In his novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby gives a vivid picture of Homo hierarchicus – man as a list-making mammal. The book itself begins with a list, a desert-island selection of the narrator's most memorable split-ups. But this impulse to order experience into a top five turns out to be an acquired bad habit. The narrator, Rob, has learnt it from Barry, his part-time employee and a man dedicated to the league table approach to life. "His conversation is simply enumeration", Rob explains. "If he has seen a good film, he will not describe the plot, or how it made him feel, but where it ranks in his best-of-year list, his best-of-all-times list, his best-of-decade list – he thinks and talks in terms of tens and fives, and as a consequence Dick and I do too".
Channel 4 does these things on a much grander scale. This weekend, for example, it unveils – over two nights – the results of an online poll to discover the 100 Greatest Films, and this is just the latest in a line of recent centuries, which range from 100 Greatest Sporting Moments to 100 Greatest TV Ads. As a way of bulk-buying for the schedules, this has proved remarkably popular – a neat way to combine synthetic tension (which will come top?) with the chocolate-box gluttony of viewers for bite-sized nostalgia. And, in most cases so far, the fact that the method makes a fine mince out of cultural experience doesn't really matter: great sporting moments are just that, after all – brief glimpses of transcendence that, by their very nature, are seen out of context.
But you don't have to spend very long on the website for 100 Greatest Films before it begins to dawn on you that there are serious limitations to this way of organising our cultural experience. For one thing, the implicit promise of aesthetic democracy turns out to be not quite what it seems.
"Maybe you want to see Weird Science finally crowned as Hollywood's finest moment" suggests the introductory text, clearly making a bid for the nerd vote. But if you happen to share this particular perversion, you will have a hard job satisfying it, since the nominees list consists of 100 films exactly, and that particular masterpiece of masturbatory fantasy doesn't feature on it. In other words, viewers have no say in what the greatest films actually are – only a chance to influence the final running order.
And this electoral impotence strikes you quite sharply when you look at the alphabetical list of the candidates on offer. How come Deliverance is up for your consideration but not Double Indemnity? Could anyone seriously advance the proposition that The Full Monty, which does appear on the list, is a greater film than Full Metal Jacket, which doesn't? You don't even have the consolation of invidious comparison in some cases. You might be able to think of worthy candidates that begin with N (Hitchcock's Notorious and Altman's Nashville, in my case), but the compilers of Channel 4's list clearly couldn't (going blank on X and Z is perhaps more forgiveable, though devotees of Costa-Gavra's Z and Zabriskie Point wouldn't agree).
I could go on. Titanic one of the world's great films? Leave the screening room now, please, and hold the door open for that guy who put The Matrix on the list. But this kind of quibble would be rather missing the point. Because what's wrong with the list is not its composition or the procedure by which it was arrived at, but the very notion of a list itself. There isn't even a Platonic version of this list, from which its worldly equivalents fall short in varying degrees. To discuss its composition at all, from any perspective, is to capitulate to its substitution of hollow values for rich and complicated ones.
At which point I can sense reproachful eyes and can hear, murmured on the breeze, that familiar six-word lubricant for sliding standards – "It's just a bit of fun". It is – and it's seductive fun too. Everyone's at it – from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to Bafta, to the National Theatre, which not so long ago invited votes for the top 100 plays of the 20th century. And it will always generate a reliable froth of contradiction and outrage – at the historical parochialism of the list-makers or their myopia. That froth can even bear a startling resemblance to cultural debate – which is why it's important to remember that it's almost never the real thing. One thing that lists can usefully do, though, is give an impression of order and authority to what would otherwise be a transparently miscellaneous and subjective assembly. This is a quality not to be sneered at, so here, in no particular order, are three reasons why they are a bad thing.
1) Lists imply that art is competitive. There is an etymological curiosity here. In jousting, the "lists" described the palisades around the field of combat (the word "list" derives from an earlier term meaning a border or an enclosure), so there's a sense in which the films that have entered this list might expect to be ready to duel for supremacy. A list presupposes competition.
It also has to be acknowledged that there are elements of competition in high culture – and it isn't impossible to find very high-minded authorities who insist upon the fact. The celebrated literary critic Harold Bloom made his reputation with The Anxiety of Influence, which examined the effects of poetic competition with a writer's great predecessors, and he's not above employing lists as an argumentative weapon himself. In The Western Canon – a Horatian stand against the ethnic cleansing of the "dead white male" from university syllabuses – Bloom identified 26 canonical authors and then supplied even more lists in an appendix, cataloguing great works of world literature. But while this was anything but trivial in its motives – and Bloom had elaborate arguments to put forward for those on his list – how far really is such an activity from Barry's obsessive compilations of greatest hits?
2) Lists suggest that art is amenable to forms of understanding other than an intimate and responsive relationship to the work itself. Ranking Apocalypse Now against Some Like It Hot in your personal celluloid pantheon necessarily involves a kind of amnesia about what it was that made each film memorable in the first place – a quality that had very little to do with its place in some kind of cultural periodic table. People who spend their time ranking and categorising the works of art they've experienced are a bit like stamp collectors who have never received or written a letter – they've lost sight of the fact that the objects of their organisational fetish have a quite different raison d'être. Billy Wilder didn't make Some Like It Hot to see how it would rate in some kind of all-comers sweepstakes, but because he wanted to make the audience laugh.
3) Lists implicitly elevate liking a work of art above understanding it – but of all the things you can say about a film or a play, the least interesting of all is whether you like it or not. An expression of personal response has its uses, of course – it's fantastically useful in human relationships, for example, which is why people often exchange lists of cherished works when getting to know one another. Dogs sniff; we trade film and book titles, trying to catch the elusive scent of a stranger's sensibility. But that application of the list can have no bearing on Channel 4's averaging out of self-elected prejudices. What can "100 Greatest Films" tell us that is useful, since the particular passions of the individuals who've taken part have been melted into one amorphous mass?
What's more, the word "greatest" here has nothing to do with any considered notion of cinematic merit. At least Harold Bloom was interested in the idea of "greatness" – and what it might mean in literary terms. Those involved in Channel 4's exercise in list compilation are thinking of "great" in its lowest denomination: "That was great! Now, who fancies a curry?"
If you're really interested in cinematic merit, you'd be better off this weekend watching one film, rather than the dismembered bits of a 100 – and don't let someone else choose what it is either.
'The 100 Greatest Films' is showing on Sat and Sun at 9pm on C4Reuse content