Must-See! Must I?

21/07/2017 11:14 BST | Updated 21/07/2017 11:14 BST
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There's a must-see list for everyone. From cradle to grave, from Must See Movies Before You Grow Up through 60 Movies You Have to Watch by the Time You're 30 to 50 Films To See Before You Die. The lists keep coming, as does the pressure on viewers to tick films off the lists.

It's time for a backlash against must-see lists. They are a staple of film marketing, but also a lazy promotional tool which lose potency as they proliferate. More damaging, they tell people how to feel about films.

While must-see lists may be handy, their sense of obligation irks me. There is a presumptuousness in labelling a film or programme a must-see, presupposing my tastes and why I watch. I instinctively I recoil as soon as anyone tells me I must do anything; what will happen if I don't?

Although I have preferences and favourite styles, I'm open to watching pretty much anything. But if I'm not interested or entertained, I have no qualms in quitting a film or television programme halfway through, no matter how highly recommended by others. I believe it's the artist's task to hook me in and keep my interest. For me, it's not a question of obligation or stamina, it's one of desire.

My willingness to quit is not a value judgement either. I can appreciate artistic value while at the same time feeling confident that I don't want to watch something in its entirety, usually because I find it too violent or too boring.

I eagerly started watching The Handmaid's Tale, keen to put aside my usual distaste for dystopian and science fiction, and ready to be seduced by the talents of Elizabeth Moss and Margaret Atwood. I found it too harrowing and turned it off during episode one. I do not feel obliged to watch this "must-see", yet I'm met with surprise by others when I confess I haven't watched it all. I get the point that it's meant to be shocking, that its power is in its feasibility, and also that people enjoy things which I don't. But so many people have told me how they're traumatised by watching The Handmaid's Tale, that they watch reluctantly, horrified, out of a sense of duty, peeking through their hands.

We all recognise that feeling of not wanting to watch but not being able to take our eyes off the screen, and each of us will reach our limit at different points. It's interesting to think about what makes some people turn off and others stay tuned.

I can't stomach torturous fiction. I remember watching The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a highly acclaimed Romanian film described as a "dark comedy", and a "tragicomedy". I found the plight of poor Mr. Lazarescu deeply upsetting, yet at the same time intensely boring as the film's pace is so slow. I felt no comedy - tragic, dark or otherwise. I kept having to check I was watching the right film because my experience differed so much from the publicity and reviews. My viewing partner and I agreed to turn it off.

Watching at home presents me with a freedom of choice which I don't extend to my staying-power at the cinema, as I'm less adventurous with my choice of films on the big screen. I've never actually walked out of a cinema, although I came closest during The Piano Teacher (yes, another "must-see"). 16 years on and I still remember staggering to the loo for a few minutes' survival break.

Currently hailed as a "must-see" is The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (duration 186 minutes), a 1978 Italian classic directed by Ermanno Olmi, screening at the BFI. I am not ashamed to admit that I was lent the DVD but I gave up after an hour: I knew a boy's clog was going to get broken and after an hour of waiting for it to break and not much happening in the meantime apart from a pig slaughter, I had lost patience. The BFI promotional email describes the film as "the product of pride and slog", Geoff Andrew calls it "vast", Peter Bradshaw's five-star review describes it as "painterly" and Mark Kermode praises it enthusiastically as a "sweeping epic": all warning lights to me.

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs is an example of "slow cinema", characterised by extended takes and long duration. It's an acquired taste which divides audiences and is also the genre which seems to garner the most pretension, with pride (rather than a sense of obligation) often keeping viewers in their seats. I suspect many people are reluctant to admit defeat, eager to earn a badge of honour for their persistence.

Perhaps cinema purists might find today's fast pace of media consumption to be threatening, fearing that the appetite for long and slow cinema is diminishing. I doubt this, though, and think that there's room and desire for brilliant storytelling in all forms.

As viewers, we should be encouraged to be discerning, and not to fear recrimination for disagreeing with someone else's "must-see" evaluation, as occurred when Camilla Long was lambastedfor criticisingI, Daniel Blake.

There is a distinct whiff of the Emperor's new clothes about many "must-see" films, which prompts me to feel more confident in voicing my opinion rather than jumping on a bandwagon. If that means disagreeing with The Guardian or watching three episodes of First Dates back to back, then so be it. I'll choose my own must-sees, and you choose yours.