The most significant moment in a new documentary about Woody Allen may be the sequence in which several people close to Allen -- and Allen himself -- use the word "compartmentalize" to describe how he handles situations.
The situation that prompts that word was the scandal following revelations that Allen was involved with the daughter of his then-companion Mia Farrow, and the brutal custody fight that ensued. Yet Allen, even in the midst of all those troubles, went about his daily work of making movies. Others insist that Allen was torn apart by the loss of custody of his children with Farrow; still, Allen himself remains emotionally remote, preferring to let others speak about his pain rather than address it himself. (One of the few things he does say is that the media firestorm surprised him because "I didn't think I was that famous.") Strong emotion is in a compartment he chooses not to open.
For that reason, Allen remains elusive in "American Masters: Woody Allen -- A Documentary," a two-part, 3 1/2-hour examination of his work and life, which premieres at 8 p.m. today and Monday on KUED Channel 7. Yes, he sat for interviews, described his work process, let cameras follow him around. But he still holds back.
While he has been part of seemingly passionate relationships, the passion is not evident in his discussion of them. In one hilarious section, actors describe the letters they receive from Allen when he wants them in a movie -- letters that are formal and distant even when addressed to actors he has worked with before.
Work, it seems, is something to be taken entirely seriously. While Allen sometimes has the reputation of being a detached director, footage of him working shows that he is deeply committed to getting the right performance, albeit in a gentle fashion. (And, when he is not getting what he wants, he has never been reluctant to replace a performer.) But a misfire is not something over which to obsess; by the time this year's film is in theaters, Allen is working on one for next year.
To be sure, Allen's regular output has led to some clunkers. But it has also included "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and the current "Midnight in Paris," which has proven to be his biggest hit in decades. And, regardless of Allen's personal misdeeds, the film is full of actors and colleagues who admire and remain loyal to him as a filmmaker.
While admirers contend that even the bad films have fine moments, such comments seem to mean little to Allen. Even in judging himself, he goes it more or less alone. He favors films others have dismissed (like "Stardust Memories") while regretting some of his more popular work. He was so unhappy with "Manhattan," which may be his best film, that he asked that it not be released.