I have spent the last few weeks in the company of people who are losing – or have lost – their minds. In the autobiography of Sinéad O’Connor Memories, the 54-year-old singer looks back on a life marked by child abuse, abandonment and long stays in the sanatorium. Her most recent episode of insanity – according to her own diagnosis, menopausal-induced psychosis following a hysterectomy for which she was ill-prepared – took her in and out of institutions for a period of six years. Large areas of her life are forever unclear to her; she wrote the book in two sessions, on either side of her time in the “madhouse” as she calls it.
Yet the woman once sent into cultural exile for tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II as she performed on Saturday Night Live is still brilliantly lucid. She spanks the industry that presents her as the “mad lady” with devastating ideas, and in her madness reveals a woman who seems unresponsive to cunning.
Likewise, in his latest Netflix special, Bo Burnham: Inside, which he wrote, interpreted, directed and edited, the actor explores the anxiety he developed following his dazzling glory, and his suicidal feelings, which he especially puts into song. A comic book scholar who found international recognition as a teenager by posting sketches on YouTube from his bedroom, Burnham remembers a millennial Tom Lehrer.
Inside is an inner odyssey in which he harmonizes mental illness, culture wars and the pandemic experience with dark humor and strangely universal themes: my favorite is a skit in which he agonizes over his decision, in college, to dress like Aladdin for a birthday party and if he’ll be on display for cultural appropriation by the social media crowd.
Finally, in The father, Florian Zellerfor his directorial debut, the French writer directs Anthony Hopkins to an Oscar in an adaptation of his own play about Alzheimer’s disease, filling the screen with a Polanski hunch to create an atmosphere in which the audience, like the protagonist, feels anomic and confused.
While some of these projects were designed and even executed before Covid, they constitute a collection of creations that will surely be judged in the genre of ‘pandemic art’.
Watching The father, whose play was first produced in 2012, I found Zeller’s depiction of entrapment appallingly familiar – it perfectly captures the horror of senseless rehearsal and the habitat of a world which shrinks rapidly. Sinéad O’Connor writes with striking clarity about the agoraphobia she now feels after spending a long time in solitude, and how, despite her best efforts to try to socialize, she would rather be home. Bo Burnham ends his special by dramatizing his escape from the claustrophobic space in which he worked for a year on his material, only to find himself frightened in front of a projector when he tries to leave the door.
Ironic, perhaps, that these studies of psychosis, misery, and brain dysfunction have resonated much more powerfully than the hype that now accompanies our return to normal life. I shuddered as I read New York magazine’s exhortation on “The Return of FOMO,” a recent cover devoted to the return of pre-pandemic social anxiety that you might “miss.”
“The FOMO may have gone into hibernation for a while,” writes Matthew Schneier, “but we may now be on the path to a new golden age as we try to catch up with the year that we have. lost by doing more than ever. . . The city runs on FOMO, a connoisseur of opportunities and possibilities; the catechism of “Have you been invited, are you on the list, can you have a table?” “; execution of plans. Uh. While Sinéad O’Connor left me quite euphoric, the anticipated buzz of being on the right list suddenly depressed me.
In the United States, or perhaps it is a particularly New York state of mind, the pandemic is now considered almost old news. “Now that Covid is behind us..” Have read numerous emails from my American colleagues in recent weeks. a #hotgirlsummer like no other. If the new underground billboards are to be believed, now we’re going to start a roaring summer in scenes reminiscent of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical In the heights.
For now, I’m much more comfortable in the company of outcasts. The “nuts,” as O’Connor allows himself to describe himself, have something far more interesting to say. This long pause in production allowed for a powerful introspection. I hope this will be the time when great new works are made.
After all, the genius of Alfred Hitchcock as a “visual poet of anxiety and accident” can do it, it is suggested in Edward White’s new biography. The twelve lives of Alfred Hitchcock, be attributed to the excessive fears he developed as a teenager during the First World War. Paranoia and terror of almost everything provided him with the fuel to shoot some fifty films. And as the pandemic meme reminds us, Shakespeare produced King Lear a year of plague, perhaps in my forties.
Is Bo Burnham destined to be our Covid Bard? Maybe not, but Inside is a brilliant study of the mind clouded by social media. Likewise, with her own portrayal of “madness,” O’Connor becomes this year’s most unlikely psychic.
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