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Movie Review: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

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Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing they all had in common, was their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against the makers, and far too often documenatries about even the most interesting subject matter wind up dull. For in their search for accuracy and authenticity many of them end up either being boring recitations of facts or endless interviews with experts. Film is a visual medium and unless there is something incredibly compelling about either the experts or the story they are relating, it can quickly become boring.

In watching   Corner Of The Cave Media‘s most recent documentary, it’s obvious to me that the the creative team, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein understand this and take great pains to avoid falling into that trap. It’s no wonder Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story has not only been made an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but been scheduled for three public screenings: Thursday September 6 2012 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 9:45 PM, Saturday September 8 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9 at 9:30 AM and Saturday September 15 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10 at 4:30 PM, with the premiere coming on opening night of festival.

On the surface, a documentary about an illustrator of children’s books, poster artist, and creator of various works of art doesn’t sound like the most stimulating of subjects. Perhaps if it were about somebody aside from Tomi Ungerer it might not have been very interesting. But, not only is the story of Ungerer’s life and career fascinating, Ungerer himself is a wonder. On top of that, Bernstein understands that even a documentary about a single person needs to have motion; our focus wanders if we stare at the same thing for too long. So while we spend a great deal of time over the course of the movie with Ungerer, the interviews with him are broken up by animation sequences created from his art work, and by transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time using archival film footage, still photographs, and samples of Ungerer’s work from various periods in his life.

While over the course of the movie’s 90-minute running time we are given Ungerer’s life story from the time of his birth in Strasbourg France to the present in his homes in County Cork Ireland and Strasbourg, the narrative somehow defies the constraints of linear time. As Ungerer describes what his life was like during the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s, we are looking at some of the drawings he made during that period. Not only do the illustrations make the memories extremely real, but as you listen to him speak you realize this period of his life is still very much alive for him. This is driven home when he talks about how his personal paranoia leads to him constantly dreaming about being arrested. Not only that but we see how the trauma of this period is reflected in his artwork down though the years, especially his political posters from the 1960s. For Ungerer the past lives on and the film makers have managed to somehow convey this in the way they have narrated his life and career.

What will be a surprise for a lot of people is that they’ve never heard of Tomi Ungerer. Especially when they find out about his career as a commercial artist and illustrator and writer of children’s books in the 1950s and 1960s. He emigrated to America in 1956 and landed in New York City just as the need and interest in illustrations for magazines crested. With television in its infancy, advertisers still relied on print media as their primary means of reaching consumers. So illustrators like Ungerer were in huge demand. It wasn’t long before he branched out into the writing and illustrating of children’s books.

Contemporaries interviewed for this movie, people like illustrator, playwright and novelist Jule Feiffer and, in one of the last interviews before his death, fellow children’s book author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, acknowledge Ungerer was one of the most remarkable artists they knew. Sendak went so far as to say, that without Ungerer’s influence he doubts whether his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are, would have ever existed. We hear about how Ungerer quickly became a favourite of the influential publisher of children’s books at Harper Collins and his books were hugely successful. So what happened?

What happened was Ungerer was interested in more than illustrating children’s books and as the 1960s progressed he branched out to reflect the growing social and political changes that were happening in America. First there were his posters with their blunt political statements about such hot topics as segregation and the war in Viet Nam. However it was interest in erotica that caused the most problems. While the pieces wouldn’t even qualify as pornography today, the Puritan streak runs deep in America (one only needs to look at today’s Republican Party for proof of that), and when it was discovered somebody who wrote and illustrated children’s books was also drawing pictures of naked adults all hell broke loose. His books were removed from the shelves of every library in the country and he was comprehensively black listed. As of 1971, he might as well have ceased to exist.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.