There was a nice sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Sound on Radio 4 last week. A man has come to visit his friend in hospital and the news is bad. His friend doesn't have long to live. Making awkward small talk, the friend alludes to a famous Al Pacino line from the film Scarface – a line that evidently sails over the dying man's head. He hasn't actually seen Scarface, he admits, when the allusion is explained to him. "You haven't seen Scarface?" his friend says in appalled tones. "It's Number 36 in Total Film's list of 100 Films to See Before You Die! And you're about to die!"
Fortunately, a passing doctor realises that they just have time to get a DVD copy from the hospital library. It could have been so much worse, as well. This week, after all, another newspaper (as we say in the trade) has been publishing a list of 1,000 Films to See Before You Die – massively expanding the task for those who want to put their cinematic affairs in order before they depart.
I liked the sketch because I don't much like lists – and this neatly skewered the silliness of one particular sub-genre, with its implication that life consists of a train-spotterly ticking of boxes. It's a journalistic fall-back that always has a faint smack of decadence to it as well – in a world where for a lot of people the list of what to do before you die essentially consists of just one item – Try Not to Die Too Early. And besides, the lists are always faintly preposterous anyway – blending incontrovertible classics with movies that are just in there because inspiration was flagging and they needed to make up the numbers. Do you really need to have seen Meet the Parents before you die, as The Guardian's list suggests? As it happens, I have seen it – if there was any way in which I could trade my position (film seen, two hours spent, never to return) for yours (film not seen, two hours still in pocket), I'd take the swap in a minute.
The fact that inflation seems to have struck is a bit worrying, too. A hundred films seems a manageable number for a cinematic canon – surely enough to cover all the masterpieces that might provoke a deathbed pang of regret. But 1,000 is ridiculous, particularly when you note that – as with all such exercises – this one is subject to a familiar temporal parochialism. Recent films, however mediocre, greatly outnumber older ones, suggesting a steadily ascending curve of cinematic excellence which is highly implausible, to say the least. It also accentuates the essentially hopeless nature of all such enterprises, since if that graph of pre-mortem unmissability continues, the list will have grown yet longer by the time we finish plugging the gaps in our existing list. You'll wearily get to the point at which it's safe to die – having seen everything on the list – and the bastards will add some more and you'll have to cling to life for a little longer, just to make sure that there are no gaps in the collection.
It is just for fun, of course, I know that, and I know too that very few of us are entirely immune to the seductions of the canonical list – with its agitated debates about what's in and what's out. But I still think it gets what it is to live in a culture entirely wrong, with its buried implication that accumulation is the best way to proceed. It's an assumption that finds itself neatly aligned to a world of DVD sales and film libraries – to the whole modern apparatus of adding yet more stuff to your collection – but it still misses the point about erudition, cinematic or literary.
To be well read may not be a matter of having read nearly everything; indeed, quite the contrary. It's more likely to be about reading well – and an endlessly burgeoning list of essential texts is actually hostile to that, given the great truth that this particular gimmick acknowledges, which is that we only have limited time.
How much more useful, given that fact, would be a list of films that you think you ought to see – thanks to media hype and compulsive list compilation – but actually can get by perfectly well without. Even better, what about a list of films you would be well advised to avoid entirely (likely to stretch into five figures, I would have thought)?
And once those had cleared a bit of watching space in your overcrowded, over-subscribed life, there might, after all, be room for the best kind of list of all: Twenty Films You'll Want to Watch Again and Again, However Long You Live.