Have you seen this new film Inside Out? It's good, right? It's by Pixar, so you know it's good - all of their stuff is good (except for Cars 2 and Brave and Monsters University and maybe A Bug's Life and definitely that bit in Up that isn't the life-in-montage, which you might remember is the rest of the movie). It's good because it makes you laugh, like that one time a character says (whilst they're looking at sections of the brain) "there's deja vu", and then that second time when the same character says "there's deja vu", and then that third time when that same character says "there's deja vu". That's good - that's good comedy writing. Inside Out is also good because it makes you feel feelings (I cried - but I'm an adult - and I'm a man = it must be good at making me feel feelings!). It's good because it's original, and original is good - never mind that the whole children's-film-inside-a-body thing was done as recently as 2001 (it was called Osmosis Jones; it was arguably even more inventive; it was horrible), or that people have been trying to fit nebulous, weird, intangible things into forms that are easier to recognise since, like, Feudalism. Above all it's good because it's Not Like The Other Films Out There (By Which I Mean Lazy Remakes of Existing Hollywood Properties), and It's More Like The Films Disney Used To Make, never mind that the best film of the year BY FAR, Mad Max, is a remake of an existing property that no one (at its inception) thought needed to happen; never mind that Hollywood has been a theatre of remakes as long as it has been a theatre of dreams (you think they made all those cowboy movies because someone accidentally overordered wigwams?); never mind that the films that Disney used to make were hugely lazy (albeit beautifully made) re-renderings of existing stories; never mind that Disney owns Marvel and the same executive we pillory for greenlighting Avengers VI: Bet You'd Forgotten About Ant-Man is the same guy we should all now exalt for delivering us Inside Out, a film that we can (finally!) all agree is just really, really good.
Well I call bullshit. I don't deny that Inside Out is good - it is good. It's just that good is all it is. It doesn't stretch the comparatives or strain for a superlative. It's not better than most of Pixar's films (it is nowhere near any of the Stories Toy, let alone Finding Nemo or The Incredibles). It's certainly not the 'most' anything - not the best, not the saddest, not the funniest. not the wisest. What it is is good - and that's fine. Disney sure don't mind - it's good enough to get through the focus groups, it's good enough and well-marketed enough to bring in the initial crowds, it's good enough to ensure strong word-of-mouth and bring in those summer holiday crowds and ensure a nice, juicy, long run.
But it's not that good, old Inside Out, old Adentro Hacia Afuera, is it? There are times that, if you wanted to be a dick about it, you could be a dick about, aren't there? Like the mileage they get out of that gum jingle? Or the fact that Joy and Sadness getting back to HQ took FOREVER, not in a great-I-get-to-spend-more-time-with-these-rich-and-fulfilling-characters way, more like a are-you-fucking-serious-if-that-train-gets-derailed-again-I-swear-I'm-walking way? Like, if you really wanted to spoil the Pixar Party, could you say it's actually quite a messy film - not messy like thought is scatty, but messy like a movie that is a sum of not-quite-followed-up-to-the-fullest-extent ideas? Like that technically impressive bit about abstraction, that played like a scene from Community, or that felt like it belonged in a different movie? Or like that bit in the subconscious - how they had a chance to explore some psychologically fertile terrain, not to mention some killer Pixar puns (on Marvel's slate for 2026: the adventures of Ego and Super-Ego), and instead compressed it into a go-for-a-piss-and-you'll-miss-it clown-rousing in(side) and out - that wasn't good, was it? Could you say it's a triumph of substance (of technical accomplishment, research dutifully performed and mined for ideas) over quality, even though it's usually style that gets compared with substance, so that's a weird comparison to be making? Does it arguably say something about the sort of creative choices being made behind the scenes that the film relegates its most interesting conceit (that we ALL have these crews of peoplemotions in our heads) to a credits gag-reel, and thereby puts rather too much emphasis on the inside, and not enough on the out? Could you even say there was a more interesting film in there somewhere, bursting at the seams at times, like that scene at the dinner table, during which, if you look carefully (and don't get distracted by the lazy (if funny) gender stereotyping) it seems like the dad's dominant emotion is anger, and the mother's is sadness?
It is an indictment of the current landscape that a film as flawed and just-good as Inside Out is as ecstatically received as it has been. It was a character in Whiplash (a film many times better than good) who said "there are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'". I'm sorry that poor old Inside Out has to bear the brunt of this, but things have come to a head. I am done with good. Good sucks. Good is so semantically close to 'fine', to 'good enough', that it perversely leads to disappointment, to that slight crack in your voice when you say "yeah, it was good" when really what your failing vocal chords are telling you that you meant "it could have been better". Settling for good leads to a fundamental winnowing-away of critical faculty - to a world where every new Call of Duty game gets between 8.5 and 9.5 out of 10, where a restaurant review noting clear flaws still awards four stars, where Inside Out is heralded as a masterpiece where really it's workmanlike, serviceable, enjoyable - in other words, just good.
The best film I have seen this year, Mad Max, took something that would have been good enough (Hollywood and the Men's Rights Activists would arguably have been happier with Tom Hardy kicking seven shades of shit out of people in the desert), and via some shrewd artistic choices (like hiring someone who'd never edited an action film before to cut it) and more than a sprinkling of mania, made the first truly feminist blockbuster since Aliens, not to mention the most visually astonishing film that I have ever seen.
The best book I have read this year (and, incidentally, for years), A Brief History of Seven Killings, took subject matter plenty good enough (a sprawling retelling of the birth of the Jamaican drugs trade, centred, implausibly, on the failed assassination of Bob Marley in 1976) and distilled it through As I Lay Dying, patois and all, to create something indescribably, incandescently brilliant - please just read it and you'll see what I mean.
The best TV pilot I have seen so far this year, the absurdly-named Mr Robot, took so-2015 buzzwords (hackers! internets! social medias!) manifestly good enough and overlaid some decidedly non-2015 elements, like Christian Slater in a starring role and camerwork that wouldn't have looked out of place in late 90's David Fincher movies.
All of these artifacts have a couple of things in common - they involve making that little more of your talent (as Tracey Jordan memorably said in 30 Rock "oh, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what is a heaven for?"), and they don't pander to people. They are unashamedly idiosyncratic. It should also be noted that one of them is a multimillion-dollar blockbuster and one is on a very mainstream US network. These are not craft, artisanal products - I am not demanding the Hackneyfication of the creative arts. It's actually a more hopeful conclusion - anything can be excellent, as long as it is allowed to aim for excellence, rather than being allowed to stop at good.
We can demand more novels like A Brief History of Seven Killings (more excellent things, please, world!). But in doing so, in assuming a template exists through which raw creativity can be forced and excellence extruded, we are engaging in the sort of reductive thinking that has led us, somehow, to the most recent Batman vs Superman trailer. We can't just "make" excellent things. But we can create a climate in which they - delicate, like a flower trying to grow through the tarmac of increasingly commoditised pop culture - can thrive more readily.
So demand more from life. Demand better than good. I can list so, so many things that are 'good' that I have experienced in the last 3 months; I can list far fewer that have been excellent, and it is no coincidence that they are the things I remember most clearly, and want to share most with others. Do share; do reject lazy consensus; do celebrate only those things deserving of celebration. Don't post that fucking link from The Daily Mash when it's only good for a sardonic raised eyebrow. Stop reading the magazine that never gives out one star, or five. Because good is harmful. Good is the reason Pixar put Inside Out onto the market in its current state - because they know they didn't need to do better. And this is a studio who have produced some incredible, indelible scenes, and on a couple of occasions have sustained genius for the length of a whole movie. And if they're happy to settle, what does it say about the rest of the industry, and the culture outside it?
In Whiplash, Fletcher defends himself thus:
I don't think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn't there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe that is... an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we're depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker.
I make no such assertions. But I'm not sure I want to live a world where good is the best we have to offer.