All Eyes On Me

Bo Burnham: Inside (2021)


What is cinema? This was the question raised by French film critic André Bazin in his classic two-volume publication of film theory by the same name, originally written in the 1950s and published in English in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bazin was madly in love with cinema, and much of his film criticism comes across as impassioned attempts at articulating a self-understanding of this love affair. He sought to offer a rich description of this relatively novel technology and art form which had taken hold of the world’s imagination. He turned to both philosophical and theological resources in order to do so, examining the metaphysical questions raised by the ontology of the photographic image. For Bazin and his followers, true cinema has a relation to the real—the cinematic apparatus is a unique device for capturing reality and revealing the truth of the world we inhabit. In other words, cinema is revelation.

Now, in a digital world where “film” has become an anachronistic term lingering from a bygone era—most (all?) of the films we watch today are not truly “films” in the sense of being a physical strip of celluloid film stock run through a movie projector at 24 frames per second—how are we to make sense of the cinematic forms we encounter every day? Are YouTube and TikTok videos cinema? What about video games? Twitch live streams? GIFs? These are all types of “motion pictures,” so what is cinema in a digital landscape where filmmaking doesn’t require film at all? And during a global pandemic, where going to a movie theater is inconvenient at best (watching a film through fogged-up glasses while wearing a mask) and possibly life-endangering at worst, the future of cinema feels as unclear as ever.

If cinema reveals the truth about the world and our place in it, what does a Netflix comedy special featuring an ostensibly depressed 30-year-old white man singing and dancing in his underwear reveal? Because whatever Bo Burnham’s Inside is—a stand-up routine, a television special, a piece of musical theater, a music album, a documentary, a cinematic selfie, a confession—I think it’s cinema. I also think Burnham’s formal approach to Inside is exemplary of Bazin’s desire to understand the human relationship to the cinematic image, the spiritual link between the shot, the screen, and the spectator.

As Bazin asked, what is cinema?, Burnham asks, what the fuck is going on? I think they’re fundamentally the same question: what is this reality I find myself in?

The Shot

Early in Inside, we see a montage showing Bo Burnham setting up his camera. He stares intently at the video monitor, experiments with lighting and microphones. His changing hair and beard length in each shot suggest the passage of time. In between these images, there is a slow zoom shot of the camera itself, center frame, as if the camera were facing a mirror and entering into it, inch by inch. This technique is a signature of Inside’s cinematography—the movement suggests a patient dynamism to the camera, a kind of subjectivity to its gaze as it narrows its attention on whatever it beholds. In a subsequent shot, Burnham explains the concept of Inside to the audience by framing the shot in a mirror. He sits in his white t-shirt, the camera adjacent to him as it slowly zooms in on the duo: “It’s just me and my camera, and you and your screen. The way that our Lord intended.” 

With Inside, Burnham not only turns the camera on himself, but also on the camera, too—this is a film about filmmaking, cinema on cinema. The very approach to Inside—a single person stuck in a room with a camera filming themselves over the course of a year—examines the limitations and possibilities of filmmaking in our digital era. Cinematic tools like YouTube, Final Cut Pro, and iPhones, not to mention the cultural hegemony of the internet, have democratized the filmmaking process, for good and for ill. 

Inside interrogates such digital media by way of digital media. On the one hand, Burnham himself is the benefactor of this digital democratization: his entire career stems from the popularity he achieved after he uploaded videos to YouTube in 2006 as a teenager, and Netflix reportedly paid $3.9 million for Inside. (“Should I give away my money? No!”) The digital world is the place we connect with our family (“FaceTime with My Mom”), where we share the details of our fabulous lives (“White Woman’s Instagram”), where we have sex (“Sexting”) and make apologies (“Problematic”) and celebrate our milestones (“30”) and confess our pain (“Shit”). At an apparent low point (based on the length of his facial hair), Burnham offers this thesis:

I’ve learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal, should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space; that the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space. One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine: suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.

In this view, the real world is the digital world, and vice versa. Bazin anticipated this, describing what he called “the myth of total cinema.” He suggested that the history of photography and film could be seen as a progression towards a telos: “a total and complete representation of reality…a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” Perhaps the myth has finally come true. For Bazin, cinema was concerned with the real; for Burnham, a form of cinema has become reality itself.  We are all living and laughing and loving in the matrix.

On the other hand, we ought not buy into Burnham’s ‘digital is better’ thesis wholesale. In “Unpaid Intern,” his multiplying reaction videos suggest a kind of meta-level existential spiraling (“self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything”), while the brief parody of a YouTuber thank-you video with Burnham inexplicably holding a knife is unsettling in its suggestion of violence. The damning lyrics and sinister tone of “Welcome to the Internet” present an even darker picture. Its invitational refrain (“Can I interest you in everything all of the time?”) is a Faustian bargain for the digital era, and Burnham’s cackling laughter is downright disturbing. Ultimately, the person presenting the ‘digital is better’ thesis is a self-isolated man in sweatpants with apparent mental health concerns and a lack of basic hygiene. It’s akin to receiving marital advice from a serial adulterer. 

Yet what this all still comes down to is The Shot: a moving image, edited together with other moving images, revealing something true to us about our world. The mise en scène of Inside is, paradoxically, mundane and fascinating. We feel like we know every detail of the tiny bare-bones guest house located somewhere in Los Angeles: the door, the chair, the desk, the window, the dresser, the A/C unit, the distinctive half moon-shaped entry into the kitchen. Sound cords creep about the room like ivy trailing from the skinny trunks of mic stands. The ceiling fan becomes a character, a silent companion and witness as it twirls and swirls the artificial fog. For such a basic setup, the lighting is exquisite; the headlamp-and-disco-ball shot in the opening song, “Content,” is remarkably effective and affective, creating a magical onscreen space.

The stripped-down simplicity to all this is precisely the point: cinema doesn’t need multimillion-dollar CGI superhero punchfests in order to be meaningful or majestic. For me, the cinema of social realism and documentary is more real in its ordinariness and limitations. On its face, this seems pretty obvious: such films offer shots of real life and not green screens. In this vein, Burnham’s bare-it-all performance—and it is a performance—in Inside is at once hilarious and deeply affecting because it’s simply a human being trying his best to make us laugh during a year where many of us wanted to cry. Just because this is a performance doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The Screen

Bazin once wrote, “The screen is a mask whose function is no less to hide reality than it is to reveal it. The significance of what the camera discloses is relative to what it leaves hidden.” In other words, the cinematic screen both reveals and conceals—it allows us to enter into and bear witness to a world even though we can only experience it indirectly. The screen is a window, a portal, and a mirror. So much of our contemporary reality is simply people looking at their screens, an activity which is often difficult to translate to film in an interesting way. No one wants to watch a two-hour movie where every character just stares at their phones or laptops. Yet Burnham dares to cross-examine our screen-filled reality by overtly using those everyday screens within the diegetic world of Inside.

The most interesting of these screen scenes are when Burnham himself functions as The Screen. At the end of “30,” after singing that he’ll kill himself when he turns 40, there’s a brief interlude with Burnham explaining to the audience that he doesn’t really want to kill himself, and that if they’re contemplating suicide, just don’t. This anti-suicide talk is then projected onto Burnham’s white shirt; Burnham’s facial hair has become even more unruly, his face gaunt, his expression dead-eyed. During this, he is holding his phone, at times appearing to scroll through it—even his own recorded confession of suicidal ideation cannot fully hold his attention when there’s doom scrolling.

In a really insightful 2018 interview with Vulture, Burnham talks about his film directorial debut, Eighth Grade, and the nature of our modern relationship with the cinematic form: “I think the more we are plugged in, the more urgent it is that we have a cultural space where you are required to put your phone down. It’s hilarious that the only place that we are required to put our phone down is the place where we look at a bigger screen.” 

He goes on to say that the size of the screen makes a significant difference in our experience. When you are looking at your phone, you domineer it, lording over the images because they are literally smaller than you. When you are in a movie theater, you are smaller than the screen; you are subjugated before an image rather than subjugating the image—it overwhelms you, engulfs you, sweeps you up in its arms and carries you away. It’s a powerful and humbling experience to encounter a truly cinematic screen. Once again, here’s Bazin: “Alone, hidden in a dark room, we watch through half-open blinds a spectacle that is unaware of our existence and which is part of the universe. There is nothing to prevent us from identifying ourselves in imagination with the movie world before us, which becomes the world.” 

What both Burnham and Bazin seem to understand is that screens can powerfully shape our imaginations. Even though I’ve only watched Inside on my TV at home (it did have a brief theatrical run), I experienced this kind of imaginative identification with the filmic world—the world, the cinematic reality that Burnham had crafted and presented through The Shot and The Screen. Even as it may sound simplistic and sentimental, in a year where so much of my world felt outside of my control, Inside somehow made me feel less alone and less afraid. 

The Spectator

A shot and a screen assumes a spectator, one who is watching the moving image. Throughout Inside, we see shots of Burnham watching himself and reacting to what he just recorded. Sometimes these recordings are on his laptop, sometimes they’re projected onto the wall of the guest house; often they appear to come much later in time. “All Eyes On Me,” the climactic song, brings all three—Shot, Screen, and Spectator—to the forefront; it is the most overtly cinematic moment in Inside. We see a shot with Burnham, sitting in darkness in a black t-shirt, making his confession to the audience, the spectators: “I am…not…um, well.” Yet, paralleling the introduction scene, the center of this shot is the camera adjacent to Burnham, staring at us staring at it—the literal center of attention is not Burnham, but the camera. As the song intro kicks in, the now-familiar slow zoom begins as we hear Burnham talking with a pre-recorded audience about his experiences over the past year and thanking them for being “here.” We are carried by the slow zoom directly into the impenetrable void of the camera lens.

Then Burnham begins to sing: “Get your fuckin’ hands up / Get on out of your seats / All eyes on me, all eyes on me.” His eyes engulf the screen; he is staring right at the viewer and demanding their gaze. The image dissolves into a montage of shots featuring Burnham singing and dancing alone in a blue-lit room, his performance projected onto himself and the wall behind him. In this moment, Burnham is simultaneously The Shot, The Screen, and The Spectator. He is cinema incarnate.

All eyes on me. This command could be the mantra of our attention economy, where likes and clicks are currency, where views—both in terms of personal opinions and looking at something—make up the cultural sea we swim in. Within this milieu, cinema has been reduced to content and audiences its mindless consumers. Of course, cinema has always been an industry, one which relied on spectacle and spectators. Yet it’s also a medium which has continued to blur the lines between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment,’ ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. It can make its spectators think and feel, can even educate or inspire, not through didacticism or propaganda (though film has always been used in this way, too), but simply as moving images, i.e., images that move us.

As Burnham requests the viewer’s adoration and attention, he continues: “Heads down, pray for me / Heads down now, pray for me.” There are all sorts of religious symbols in Inside, from the off-screen divine voice telling Burnham to ‘heal the world’ in “Comedy” to the Christological symbols in “Problematic,” where Burnham’s long hair and beard are evocative of classic pop culture images of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus. Yet none of these religious connotations are quite as pointed and personal as this petition for prayer.

I don’t know Burnham’s religious background or beliefs, aside from the fact that he graduated from a Catholic prep school. Whatever they are, this line strikes me as one of the most unexpectedly vulnerable moments in a 90-minute film made up entirely of a guy baring his soul. A request for prayer is both an admission of insufficiency and a confession of faith; it is a public recognition that there are realities in this world which are bigger than myself, and I am incapable of managing or understanding those realities. To ask for prayer is to ask for help. In this moment, Burnham is reaching out through The Screen to The Spectator in good faith, making an appeal to their hearts and souls. And the unique power of cinema is that we can respond: Bo Burnham asked me to pray for him, so I’ve been doing so ever since.

The End

I am worried about what you might think of me if I say that Inside is my favorite film of 2021. I am scared that, years from now, I will regret praising Bo Burnham’s work for any number of possible reasons. I am anxious about being embarrassed for my published opinions. I want you to think that I’m a Serious Film Critic. I want you to like my writing. Really, I want you to like me. Yet if cinema reveals the truth about reality and helps us make sense of our world, then Inside was cinema par excellence for me in this suboptimal year of enduring a global pandemic. It made me fall in love with film again. It made me miss the beauty and grandeur of movie theaters. It made me laugh and cry when I often just felt numb or scared. With COVID, our entire world has been through a collective trauma and we have still not recovered. I don’t know when the pandemic will end. But I do know (like Bazin did) that creative and empathetic cinema like Inside will help us make sense of whatever reality we’re facing, for “cinema more than any other art is particularly bound up with love.” Indeed, Burnham never once mentions “COVID,” “pandemic,” or “quarantine.” He doesn’t have to. As cinema, Inside speaks for itself.

I love cinema. I think Bo Burnham loves cinema, too. In the last scene of Inside, Burnham finally leaves his guest house, only to find himself locked out. An unseen audience laughs at him as he frantically tries to get back inside. The last shot shows Burnham watching the footage of himself on his projector in the guest house as the audience’s laughter crescendos. Before the screen abruptly cuts to black, Burnham begins to smile. It may be just a smile of simple pleasure, but I take it to be a sign of hope—the final shot of Inside is not of tears and depression, but of laughter and delight. Why? Because Burnham is enjoying The Shot on The Screen as The Spectator. Because, cinema.