Have we been so kind to Blue Jasmine because we see it as a career's swansong?

Inevitably, the idea of a film-maker bringing his central themes together in a final, mature flourish has an appealing sense of artistic completeness. But what looks like form is more likely to be pure randomness.

There is a hint of guilt motivating the critical rush to award five-star reviews to Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. Given how many critics had written him off – and I’m referring here to artistic rather than moral or personal judgements – no wonder they have now eagerly overpraised a good movie. Ryan Gilbey, writing in these pages, delivered a much fairer verdict: “Blue Jasmine is not a great film . . . But it’s easy to see how it could be mistaken for one when Cate Blanchett gives her finest, most full-blooded performance.”

Elsewhere, the film has been held up as a “return to form” and even an “autumnal miracle”. Inevitably, the idea of a film-maker bringing his central themes together in a final, mature flourish has an appealing sense of artistic completeness. We are preoccupied by the way careers end and by appropriate swansongs. The final scene exerts a disproportionate hold over our sense of the whole. That is one reason great sportsmen frequently make one comeback too many and why politicians so often become embroiled in disastrous foreign policy overreach as their period in office comes to a close. The ending must be made to fit the story.

The mind may be hard-wired to think in those terms. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, devised an experiment that addressed a central question about any experience. Do we remember the sum total of pleasure or pain? Or do we remember the peaks instead, what the pleasure or pain felt like at its most intense? And is our memory skewed by our final recollection of the experience? Put differently, is our judgement of Annie Hall affected if Allen can’t make anything as good today?

In a quirky experiment that could have come straight out of an Allen movie – a character in Blue Jasmine postpones her dental appointment so she can focus entirely on “colonoscopy prep day” – Kahneman studied two groups of real-life patients who had experienced painful colonoscopies. Patients in group A experienced the usual procedure. So did the patients in group B, except a few extra minutes of mild discomfort were added at the end. Which group suffered more? Group B experienced all the pain of group A and then some more. And yet, solely because the procedure ended less painfully, patients in group B said they minded it less.

According to Kahneman, our memories are ineffective at quantifying the sum total of an experience. Instead, two factors warp our judgement of the whole – first, the intensity of the experience at its most extreme; second, the way the experience comes to a close. Because of the dominance of these two recollections, our memory works against “fair” overall judgement. Kahneman called this the “peak-end” rule.

The peak-end bias distorts the way fans judge the careers of artists and athletes. It can be hard to forget later performances when it comes to judging earlier ones. A friend of mine has loved and studied Bob Dylan’s music for 45 years. Yet my friend’s disappointment with Dylan’s late work bleeds into his attitude towards the singer’s entire corpus – Kahneman’s peak-end rule in action.

I take a different view. Given all the happiness Dylan has given me, I feel only gratitude for any new satisfaction, even if it is a lesser type of pleasure. Some fans believe that artists “owe” them an output of a requisite quality. I think the debt is all mine, not the artist’s.

The same point applies even to friendship. Must we remember a long, sustaining friendship that ends in estrangement as a “failure” overall? Surely the happiness was real at the time? Perhaps we should try to resist the tyranny of memory as it rewrites and reclassifies past experience.

The peak-end bias also encourages a temptation to view a whole artistic career through the prism of the final works. Edward Said’s essay “Thoughts on Late Style” explored “the accepted notion . . . that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works”. Said was interested in a different, unusual kind of lateness. He used Beethoven’s difficult final works to illustrate “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against”.

The more conventional idea of serene late style has become a powerful critical idea. Bryan Magee has argued that Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, unfolds in a “relaxed, inevitable way, without impetus, as if altogether un-driven from inside . . . a music that radiates acceptance”. Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”, a perfect example of true “late style”, were well described by Bryan Gilliam as “luminescent, autumnal songs . . . of neither resignation nor hope, but rather serene acceptance”.

There is a danger, however, of imposing the satisfying narrative of late style where it isn’t appropriate, as though a great career requires a kind of final resolution. And that impulse, I think, has influenced the reaction to Blue Jasmine. Between the lines, the critical response implies: “If this return to form ends up being Allen’s last serious film, it is a worthy culmination of his career.”

There are two problems with that analysis. First, he wasn’t out of form – I enjoyed his previous film, To Rome With Love, which is slight but funny and charming, more than the more overtly ambitious Blue Jasmine. Second, Allen’s career resists the idea of any simplistic return to form. He makes so many films and makes them so quickly that the quality is inevitably uneven. What looks like form is more likely to be pure randomness.

With any luck, there will be many more random ups and downs to come. Still better, we might even retire from the business of predicting the overall direction of travel, escape the distortions that follow from worrying about how the story might end and simply give thanks for an extraordinary body of work.

Peter Sarsgaard, Cate Blanchett, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alec Baldwin attend the 'Blue Jasmine' New York Premiere. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.