LOS ANGELES – Woody Allen (search) doesn't give many interviews. But when he does, he'll talk about anything.
His pessimism. Why he keeps making films. The many ways a movie can go wrong. The Soon-Yi "scandal" years ago. Even how lucky he feels with the way his life turned out, personally and professionally — although gloom looms over him continually.
There were no limits to a recent conversation with Allen, indicating just how self-possessed the three-time Academy Award winner is. He's not "on" or displaying that Woody Persona so many of his fans love, but he's still funny and self-deprecating — starting with the revelation that he thought he'd learn something from making his latest film, "Melinda and Melinda" (search), as both comedy and tragedy.
"But I learned nothing," he says with a chuckle. "I say the same thing now as I said when I began ... the cliche — that there's a thin line between comedy and tragedy. And it's true. And I guess that's why it's a cliche."
He had hoped to discover a greater insight than that.
Reviewers who dislike his newest production, which stars Radha Mitchell (search) as a troubled woman whose woes affect the people around her, complain that it lacks polarity — the humorous rendition of the story isn't that hilarious, and the serious version isn't that tragic.
That's OK with Allen, who says he doesn't pay attention to critics. And while he maintains comedy and tragedy are separated by just a couple degrees either side of a psycho-emotional equator, most of the time it falls heavily on one side for him.
"There are some laughs you have in life, provided by comedians and provided by fortuitous moments with your family or friends or something," he says. "But most of life is tragic. You're born, you don't why. You're here, you don't know why. You go, you die. Your family dies. Your friends die. People suffer. People live in constant terror. The world is full of poverty and corruption and war and Nazis and tsunamis. ... The net result, the final count is, you lose — you don't beat the house.
And yet, the 69-year-old writer-director says he was "lucky from the start."
"But even for the luckiest people, the really luckiest, luckiest — you know, you carve out a little oasis for yourself for a short period of time, but then," he says, snapping his fingers, "that's it."
With an impish grin, he asks: "Am I depressing you?"
Some of his devotees sound depressed when they talk about his recent movies. For them, a Woody Allen film was an event, something to look forward to. A romantic, compelling letter from Manhattan, since the city often towered like a main character. A dispatch from smart, sophisticated people.
But no longer.
"Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential," says a character in "Melinda and Melinda."
It can be mean with fully realized potential, too, although some critics have used the word "comeback" in warmly discussing his new film.
The filmmaker, whose career dates back to 1965's "What's New, Pussycat?," won Oscars for writing and directing 1977's "Annie Hall" and writing 1987's "Hannah and Her Sisters" and has collected 17 other Oscar nominations for such films as "Interiors," "Manhattan," "Broadway Danny Rose," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Radio Days," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Mighty Aphrodite" — but none since 1998's "Deconstructing Harry."
Since 2000, he's made "Small Time Crooks," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Hollywood Ending" and "Anything Else" — mostly critical and box-office disappointments.
For his part, Allen claims not to suffer from highs and lows. "I'm not crushed if a film of mine does no business or is not well-received."
He even jokes about the empty seats at the cineplex.
"I have a small audience," he says, laughing and attributing that to his being a comedy writer whose work can be suffused with melancholy. "And I've always had a small audience. I know how to keep 'em out."
To him, a movie is a success if he can shepherd what was in his mind to the screen.
"If I have an idea at home, and I think it's a good idea, and I execute it — I write it, and then I film it and edit it and put it out — and I executed my idea, and I say, `Yes, this is what I had in my living room or my bedroom' ... then I feel successful about it," he says.
"But that's a much rarer experience for me," he says. "Usually I ruin them."
He keeps making movies "only because it's what I do" — he doesn't know what he would do otherwise. He also makes them inexpensively (and quickly).
"It serves me therapeutically when I do it. I like writing. It keeps my mind off grim subjects," he says. "It's therapeutic in the same way a patient in an institution is given fingerpaints."
Allen sometimes has been criticized for depicting a world that's an unreal, effete aerie (often Manhattan's Upper East Side) with few blacks and few contented people — and those who express contentment typically are superficial/stupid.
But Allen sounds content with the insularity of his life.
It's something that saved him 13 years ago from feeling damaged by the falling out with longtime companion Mia Farrow over his falling in love with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi — and related allegations of child molestation.
That Ick Factor, as some see it, has altered perceptions of his work. Some moviegoers can't watch a couple of his films quite the same way again: "Manhattan," in which Allen played a 42-year-old writer who has an affair with a 17-year-old prep school student, and "Husbands and Wives," in which he plays a professor hooked up with a college-age student.
While life seemingly was imitating art in 1992 with tawdry tales played up in tabloids, Allen says he wasn't paying attention.
"At the time that all that was going on, you know, I was doing my movies and put out a play and was playing with my jazz band," he says. "That was something that was much more in the press than in my own personal life. I was isolated from the whole thing — as I've lived my whole life, isolated and working."
Of course he would have preferred not being pilloried. But, he says: "Everything I did, I did. I've lived my life exactly the way I wanted to live it, and never had any regrets. ...
"I have my own little world that I live in, and it's pleasurable for me to the degree that anything can be pleasurable in this world."