Inside

On Bo Burnham's obsessive masterpiece.

I watch a lot of movies. One of my favorite things about being a human at this point in history is this ability to experience an infinity of life and variations on the human condition from behind my cloak of invisibility, i.e., without having to speak or be present with other people. I don't hate people or even dislike them. For the most part, I love them. And I'm very aware of our need for actual social interaction. Some need a lot of it, some need less. My need for it just happens to be the minimum amount. Any more than that and it becomes significantly harder for me to love people. Not because they become more unlovable. But because my self-loathing, among other useless things, feeds on the presence of other people.

I should tell you that I sat down to write about Bo Burnham's new Netflix special, Inside. And write about it I will, eventually. But it looks like I'm going to need to take the long way there.

For years, my people problem led me to seek extreme solitude. But as I've already made clear, I am not a machine but people, too. And so, in my self-imposed solitary confinement, I was host to much loneliness and the brutal antagonists of my mind, which are things my self-loathing also feeds on. But—and this is important—I learned this about myself; I studied it and sought to change it. In the process, I tried being with people more. It did not help. I was right back where I'd started. Except that I wasn't. Because I'd learned something about myself again. I learned that my loneliness actually grows around others. And that revealed a tiny corner of a strategy for solving what had previously felt like an intractable inner conflict. And then I just kept doing that back-and-forth dance between being alone and with people until I found my sweet spot, which is not, as it turns out, a single spot, but rather a spot in constant motion. Within that vague and shifting spot is a balanced mix of human interaction and solitude that allows me to feel okay most of the time. So I've made it my business to observe it and make adjustments as necessary. This is not something that happened in the long ago. This happened only recently, within the last few years, and most notably over the past year or less. And it could fall apart at any moment. And that's okay, too. That informs me that I'd be wise to enjoy it now.

When COVID hit, the whole quarantine thing was nothing to me. I was with one other human (my wife) for a portion of time, and that's really all the human contact I need. The rest of the time I was alone, which, as I've established, is also something I need. The only hard part was when I returned to teaching at a Thai school and spent my days surrounded by thousands of people. Teaching in such an environment was good for me for a short while, when I was in a being-around-people-more stage of my experiment. But it stopped being so long before I left the job, the first time, in early 2019. I only went back to it in mid-2020 because I was asked to and it felt right for a minute. But only for a minute. So I learned that, too. And then I made the necessary adjustments, built on all those previous necessary adjustments. And now I work from home doing something rewarding and don't speak much. And this suits me very well.

What the COVID-imposed confinement taught me was how hard the regular social isolation I need and enjoy is for many others. But though we may differ on the level of human interaction we need, we all still need it to some degree, according to Science. And while I would never wish unnecessary mental anguish on anyone, there is an undeniable connection between solitude, loneliness, and creativity, also according to Science, as well as to all recorded human history.

Which brings me to Bo Burnham's new Netflix special, Inside. My list of favorite movies is long. It's also a hypothetical list because I've never felt the urge to make a real one. Also, if I made that list, I'd probably also feel compelled to make another list of my favorite comedy specials. And I'm not going to do either. But I am going to tell you that, among all of my favorite films and comedy specials, it's rare that I've had the thought while watching any of them that I was witnessing something groundbreaking and incredible. It's rare that this has happened at any moment in my life. There was that night in Grant Park after Obama got elected. There was that other night in the bed of a pickup truck racing through the Thai countryside when I felt like a living-breathing amalgam of a Bruce Springsteen song and a Ray Bradbury essay, both about a long and beautiful summer night. But those were nearly 10 years apart, and I'm having trouble thinking of any others.

My point is, it's rare in life, and even rarer in movie-watching to be in the midst of something special and know it then, not realize it later. And that's precisely what happened while I was watching Inside. It is, to my mind, a masterpiece and a time capsule. It's also a beautiful, obsessive, bipolar, and unbridled burst of the human mind, spirit, condition, and whatever other shared and inexplicable things we've got buried and burning deep within us.

Created in a single room by a single individual over a year in seclusion, it is a very, very particular experience/experiment in human isolation. Is it self-absorbed? Of course it is. It needs to be. It would be something less if it tried not to be. It is funny and sad and thoughtful and neurotic and heartbreaking and psychotic and, I think, pure genius.

I don't know what others are saying about it. I don't know if it's trending. I don't know if it has universal appeal. I'm just glad that it survived its creation and is now a bright and exploding ball of gas of a thing in this world. And I'm glad that it's there for those who struggle both with life alone in a mind and life alone with others.


Notes:

  • Bo Burnham: Inside

  • P.S. I have reason to believe that some of you didn't receive the Negative Visualization email I sent earlier this week. My guess is that it's in your spam folder due to several of my unintentionally spammy word choices. So if you didn't see it in your inbox and you want to read it, you can check your spam folder or click here.

  • P.P.S. When I was young, my family would sometimes go places at night and I’d convince my mom to let me stay home. After they’d left, I’d turn off all the lights and put one of my favorite VHS bootlegs (usually a Guns N’ Roses or Bon Jovi concert) into the VCR and press play. I would then proceed to “perform” for an audience of none until my family came home. I was reminded of this while watching Inside. Looking back at it now, I see an early manifestation of some of what I’ve written about here, something I learned about myself in my late twenties or so while reading a Henry Rollins book; namely, that the idea of being with people was often more enjoyable than the actuality of being with them. When this is a fundamental part of who you are, movies contain incalculable sustenance.