The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, June 21, 2021

In Search Of More Applause: 'Inside' And The World Neoliberalism Promised

Bo Burnham's movie "Inside" stretches the term "comedy special" till it shatters. Why does its clutter of fragments cut so deep? Maybe because of how it reflects the world neoliberalism promised us...

content include: spoilers for Inside, neoliberalism, suicide, jokes about suicide, jokes about jokes about suicide, self-referentiality, audience hostility, alienation.

The sickest joke in the Netflix "comedy special" Inside comes right at the end. After the credits roll, after the whole experience Bo Burnham drags his audience through, text appears and reassures the viewer: if you are feeling suicidal, there is a hotline you can call.

Of course, describing a suicide hotline message as a sick joke is me making, you guessed, it a sick joke of my own. Oh shit, am I really joking at a time like this? Yeah I am, and I bet some of you are nodding along and maybe even sorta doing a smile that's not really a smile, laughing in a way that doesn't reach your eyes. You get it right? Ha ha ha.

Does that come off as mean spirited or edgy or in bad taste? Maybe it just comes off like I and the people like me are laughing at the expense of people who don't get it. That's not really my intent, though, to leave people out of the joke. That's what my articles are for, after all! Explaining the joke. At agonizing length.

This joke at least is pretty straightforward. Have I already talked about that moment at the end of Hamlet that I love, where some assholes come into the middle of a bloodbath and are just like hey where's Hamlet we killed his buddies for him, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead! And it's just comical, it's just too much on top of everything else. That's what the end statement feels like to me and why I actually did laugh the first time I saw it. Like, ok, so, Bo Burnham set out to make this comedy special, right? Five years after quitting comedy in the face of mental health struggles, he was ready to get back out there and un-quit. Bo Burnham would return to comedy in 2020. "And then," he intones during the penultimate song of the special, "the funniest thing happened..."

So. Inside is Bo Burnham sitting in a strange, maybe weirdly undersized, apartment for a year trying to spend a fuckton of Netflix money to make a Netflix special. Inside chronicles how Burnham slowly goes mad during this process. It explores not just isolation but the state of politics, the melting icecaps, the constant weird alienation of the internet, and countless other things all combine and contribute to that mental decline. The early parts of Inside broadly satirize our digital culture, but poking fun at boomers being unable to hold their phones properly during video calls gradually gives way to a more bombed out horror at the state of the world, the absurdity less Monty Python and more Waiting For Godot.

It feels like Burnham set out to make a normal ass comedy special and ended up creating our modern day equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon, a catalogue of all the things that just drive you a little bit crazy. I'm astonished, actually, at just how easily Inside slotted into my prearranged plans for a whole series of articles revolving around Pink Floyd's magnum opus on madness, The Wall. So well did it mirror my fascination with other films featuring protagonists stuck in a particular modern location, descending into madness, and watching their environment also go mad in parallel, that it caused me to get off my ass and write, ah, let me see, the SECOND article in this planned book length series, after almost a fucking YEAR.

Part of the reason it slotted in so perfectly is it feels like the logical endpoint of the whole thrust of my argument. The series starts with the rise of Neoliberalism chronicled in The Wall and The Final Cut. And now, with Inside, it ends with the end of Neoliberalism, not vanquished by even mild social reform but collapsing as the entire world grinds slowly to a stop. Inside repeatedly returns to politics. There's a lot I could say about "How The World Works," where Burnham's left hand literally is a sockpuppet spouting leftist critiques, only to be ripped off Burnham's hand and sent back to liminal hell when it insults Burnham's ego and privilege too much. There's much I could say about the opening song which promises to "heal the world with comedy, making a literal difference--metaphorically."

But the songs that most feel emblematic to me are the Bezos songs.

Two songs in the movie are celebrations of Jeffrey Bezos and his money, so much fucking money. The first track encourages Jeffrey Bezos to take his rivals and "fuck their wives, drink their blood". The second track, appearing with a jump cut after Burnham announces that he plans to never finish the project at all, is an absurd piece where, dressed as a shrub and backlit by red laser patterns, Burnham simply croons Bezos's name over dramatic synths before exclaiming with elation: "You did it!!" The world, as the songs around it make clear, is fucked, and Burnham individually is crumpling under the weight of isolation and a lack of agency to improve things.

And Jeffrey, you made more money than anyone else in the history of the human race!!! Congratulations!!!

In the face of all this, providing a number you can call to tell someone you're suicidal feels, well, like a sick joke. It feels like the sick joke of neoliberalism: there's no society just individuals and families. So the best we can do is offer you an individual response. If you call us first.

I think part of the reason it came across to me as a weird metatextual joke is because the whole special is profoundly metatextual. Produced by Burnham alone in a room surrounded by equipment he could operate remotely, on his own, the special cuts frequently between his songs--often ending abruptly after just a minute or two without developing the idea beyond an initial sketch--and footage of Burnham lying around listlessly, taking focal length measurements, testing lights, offering bits of diaristic narration on the ongoing struggle to produce the special, staring into space, kicking things over, preparing his hair, adjusting camera angles, crying. The film seems to swim and out of focus, not visually but cognitively, suggesting someone finding interest in activities for brief moments, long enough to produce half a song (or a fragment of an article?), before reverting back to milling aimlessly around doing work that sort of feels like work and also sort of feels like rearranging deck chairs on one of the cruise ships that became floating mass contamination zones early in the Covid outbreak.

How would I describe the phenomenology of Inside? Accumulation. Choking accumulation. Stuff. An embarrassment of #content. A room choked with light stands and mic stands and camera stands and cameras and lights and screens and monitors and projectors and mics and some furniture under it all. A collection of shorts and half sketches for longer comedy bits and half formed ideas expressing a variety of mental breakdowns. A list of the hyperreal oddities of late capitalism. Jameson describes the rise of hyperrealism in the 70s as a reaction to abstraction becoming passe, losing all capacity to shock. But this realism isn't images of things, he says, but images of photographs of things, images of images. Total disassociation, fully out your mind. Googling derealization, hating what you find.

And isn't this exactly what we were told we would be given?

Now, Burnham's case is special, of course. Burnham drowns in all the toys that Netflix money can buy. I've talked back and forth a bunch with my girlfriends about just what all Burnham's behind the scenes tinkering with lighting and sets means, whether it suggests a kind of way out, a suggestion that you, too, could produce some art (or failing that at least some #content). This appeals to me because some part of me wants to really believe that democratizing the means of cultural production would lead to revolutionary consciousness. But the fact is all this choking accumulation of equipment is possible because Burnham has that Netflix money, and we don't.

But don't worry, because Neoliberalism isn't about to back down on its promise to us! Burnham may be special but we won't be left out. This is the sense of these litanies, these endless endless list songs. You could compare this to We Didn't Start The Fire, but it's not really the same is it? Billy Joel was listing Events.

Burnham is listing #content.

Apps that you can buy. Nine year olds who die. Equipment you can use. Mountains of refuse. There aren't events here there are just narratives which you can find on your feed. Neoliberalism promised to dissolve social bonds and transform us into some new hybridized organism, more capable of swimming the muddy mangroves of unregulated global markets. In return, it offered us endless churning chum. And haven't we gotten what we were promised? The Internet appears in Inside as the ultimate fulfillment of this promise, a world more real than reality, a bit of everything all of the time. Boredom is a crime precisely because it demonstrates a failure to participate properly in the super cool world that capitalism has built for you! You ungrateful fucking brat!

The endless churning chum isn't a great environment actually to build narratives in. It flattens things. I found that out the hard way! When I started writing about Pink Floyd's The Wall I naively thought, well look, it can't be TOO hard to figure out what the hell happened over the course of the 70s to spawn this specific strange motif of "a cast is trapped in a modernist space that mirrors their madness as that modernism eats itself". I had a pretty good idea that Thatcher and Reagan had something to do with it! And then I learned about containerization which allowed a standardized model for global shipping, and the development of megalithic container ships to carry those containers around the globe--just in time for the Evergiven getting lodged in the Suez in one of this year's many supply chain collapses! And then I learned about the turnover from coal to oil and the way that deliberate transition broke the strong central worker-heavy base of labor across the west. And then I learned about the development of financial capital, the move from a gold standard to a purely notional system of currency printing, which of course came in handy when the US needed to double the currency supply, funneling cash to corporations while mass numbers of people were laid off of work and denied assistance.

And it's just... stuff. Another litany of ways that the world works, that doesn't add up to anything but bemusement and exhaustion because knowing is far far less than half the battle. The more notes I collected--10,000 words, tons of random notes, a bunch of links to various sources--the more my internal mental landscape resembled Bo Burnham's apartment... or Pink's wrecked hotel room... or the overwhelmed gremlin-filled modern halls of the Clamp Center... or the ruined concrete island of High-Rise... Room For You Inside as a critical project came to mirror its subject. Of course the fucked up thing is that this happened long before quarantine started officially! I was already lonely, atomized, struggling, and isolated, unsure of what I could possibly say or do to respond to a world that personally kept victimizing me and kept spiraling sociopolitically into further and further grotesquerie.

Perhaps... I could heal the world with art history???

Do you ever get the feeling that Burnham's jokes about "this is what I can do while still getting paid haha" are their own kinda shield? Like, a way of portraying himself as an asshole to fend off the deeper vulnerability? Look he basically says so himself during the reaction-to-his-own-video segment. And couldn't part of that vulnerability be the vulnerability of admitting outright that evidence from history suggests art is a pretty shitty solution for the world's problems, and sometimes it's tempting to imagine just blowing that knowledge, or possibly the drive to be creatively expressive in the first place, out of my head? I mean out of Burnham's head. Of course. Any of these films expressing this metaphorical experience of the walls going up and the madness of neoliberal modernity setting in... what did they do to stop it? All they provided was a testament to what happened that we could stare at and go

mood lol #mfw

Which is kind of odd given how premised this special is on apparent audience hostility. Midway through the special Burnham sings that not only does he not know whether there's any audience for his show, he doesn't WANT to know--though the lyrics suggest he's got a pretty good idea of exactly how engaged people are with his art. (Not very.) The song ends with yet another of the many suicide jokes in the special. The audience is a palpable presence in the special, which is weird because it's palpably absent, something Burnham tries to push against and fabricate from laugh tracks and antagonize all in absentia. The equipment acts as a weird stand in for the audience increasingly, as does Burnham himself, the images of him multiplying as the space fills up with, himself.

I'm not sure what the most harrowing moment of the film is, exactly--it's understated but the bit where Burnham announces that he's just going to keep making the film and never release it because releasing it means moving on and having to live his life, so fuck you, nobody who will never see this... that hit hard for me, I type into my evernote document as I glance over at two different unfinished projects open in two different instances of the development environment Atom, and glance the other way at a list of unfinished articles sinking below this one that I'm currently working on in my drafts folder. But probably the most affectively raw is a sequence where Burnham breaks down sobbing, off on the side of a shot, staring off screen in a way that renders him a sidenote in the shot. The focal point of the shot is... what else? A camera. Pointed at the audience. As Burnham sobs, the camera filming this other camera slowly, agonizingly slowly, zooms in, until the screen is overwhelmed by the black of the lens's interior.

What follows is the climax of the special. If we're making comparisons to The Wall, and I think we should if only because it's the fucking subject of this fucking "book", this is the transition from "Comfortably Numb" to "In The Flesh". Having completely broken down and destroyed the main character, having transformed the environment into a nightmare of accumulated bullshit, the character takes the stage and performs hostility toward and for an audience. In The Wall, Roger Waters's vocals are replaced by lead actor Bob Geldoff, spouting a manic and deliberately unmusical tirade, creating an unsettling break with expectation. In Inside, Burnham's vocals are pitched down and pitch corrected, including the segments announcing the piece and in the middle giving an account of the background. This similarly to my mind creates a sense of alienation, as Burnham employs contemporary pop effects to express a message that, as my girlfriend put it, fully mainstreams doomerism:

You say the ocean's rising?
Like I give a shit.
You say the whole world's ending?
Honey, it already did.
You're not gonna slow it,
Heaven knows you tried!
Got it? Good.
Now get inside.

Burnham performs with a projected backdrop: himself, being filmed live, and projected onto the screen. As he sings the chorus, closeups from multiple angles flood the screen, Burnham filling his performance space, the apartment he's been locked inside. The image of solipsism in The Wall is Pink constructing a model nazi rally from the ruins of his smashed hotel room. The image of solipsism in Inside is this overabundance of Bo Burnham, surrounded by fake canned cheers, as he croons for the crowd to "get your fucking hands up, all eyes on me!" Burnham frequently looks into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, but it serves to create an uncanny distance: we are put in the place of an audience with direct connection to Burnham, but the performance constantly reemphasizes that Burnham is completely alone behind his wall.

Midway through All Eyes On Me, Burnham breaks down and screams at the camera, ripping it off its stand as though it is a person, the viewer, someone he can physically drag out of a seat, force to put their hands up, force to participate. "I'm talking to you, GET THE FUCK UP," he bellows with his distorted vocals. And in a sense he does force us to participate, the video now spinning around wildly as he dances, exhilarating and nauseating. It's aggressive, hostile, celebratory, desperate, inconclusive. The music as he dances takes on an aggressive set of backing Trent Reznor-esque guitar riffs; taped noise of a crowd swells. Finally the camera drops and goes dead. Shortly thereafter, following more footage of production work, Burnham, staring into space, mutters, "I think- I think I'm done." If the progression in a musical is that as emotion heightens you go from talking to needing to sing, from singing to needing to dance, this extends it, from singing to needing to scream and physically assault the audience, and then from screaming and shoving to dragging the audience into the act, and finally from audience participation to total breakdown, the camera dropping and cutting out. The emotional need ultimately becomes too much for the mediation of the technology to handle.

I think maybe I understand something about the story about Roger Waters spitting on a fan during a concert. We always hear the tale from Roger's perspective, the horror of this incomprehensible bestial fan that actually LIKED it when this rock star spit on him. But Inside much more successfully than The Wall puts me into the position of that audience member. I understand it because it's happening TO ME, Burnham is screaming AT ME to get the fuck up, wrenching me around, spitting in my face. And in the face of isolation, this perverse kind of aggressive participation reads like an invitation to share some sort of feeling, some sort of sense that even in mutual hostility I can have a connection with another human being, through art.

Which is all pretty weird shit to say about a "comedy special".

Or is it? I think absurdity and satire and horror always brush against each other or intermingle in this strange little subgenre I'm interested in. After all, the stuff they bluntly satirize is also absurd. Like what can you do in the face of some of this stuff but laugh? My girlfriend who I am soon to be moving in with, in an attempt to get you know some sort of better, less isolated, mutually supportive existence in an apartment that ISN'T literally fucking MELTING, just today read a letter that was posted to the door of her apartment. The managers of the apartment complex have decided that because people are letting their dogs shit on the nice clean sidewalks of the complex, they are going to take the normal and reasonable approach of demanding all residents provide dna samples of their dogs so that dog shit can be tested and residents can be literally evicted. What can you do but laugh! You certainly can't stop the ocean from fucking rising, so you might as well make a few jokes!

Anyway, a lot of humor is just in delivery, and whether somebody is laughing in the background. Look at how these lines are structured apart from Burnham's melancholic delivery:

Reading pornhub's terms of service
Going for a drive
And obeying all the traffic laws
In Grand Theft Auto V

It starts strong with a joke right, an absurd scenario. Then it snaps back to something more down to earth... builds for a beat... and finally drops a punchline. It's just the three panel comic joke structure for goodness sake! If the affect of "That Funny Feeling" isn't very funny, it's not because of the formal structure. Set this like a Tom Lehrer song and it'd be an entertainingly nihilistic classic.

I've seen some criticism of Burnham's video that it's obvious, that it's blunt and direct to the point of pointlessness. Infamously of course critiques of The Wall have fallen along the same lines: the Nostalgia Critic spent a lot of time recently whining about how blunt the metaphors are. It's a common "problem" with my pet subgenre. There's nothing subtle about the dad in Shock Treatment mowing a fake lawn on a tv show set while bellowing to the audience about genuine masculinity; nor the business magnate Clamp trying to merchandise the gremlins that just overran and destroyed his tower in Gremlins 2.

Though... take that last one for example. It's a pretty surface level satire of a figure based on Donald Trump (really) looking at disaster and seeing a potential for mass commercialization... but it's also maybe a little weird and uncomfortable right, because it sort of suggests that maybe, just maybe, the Gremlins made some points! Maybe they should've been allowed to destroy this shitty tower and the rest of shitty corporate gentrified New York City. A lot of these films end on uneasy notes. The Wall ends profoundly inconclusively. And Inside of course...

Well, that ends with Burnham leaving his apartment and immediately stepping into a spotlight. As canned laughter plays, he realizes he's been locked out, and begins frantically struggling to go back inside. The view shifts to a screen: this sequence is being played on a project as Burnham, inside, watches silently in the dark. After a long hold on his face, the corners of his mouth quirks up. He begins to smile. The screen goes black and the credits roll.

The relationship between humor and horror in these films leaves me feeling uncomfortable and unsatisfied in a way that doesn't gel with their seemingly blunt politics. They resist concluding, maybe because, once you've laid out the mountain of facts and figures and seen how they've become just more consumable objects for capital to sell you, more base bullshit for the superstructure dumpster fire, it's hard to know what exactly to do.

I guess I'm drawn to things like Inside because I don't know what to do and in a way it's comforting to know that someone else is just as lost as me. We're going to go where everybody knows everybody knows everybody, Burnham promises in "All Eyes On Me." There's a moment, as he wildly flails the camera around after wrenching us out of our virtual seat, when his singing breaks into laughter. I can't know Bo Burnham or how he's doing or what kind of experience he's having but in that moment of affective crisis, in the face of all the horror and the alienation and the aggression between artist and audience, we can laugh together.

This Has Been

In Search Of More Applause

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