July 2021

Arts & Letters

Life in isolation: ‘Nine Days’ and ‘Bo Burnham: Inside’

By Shane Danielsen
A comedian’s isolated self-examination is more profound than Edson Oda’s confused film about what makes a good life

A Craftsman house sits in the middle of a vast salt flat ringed by mountains. Inside, in a dark room filled with old cathode-ray television sets, is Will (Winston Duke), an official charged with a curious duty: to assess a series of candidates (souls, I suppose, though the word is never uttered here) over the course of nine days, and determine through a series of interviews if they’re worthy of “the amazing opportunity of life”. Which is to say, of being born into the world we know.

If the conceit of Nine Days sounds familiar, that’s because it recalls another, better movie: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s great After Life (1998), which describes more or less the same process, only from the other end. In that film, recently deceased men and women were brought to a facility as low-tech and unremarkable as this one, and given a week to look back on their lives and identify the single memory they wished to carry with them into the titular beyond, which was then faithfully re-created by the facility’s technicians. Indeed, about 40 minutes into Nine Days, writer-director Edson Oda’s debt to Kore-eda becomes overt, as Will and his co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) do precisely the same thing, as a weird sort of consolation prize for the rejected candidates. Their practical, homemade staging even mimics that of the earlier film.

Why the televisions? Well, it seems that, once a candidate is selected and born, “interviewers” such as Will then get to watch the totality of their earthly lives – a detail that, frankly, gave me the creeps. And this he does, assiduously taking notes all the while, though the unexpected suicide of one of his favourites, a violinist and former child prodigy called Amanda, unmoors him so comprehensively that his judgement begins to waver – a problem further compounded by the arrival of eight new candidates to fill the vacancy she has left. Among these is Emma (Zazie Beetz), an insouciant free spirit, whose refusal to follow Will’s guidelines first annoys and then beguiles him.

Beautifully made and intensely moving, albeit in a restrained, very Japanese way, After Life was heir to a long tradition of celestial-bureaucratic film fantasies: Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). (The ’40s, in fact, were packed with this stuff, and you don’t have to be a genius to work out why.) Of course, there are more recent examples as well: from Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black (1998), to Pixar’s Soul last year, filmmakers keep revisiting the idea of a rule-driven, fussily procedural afterlife. Which makes sense. The reality, after all, is a good deal less comforting.

However, by inverting the premise, Oda has set himself a fundamental problem: with no first-hand experience of the world to draw upon, how do these proto-humans seem so… well, worldly? One candidate (Arrested Development’s Tony Hale) suggests that he and Will grab some beers from the fridge, throw some steaks on the grill and maybe “invite some chicks over” – hardly the yearning of an unblemished soul. The line’s meant to be funny, of course, and Hale is a charming comic actor, but its sheer illogic pulls you up short. It takes you out of the film.

Three of the eight applicants are rejected quickly. Will instructs the rest to study the lives of their predecessors on the TVs and write down what moves them most, presumably planning to base his decision on the choices they make. But he also confronts them with some fairly undergraduate ethical dilemmas. (You’re imprisoned in a concentration camp. Your son has been caught trying to escape. A guard will kill everyone – including your son – if you don’t hang the child yourself… What would you do?) To set one kind of test makes sense, but two is just confusing, a hat on a hat. And not to belabour the point, but how do these not-yet-people even know what a concentration camp is?

To his credit, Oda has approached this enterprise, his debut feature, with complete sincerity and no small degree of craft. It’s confidently staged and handsomely shot, despite the curio-shop preciousness of the production design – all Polaroid cameras and handwritten notebooks and VHS tapes. (Earlier, as he’s shown around the house, Hale gets the film’s best – and most self-reflexive – line: “You really like these two colours, don’t you?”)

Unfortunately, Oda hasn’t properly thought through the broader implications of his creation. The result may prove charming (American critics seem especially taken), but it might just as easily reduce you, like me, to the kind of nit-picking I’ve done above, which wouldn’t happen were one engaged in the story and convinced by its internal logic. The interstitial montages of Life’s Precious Moments – holding hands on a beach, watching children run through a garden – are as banal and predictable as a TV commercial and, by the end, as the whimsy piles up and the story stops for a showboating, nearly-five-minute long (and not entirely accurate) recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, you sense that, for all his ambition, the filmmaker has simply run out of things to say.

Another house, another sort of trial to undergo. As Los Angeles withdrew into lockdown last year, at the height of the pandemic, comedian Bo Burnham began to ponder an ontological dilemma of his own. What use is a performer without an audience? How can one even claim to properly exist, when so much of one’s life is predicated on the attention and approval of others?

Confining himself to a small guesthouse in his backyard, he set to work trying to answer those questions. Some 16 months later, the result is Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix), which he wrote, directed, shot, edited and performed himself: a movie-length Gesamtkunstwerk blending brief, almost perfunctory bits of stand-up, diary-like entries to camera, and enough songs that it could justifiably be called a musical. More modest in conception than Nine Days, it’s also far more profound, a fully realised and thoroughly original work of art, and very possibly the definitive document of the 2020 pandemic.

In a way, I’m not surprised. Eighth Grade, Burnham’s 2018 debut feature, was a small wonder, a beautifully observed study of adolescent girlhood. But this is a whole different thing, more personal and far more revealing (sometimes literally: quite a bit of it is him in his underpants). He performs his compositions solo, accompanying himself on keyboards or guitar, and the songs are very, very funny indeed – except for the handful that are desperately sad. He’s a witty, literate lyricist and a sharp observer of American culture, his tone halfway between the sneer of Donald Fagan and the rueful tenderness of the late, lamented Adam Schlesinger.

Of the 20 tracks here, my favourite is “That Funny Feeling”, a sweetly apocalyptic ballad that, from its acerbic opening couplet (“Stunning 8K resolution meditation app / In honour of the Revolution, it’s half-off at the Gap”) to its melancholy coda (“Hey, what can ya say? / We were overdue / But it’ll be over soon / You wait”), sounds like a great, lost Fountains of Wayne song. But really, there are no duds here: “Hands Up (Eyes On Me)” recalls Salem at their best; “Problematic” is a Hi-NRG disco banger that addresses his controversy-laden past, as a young YouTube sensation out to shock; and “All Of the Time” is a superb Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht pastiche, a cabaret tune dripping with cruel humour (“Welcome to the internet / Put your cares aside / Here’s a tip for straining pasta / Here’s a nine-year-old who died”).

Working alone, with limited resources, Burnham was obliged to be creative. As an editor, he creates elaborate, recursive links and patterns between his various themes. And though an amateur cinematographer, he devises consistently striking visual motifs: lighting himself so that, for one number, he’s accompanied by a trio of shadow backing-vocalists; or standing, arms extended, in front of a crucifix fashioned from two intersecting bars of light. At one point, he projects a moving, talking image of himself onto his own white T-shirt – a shrewd encapsulation of the endless cycle of production and consumption that defines his output.

Crucially, he also pulls back every so often, to document himself making the film we’re watching. We see him at work in his narrow, cluttered workspace: painstakingly measuring focal lengths, experimenting with exposures and framing, becoming entangled in cables, flubbing takes.

And also, losing his mind. Over the course of 87 minutes, his hair grows longer and his beard shaggier, and his mood shifts from sardonic to despairing, from restless to listless, until finally he breaks down on camera, weeping. Is the moment genuine? Or just part of the performance? (Honestly, I suspect it’s a little of both.) Soon after, he confesses that, while there were times he wondered if he’d ever finish this special, he’s now decided he doesn’t want to. Because “that means that I have to not work on it anymore. Which means that I have to live my life.”

But out of self-doubt comes a kind of epiphany. In the past year, he says, he’s learnt 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”. Regrettably accurate, this is less the traditional province of comedians than of cultural theorists, writers such as Mark Fisher and Paul Virilio, whose theory of “polar inertia” – the notion that, as technology has accelerated, our non-digital lives, paradoxically, have slowed almost to a halt – seems precisely tuned to our shared experience of 2020.

By the end of Inside, the crisis has (almost) passed: it’s safe to venture outside once more. But it ends on a note of haunting ambiguity. The womb is too warm and safe, isolation too seductive. To quote Virilio once more, “There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of, when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.”

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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