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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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