, and as such it is the first step towards focusing the public narrative of what 2020 was about. But there is a danger. Gary Gallagher's book Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten details how in the aftermath of the Civil War, art such as public war memorials, popular prints, and regimental histories succeeded in reducing the popular image of the war's meaning from its original complexity to a small set of established narratives. I'm afraid that the same thing will happen in our cultural memory with the coronavirus year. Not everyone experienced the year in the same way that Bo Burnham did; for some people, the story of 2020 was one of government overreach and conspiracies. For others, it was about racial equality. For a lot of people in California, it was about homelessness-inducing wildfires. And for a small number of people, it wasn't much different from other years. The actual 2020 was very nuanced and diverse, and Bo Burnham's work does not give us a balanced appraisal of the subject. But it is a good start.