Why is it so difficult to admit we haven't read certain books or seen certain films?
More people pretend they've seen The Godfather than any other film
The horse's head in the bed. Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning performance as Don Vito Corleone. The line "shooting your father was business, not personal, Sonny." Everyone knows The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 gangster epic. Or at least they claim they do. People nod their heads sagely when the film is discussed at dinner parties. "Oh yes," they say, "one of the best films of all time." The thing is, a lot of them are not being strictly honest. According to new research for the movie-rental website lovefilm.com, more people pretend they've seen The Godfather - when they've done nothing of the sort - than any other film.
Intriguingly, this isn't the first time The Godfather has topped such a poll. In 2009, a similar investigation by the mobile phone operator Orange came to exactly the same conclusion: people were so mortified at the prospect of confessing in public that they hadn't seen The Godfather they just said they had, no doubt keeping their fingers crossed that there would be no further conversation about the intricacies of the plot. Furthermore, the lovefilm.com research confirms the almost tyrannical hold that classic films - and not just The Godfather - have over our culture. An astonishing four out of five people in the survey admitted to lying about films they hadn't actually seen, in the vain hope that their seemingly broad range of tastes would impress friends and acquaintances.
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The other films on last week's list were Casablanca, Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Reservoir Dogs. Only the most dedicated kind of film fan has seen all of those movies in their entirety - personally, I was slightly bored by Kubrick's portentous sci-fi and genuinely can't remember what happened in most of The Godfather. Reservoir Dogs passes the test… but probably because it's so mercifully short. The plaudits lavished on such films may well be deserved, but they can also be intimidating. Admitting that, say, White Christmas is just a little tedious is akin to saying you don't particularly like The Beatles. But, with so many good new movies every week, reverentially trawling through the annals of film history, obsessively ticking off the 1,001 Films You Must See Before You Die seems just a little pointless. Sure, there's a case to be made that a course in classic filmmaking fosters a greater appreciation of contemporary work. But Toy Story is perfectly enjoyable without having first seen the similarly magical Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins.
In a world where every plot development is at our fingertips on the internet, boasting about our impressive cultural consumption is easier than ever. But why is it so difficult to admit to a book club that we haven't read Tolstoy, Dickens or Austen? Clearly, we find such literary admissions of "failure" as problematic as owning up to which must-see films we haven't seen because in 2009 there were two similarly titled books, both best-sellers, which attempted to help out the less well-read in difficult social situations.
Who's Afraid of Jane Austen: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Henry Hitchings, was a slightly predictable, trivia-heavy guide to the sort of books that might get talked about at rarefied parties. Hitchings' trick was to show how easy it is to pass such classics off as well-thumbed tomes in your personal library. But Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read was fascinating - not so much a lesson in how to fake knowledge as a rather amusing and intelligent treatise on what it means not to read a book. His argument, essentially, was that since it's impossible to read everything, we shouldn't feel ashamed to admit that a book such as James Joyce's Ulysses has passed us by. And if we do fear such shame, Bayard argues that we shouldn't feel guilty about gleaning only the roughest facts about a book's plot. Most people skim read anyway.
Which doesn't quite answer exactly why some of us lie about what we have or haven't seen or read. Perhaps it's embarrassment, insecurity, or a simple desire to fit in. So a word of advice. Next time The Godfather comes up in polite conversation, if you haven't seen it simply guide the conversation towards a cool new gangster movie. Jean-Francois Richet's Mesrine: Killer Instinct, for example. There'll be plenty of impressed looks and appreciative nods. It's a good idea to sit down and watch it first, though.