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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad