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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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