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Bo Burnham: Inside on Netflix

Bo Burnham is one of the most innovative stand-up comics regularly featured on Netflix. As he related in this latest special, Bo Burnham: Inside, he just turned 30 (something he celebrates during the special in a strange and sad way), and has positioned himself as a leading spokesperson for the social media generation. His material clearly sets him apart from the old guard of comics, who still tend to fall back on familiar topics such as airports, bad drivers, the differences between men and women, and their kids’ wacky antics. Nothing wrong with covering familiar yet universal material but Burnham inhabits a different universe, one that’s ultra postmodern and self-conscious. He’s always been this way, but Inside takes it all to a new level.

Inside is groundbreaking while testing the patience of his audience. Filmed over many months in 2020, it features Burnham’s endless hours of self-reflection and self-doubt during months of confinement. Of course, it’s doubtful that he literally never left his house as the on-screen scenario implies, but we can grant him this fiction for the sake of the performance. Not everyone is so generous. A reviewer for Slate takes Burnham to task for exaggerating his isolation and mental state, apparently causing some naive viewers to worry about him.

Another way this performance differs from those in the past is the emphasis on musical numbers. While Burnham always includes a few of these, Inside consists mostly of bizarre ditties, such as Welcome to the Internet :

Welcome to the Internet! What would you prefer?
Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?
Be happy! Be horny! Be bursting with rage!
We’ve got a million different ways to engage.

This may be my favorite part of the special, as he really does manage to encapsulate the absurdity of social media and the internet, which he sums up in the chorus:

Could I interest you in everything all the time?
A little bit of everything all the time?
Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime?

Bo Burnham, even with his more typical performances, is big on self-reflection and meta analysis. Here, devoid of an audience and free to play with his video cameras and special effects, he takes these tactics to an extreme. There’s a sequence where he analyzes himself analyzing himself, ad infinitum until he quits in exasperation.

In another skit, which could be seen as a microcosm for the whole show, he critiques his own performance saying “It’s boring, but that’s the point.” That’s the weird thing about Inside; it’s brilliant and thought-provoking, even as it taxes your attention span. I confess I watched it in two sessions and even then it seemed a bit long. Burham is certainly aware of the challenge of presenting a show meant to shine the spotlight on claustrophobia and angst and keep people’s attention. At one point, he sang about not wanting to know if people were paying attention or looking at their phones.

Bo Burnham is an artist who provokes criticism as well as adoration. He’s constantly walking a razor’s edge that borders on narcissism, if not solipsism. His self-awareness on this very tendency only accentuates the point, as when he says “And I think that, ‘Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.'” By the way, to remember that quote I referred to the transcript of the show, which is available in case anyone actually wants to read it through.

The absurdity of Burnham’s self-absorption is a microcosm of the world that’s emerging all around us. He’s not merely an astute spokesperson for the social media generation, he’s a kind of prototype. Much in the way Quentin Tarantino raised himself on movies, Burnham raised himself on YouTube. If nothing else, he knows this world inside out, creating a weird kind of sensibility that’s both brilliantly creative and morbidly insular.

Bo Burnham is definitely worth watching, as his finger is on the pulse of so much of what’s happening now, for better and for worse. Aside from that, he’s one of the most original comics working today.

Art School Confidential Review

Art School Confidential (2006), directed by Terry Zwigoff, follows in the footsteps of the earlier, more positively received film Ghost World (2001). In between, he also directed Bad Santa, which I have not seen. Like Ghost World, Art School Confidential is based on a comic by Daniel Clowes. Although both films are about disaffected and artistic young people, they are quite different. Art School Confidential is actually quite a disappointment relative to the other, more focused and well plotted film.

Shot at an actual art college, Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Art School Confidential is mostly a broad satire of the pretensions of art school students and, even more broadly, the contemporary art world in general. Although the film, as of this writing, is 8 years old, it still feels contemporary enough. In fact, an interesting observation that one could make is that modern art fell into a certain groove around the time of Andy Warhol and, despite all kinds of new trends and even brand new media (e.g. digital), it has retained its basic aura that fetishizes the obscure and non-objective.

Modern art is a fairly easy target for satire. So are art students, and Zwigoff wastes no time in having one of many cynical, worldly characters expound on the predictable types who enter art school -e.g. “suburban girl,” “vegan,” “nympho,” etc.
The star is Max Minghella, who is Jerome, a (at first) naive, almost absurdly idealistic first year student who is recovering from a lifetime of being bullied and misunderstood by the plebeian world of middle America.

Jerome quickly realizes that Strathmore, the fictionalized art college, is no bohemian paradise. The school is full of bitter and sarcastic professors (John Malkovich is perfect in one of these roles), oversensitive and fiercely competitive fellow students and even a serial killer in the neighborhood. The latter becomes an increasingly important part of the plot as the story awkwardly proceeds from high school parody to murder mystery parody.

Along the way, Jerome has the mandatory heartbreaking affair with Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model in one of his classes. This is the triggering event that transforms him, almost overnight, from wide-eyed future “greatest artist of the 21st century” to a misanthropic cynic.

Unfortunately, Art School Confidential, despite its promising premise and worthy cast (aside from Minghella and Malcovitch, there is Anjelica Huston and Steve Buscemi, who also appeared in Ghost World), the film itself turns out to be little more than a series of movie cliches. As I will discuss shortly, this may be a deliberate strategy on Zwigoff’s part, but if so it did not come across very effectively.

The whole serial killer subplot, which ends up being the main plot, turns Art School Confidential into a Tom Wolfe-style satire, not of the arts, but of pop culture and the mass media. This is hardly groundbreaking, and ends up derailing the film from its original focus.

Given how culturally savvy Zwigoff is, as evidenced not only by Ghost World, but by the world-weary snapshots of the art world taken early on in Art School Confidential, it’s a little hard to believe he would create a film that turns out to be so banal. That’s what leads me to suspect that the whole structure is itself meant to be a statement.

In several segments, we see Jerome, who is apparently talented and able to draw models realistically, snubbed by teachers and classmates alike, while students who scrawl chaotically are given high praise. This is another of the movie’s familiar and rather obvious social commentaries.

The film is full of movie cliches from beginning to end. There is a montage of bad dates that Jerome suffers through -a widely overused tactic in romantic comedies. The ending, once again (without getting too specific for those who still haven’t seen the film), regurgitates social satire covered in numerous books and films of the last few decades.

Could Zwigoff be presenting Art School Confidential as a satire, not merely of the art world, but of conventional movies and narrative structure? If so, it doesn’t make it any more satisfying. This certainly isn’t even close to being one of the worst movies ever made. It mainly suffers by comparison to Zwigoff’s earlier, exceptional films Ghost World and the equally fascinating documentary from 1994, Crumb.

Pulp Fiction Mystery

The Cracked video below is, as you might expect, tongue and cheek, but it nevertheless illustrates some reasons Pulp Fiction is still one of my all time favorite films. While it can be dismissed as an exercise in violence, vulgarity and all around excess, it has lots of layers that bring up issues such as morality, redemption and, as this video asserts, possibly even parallel realities.

Apparently there is a slight discrepancy in the dialogue between the opening scene (with the bank robbers) and the return to this scene at the end. Was this a blooper or a deliberate device Tarantino snuck in the film. Another mystery -why has no one noticed this in the almost 20 years since its release? Perhaps it has been noticed and commented on -despite having a fledgling movie blog, I’m hardly a movie trivia savant.

Anyway, this is something to watch for the next time you view Pulp Fiction!

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    Backflash (2002)

    This is a low budget, direct to video movie directed by Phil Jones that borrows a lot from Quentin Tarantino and other directors of popular twisty-funny-action packed films of recent years. While Backflash is definitely derivative and not a great film, it’s a lot better than I expected it to be.

    It’s a fairly typical plot for this kind of film,  full of twists, betrayals and humorously grotesque villains. It starts off with a straight-laced guy named Ray who is taking a break from running his video store. He picks up an attractive ex-con hitchhiker named Harley (Jennifer Esposito) -the kind of hitchhiker that you only see in the movies- and trouble naturally follows.

    The problem with movies like Backflash is that once you’ve seen a few of them, you start to expect the supposedly unpredictable twists. Still, this one actually held my attention quite well and was funny in places too. One of the gangsters is a lunatic named Gin (Colm Meaney) who pretends it’s Christmas all year long.

    Don’t rent Backflash expecting anything original, but if you like B movies, road trip movies and twisty noirish thrillers, you could do worse. Available streaming on Netflix.

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