A Review Of Bo Burnham: Inside, And How Burnham's Cinematography Told A Story

This Netflix special has captured the cultural zeitgeist. There is a lot to learn from Burnham's cinematography and how he used the camera to emphasize meaning in such a complex piece.
Bo Burnham Inside
Image Source: vanityfair

Spoiler-free review of Bo Burnham’s Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside has done something special, it has hit notes in the cultural zeitgeist that have propelled the special to spectacular heights. Although billed as a comedy special Inside only offers a few jokes that hit as one would expect. Instead, Burnham has crafted a kind of one-man show for the digital age in which he touches on a wide range of societal topics but delves into the negative realities of the internet.

While not a light-hearted or a feel-good special, Inside is a must-watch for those who want a thought-provoking experience. Burnham has created a piece that is equal parts self and societal examination that purposefully blurs the lines between reality and artistic presentation. The end product is one of fantastic composition, well-written commentary, and captivating performance.

Ironically my first viewing of Inside, a special centered around a man in the depths of isolation, was when I ended my pandemic isolation and had friends over. Afterward, we all agreed that it was something unique, and after subsequent viewings, I have found more to appreciate. But even if your intention is a single viewing, Burnham’s Inside will likely leave a memorable impression on you.

Bo Burnham’s cinematography is important to understanding the themes of Inside.

White Woman's Instagram
Image Source: petapixel

While Burnham’s Inside has a great deal to say with his witty and often juxtapositional lyrics, the importance of his camerawork can not be forgotten. The two often work in tandem to better present the messages of the individual songs and special overall. Camera cues are often cued by important lyrics or the change in the song’s tone. These changes in camera work range from subtle aspect ratio shifts to traditional angle manipulation to influence the audience’s feelings. But beyond these, there are aspects of the special completely lost without the carefully crafted camerawork.    

White Woman’s Instagram is a song in the first half of the special that begins with a simple lampooning of the cliche trends of Instagram. From avocados to dogs in flower crowns Burnham runs down a myriad of cliches where he feigns smiles and poses in an aspect ratio mimicking a phone screen. These snapshots of cliche are one of the most comedic parts of the special as they ridicule low-hanging fruit. 

But halfway through the song, the ratio opens up and the lyrics take a sudden turn from the jabs at cliches with:

Her favorite photo of her mom

The caption says, "I can't believe it

It's been a decade since you've been gone

Mama, I miss you, I miss sitting with you in the front yard

Still figuring out how to keep living without ya

It's got a little better but it's still hard

Mama, I got a job I love and my own apartment

Mama, I got a boyfriend and I'm crazy about him

Your little girl didn't do too bad

Mama, I love you, give a hug and kiss to dad

Where the restricted ratio before mimicked social media posts on a phone screen, the widening is closer to a human’s natural field of vision. Therefore what came before is made to feel artificial. Then Burnham limits the aspect ratio, returning to a list of cliches and incorporating more humanizing characterization.

This signifies a melding of all previous aspects creating a greater image of what Burnham’s song is saying - that what we present on social media is as much a performance of cliche ideals as it is a showing of our humanity. By this same idea, he demonstrates how consuming such presentations as entertainment, in this case as comedy, can have a detrimental impact on our understanding of the individuals who make it, as their full personhood is limited by platform and confused by our preconceived notions. 

Welcome to the Internet
Image Source: reddit

Moving into the second half of the special, Welcome to the Internet offers a more traditional use of camerawork to emphasize meaning. The song begins with a slow zoom-in as Burnham takes the role of the internet listing all that it has to offer at an increasingly rapid pace. This slow zoom-in acts as the internet slowly luring the viewers with the abundance and variety it offers. Then once close enough the song’s pace picks up drastically as the camera cuts to a series of close-ups.

These close-ups are dominated by low-angle shots in which Burnham lists off increasingly disturbing and hostile aspects of the internet. The significance of low angles in filmmaking hinges on the idea that setting the camera at a low angle looking up puts the focus of the shot in a position of power over the audience.

Then the song shifts to a slower pace and Burnham’s singing softens as the camera begins to back away. Just as the zooming in of the camera first represented the alluring nature of the internet upon the first glance, this retreating shot establishes the opposite. After such a myriad of aggression and unsavoriness, the camera mimics the repulsion the viewer feels.

But just as the camera reaches its original place at the back of the room looking in, the song shifts yet again. This time Burnham sings about how the internet was made to put the world at the fingertips of newer generations, a seemingly noble endeavor. The camera begins to zoom in once more towards the alluring web being sung into existence.

Yet once it nears, Burnham shifts again into a maniacal laugh and explains the trap that has been set. Through overstimulation and a cycle that constantly creates anything and everything you could want, the internet has made addicts of its users. As he explains this the camera backs away, again signifying revulsion. But this time the camera freezes at the back of the room, unable to escape, and unable to look away. In full view Burnham playing the character of the internet plays on, completely in control yet out of control.

This back and forth serves to enhance the cycle of addiction that the internet has made possible. It has all that interests humanity curated to any individual that uses it. But in those interests are equal parts harmless and vile. While there is boundless information to answer just about any question, there is also equal space to spout ignorance and cause harm. As users of the internet find joy in its use, we also find aberration. But no matter our feeling, we cannot fully step away because of the sheer usefulness of the internet and the want we have for its endless stores of overstimulation. By the end, just as the camera we are stuck looking at the unruly juggernaut of our design fueled by our collective rapture and consumption.

What both of these songs have in common thematically is their subject matter of content, meaning what the users of the internet consume as entertainment or information.

White Woman’s Instagram shows how consuming content based on aspects of an individual’s personality can lead to misconceptions, and Welcome to the Internet shows the addiction both individuals and society face after being overstimulated by the sheer magnitude of content the internet has to offer. The two songs, and the special as a whole, also happen to be content. This is made clear in the special’s opening song Content, where Burnham sings

But look, I made you some content

Daddy made your favorite, open wide 

Here comes the content

While the musical skits are the dominant form of content shown throughout the special, Burnham dedicates one-third of the special’s runtime to other forms. At one point he mimics a Twitch gaming stream in which he plays a video game that simulates the depression he is feeling from quarantine isolation. In another, he creates a reaction video to a song he just performed. Eventually, he begins to react to the reaction until a kind of infinite loop of reactions is established.

Bo Burnham Profile Picture
Image Source: reddit

In the most striking of the non-musical scenes, Burnham has an emotional breakdown as he is overwhelmed by the stresses of isolation, his depression, and his anxieties. The camera lingers on him in ahead-on shot most similar to a vlog format. But slowly the camera zooms in to focus on another camera, recording this recording. 

Over the special’s runtime, the viewer grows to understand Burnham’s struggles and how his isolation and anxieties around performing are directly leading to his mental anguish. So when he has a breakdown the audience understands why. But the choice to have the camera zoom in creates four effects. It jars the audience with the realization that as Burnham is breaking down we are complicit in the cycle of content creation that has led to this breakdown. Secondly, the audience realizes that the emotional turmoil of a human being we have grown to somewhat understand is meant to be content.

By focusing on the recording camera, Burnham also turns the camera on the audience. In a way, the shot would suggest that as much as the breakdown is framed as content, so is the audience who would watch such a thing. Finally, making the camera the focus of the scene also suggests that the act of recording is more important than the actual subject matter. This serves to dehumanize the human aspects of the scene by placing value on the act of recording above all else.

What is the meaning of Inside?

Bo Burnham Final Shot
Image Source: medium

Bo Burnham has expressed the opinion that making hard moral calls in pieces about the internet is itself the wrong thing to do. In a 2018 interview with Lauren Duca Burnham said,

The only thing I know about the current moment is how I feel within it… and maybe give raw material for a conversation to be had… when pieces of media and things about the internet get really instructive or pedagogical or whatever I just get sick to my stomach

And by and large, Inside follows this sentiment. Burnham offers some critique of internet behavior but he doesn’t try and forebay it in any way. If anything in Welcome to the Internet he paints the whole situation as a monster made by the collective, but out of anyone’s control. Yet there are two sentiments, in Burnham’s own words, that are supported by the final shots of the special. In his 2016 special Make Happy Burnham gives a speech in which he says,   

Social media… it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, ‘Here, perform. Perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. Its performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member?

In the final musical skit, Goodbye, Burnham breaks free from his confinement only to find himself on a stage in front of a laughing audience. He desperately tries to open the door and return to his seclusion as his worst fear has been realized, he is performing again. But as the people laugh at him, the camera cuts to show Burnham seated and watching the footage. His face stays still as it plays, but at the end, he smiles. At the end of the day, he too is a satisfied audience member.

There is also another aspect that exists alongside the special’s description of the internet’s perils. Throughout the special Burnham explains his anxieties and struggles with mental illness. By the end, the audience has come to empathize with him. Similar to the woman in White Woman’s Instagram. The audience at first laughed at Burnham, but come to empathize with him and question why they initially laughed. Burnham has even talked about his goals when discussing mental illness in his work. In the 2018 interview with Lauren Duca Burnham said,  

A lot of what I’m doing is actually trying to shrug and see recognition in other people and get recognition in other people. So we’re actually doing the same thing, and you are providing for me as much as I am providing for you.

This aspect of Inside hinges partially on the viewer’s connection to Burnham’s portrayal of his mental struggles. If the viewer came to understand Burnham’s situation then as an audience member they were able to give him recognition. If the viewer felt recognition through the portrayal, then the full scope of his sentiment was realized. In this way Inside is somewhat of a unique special, because one of its key aspects seeks to recognize the audience through their recognition of Burnham’s performance. 

Overall there isn’t necessarily a concise message, to sum up, the meaning of Inside. But what the special does is explore the detriments of the internet while seeking recognition for Burnham’s mental struggles, while giving recognition to those of the audience who share similar struggles. What meaning the viewer can take from the special beyond an understanding of Burnham’s plight is largely up to their own experiences and values, which makes Inside incredibly unique.

If humanity was left to our own devices we would probably just eat chicken and watch movies, I know I would.

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