Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (2012)
Cast includes: Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer
Writer/Director: Brad Bernstein (Real Change: Artists for Education)
Genre: Documentary (98 minutes)
Tomi Ungerer was “once America’s most famous children’s book illustrator… and then he disappeared.” We catch up with 81-year-old Ungerer at his home in Ireland, where he still works. “I have the full respect of a piece of white paper, which I then shall rape with my drawing or my writing,” Ungerer tells us with a twinkle in his eye. Friend, Jules Feiffer says, “Tomi was this wonderfully brilliant, innovative mad man.” Maurice Sendak tells us, “Tomi was drowning in talent… No one was as crazy as Tomi… or as great…. He made enemies like crazy, and he didn’t care.” Ungerer has mellowed, but he still has demons. He talks about his paranoia and his daily nightmares. “There’s hardly a single morning I don’t wake up in a panic… having been arrested… in my dreams.” As for his work, “I have too many ideas, and with age, it gets worse.” Talking about his children’s books, he has to admit that he “put many elements of fear in them… burning books, boiling children...” So it’s natural to wonder about Ungerer’s childhood… a good place to start.
Perhaps one of Ungerer’s slogans says it best, “Don’t hope. Cope.” He was born in 1931 in the Alsace region of France… a centuries-long conflict zone between France and Germany. During WWII his hometown soon came under German occupation. Justified fear of the Nazis permeated every aspect of life. Even speaking French was forbidden… “A simple ‘bonjour’ would get you arrested.” After the war, speaking French with a German accent would get you labeled “dirty German.” So with his thick Germanic accent, a pile of drawings and $60, Ungerer arrived in New York in 1956. He found the city to be an “incredible bouillabaisse.” He easily landed got a job in advertising, and before long submitted a children’s book idea to Harper & Roe. Until Ungerer, children’s books were all bunny rabbits, lettuce leaves and fluffy white clouds. Ungerer preferred animals that others found ugly, and his books always had scary bits. Much to everyone’s surprise, they were wildly popular.
The problem is that Ungerer was never able to turn his brain off. “Expect the unexpected…” In addition to children’s books, he started doing anti-war posters and books of fantastical erotic drawings. Without the Internet, it took a while for Harper to learn about his other work, but when they did, Ungerer responded angrily. “The bad old man of kitty book land” was blacklisted in the late 60s and needed a change of scenery. He left New York but never stopped “raping paper with his drawings.” He’s published over 140 books, and in 1998, he received the long-overdue Hans Christian Anderson Award for illustration. It’s been a long interesting journey, and his work is dripping with history. This film is not only a beautiful tribute to one of the most creative artists of the 20th century; it’s steeped in Ungerer’s unique brand of satirical humor. It’s a tall order to make a film that does justice to Tomi Ungerer, but Brad Bernstein has done it. He makes the drawings come to life in delightful and imaginative ways. Still Ungerer is never satisfied… “Far out isn’t far enough.”
4 popped kernels
Tomi Ungerer was once America’s most famous children’s book illustrators, and then he disappeared
Distribution: Art house
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Nicely varnished realism
Primary Driver: Artistic concept, Convey information