Tomi Ungerer was a household name. He was the most popular children’s book illustrator in America. He is also a masterful artist of subversive and erotic art. That’s what got him into trouble within the children’s book community. His career was derailed. But he wasn’t. “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” is a powerful documentary about a most remarkable man and artist. Tomi Ungerer’s life and career spans World War II, at the hands of the Nazis, into the high flying life of New York City in the “Mad Men” era of the ’50s and ’60s, and into the heart of the counterculture movement. It’s a life, not unlike Robert Crumb’s, full of explosive expression and heroic turns.
Director Brad Bernstein has brought into focus the life of Tomi Ungerer in a variety of ways. First and foremost, is Tomi Ungerer, who eloquently speaks his mind and is the guiding force throughout this film. It is his expressions, like “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected,” that are used as chapter headings and repeated in various ways to draw out their meaning. Tomi’s life story is so compelling by itself too but, with the help of an impressive group of individuals, we hear his story told from many vantage points. This is a wonderfully structured documentary that alternates with grace between interview subjects and vivid use of animation (thanks to Brandon Dumlao, Alain Lores, and Rick Cikowski) that makes Tomi’s already powerful images jump out at you all the more.
We quickly take in Tomi Ungerer in the opening scenes. We see an older gentleman, with sad eyes and a mischievous smile, who has seen more of the world than has been good for him. He is also full of life and happy to joke around. But his comments can be cryptic: “I always have nightmares. I’m always being arrested in my dreams!” There is sadness and gaiety as he says this. He was once the most celebrated artist of children’s books in America. He was a rock star among illustrators. And then he disappeared.
Born in 1931 in Strasbourg, France, Ungerer and his family would come to know their Nazi neighbors all too well. Alsace, Strasbourg had only been French for about 300 years so its identity was split evenly Franco-German. This fractured identity would inform Ungerer’s life and his work. While under German occupation, it was forbidden to speak French and German culture prevailed. However, after the Allied victory, Ungerer’s German upbringing was a severe liability. The French, he found, treated him just as poorly as the Germans. And there was no regret by the French to burn German literature. It was very absurd, Ungerer concluded. Life was absurd.
At age 25, with only sixty dollars, Ungerer moved to America. He had always managed to cope and to prosper as an artist and so he would try to make a living from it in New York City. As luck would have it, Ungerer’s arrival in 1956 was a perfect time to break into the wildly lucrative world of illustration. Not only did he manage a foothold, he brought with him a whole new style that peeled away at conformity. The problem for Ungerer would be that, as he reacted to the times, he would just keep peeling away to the point that he crossed a line.
The musical score, by Nick Dei Rossi, dips into an ominous tone once Ungerer has come into his own and matured as an artist. He always loved the children’s book illustration he was known for but now he was reacting to the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Sexual Revolution. His peers, artists like Maurice Sendak and Jules Fieffer, admired what he was doing. Both are interviewed extensively in this film and provide great insight. They both loved Ungerer. But there was nothing they could do when Ungerer met his Waterloo.
Ungerer’s life, post-America, is not a sad story. He did give up children’s book illustration for 25 years but he discovered a whole new life, a life with new challenges and old fears that needed to be overcome. We come to realize that there will always be a touch of fear in this man’s life but it’s a good kind of fear, the sort he can use as a challenge. He seems to already have come to terms with the fear of death. Even if it should turn out to be vast nothingness, he is encouraged that this will be an opportunity to fill the nothingness with something from his mind. In the end, he remains encouraged and eager to continue crossing a line, pushing the envelope. The Tomi Ungerer expression used for the film’s title, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” proves to be his way of life.
“Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story” is currently in theaters. Be sure to visit the site here for details. If you’re in Seattle or Minneapolis, you can catch it this weekend at one of your Landmark Theatres. Check it out here.
And you can listen to my podcast interview with the director/writer and lead editor/animator of this dazzling documentary here.