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.

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

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.