Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing all of them have had in common, are their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against their makers and far too often ends up rendering even the most interesting subject matter 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 to watch footage of people simply talking.
In watching their most recent documentary movie its obvious to me that the people at Corner Of The Cave Media, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein both 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 premier 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, as 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 ninety 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 is describing 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 immigrated 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.
According to his 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 writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, 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 1971he might as well have ceased to exist.
While neither the film makers nor Ungerer make the obvious comparison of likening what happened to him to what happened to work the Nazis deemed unacceptable in the 1940s, the parallels are unavoidable. For the second time in his life he must have felt like he was living in a totalitarian regime which wouldn't tolerate freedom of expression and somebody's work could be arbitrarily deemed "wrong". Is it any wonder the poor man is still plagued by paranoia and dreams of persecution and arrest? What's astounding is how in spite of what he has been through, he not only continues to produce art today, he is still as vital and interested in the world around him as he was when he started.
What's amazing about Far Out Isn't Far Enough is the people responsible for the film have made it every bit as interesting and exciting as if it were a feature film. You become so caught up in the story of this man's life, his art and his way of looking at the world he becomes larger than life. While you can't escape the fact Ungerer is talking into a camera and answering somebody's questions about this, that or the other, the wall that usually seems to exist between the subject of these films and you watching crumbles at some point in the proceedings.
Director Bernstein is smart enough to know when you're filming a force of nature like Ungerer, you try to be as unobtrusive as possible and do your best to be nothing more than a conduit between your subject and the audience. Not only has he succeeding in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of this complex and intelligent man, he has done the world a great service by reintroducing us to the work of an artistic genius whose work has been ignored for far too long.
Thankfully Phaidon Press, has taken it upon itself to reissue Ungerer's titles previously black listed in America and not seen in book stores for more then forty years. Ungerer himself recently wrote his first new children's book since the early 1970s. It is to be hopped the combination of this film and his books being made available to the public again in North America will ensure he starts to gain some of the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the world of art. Tomi Ungerer is a brilliant light whose illumination we've been denied for far too long. This film gives us an indication of what we've been missing and hopefully whats still to come from one of the great creative minds of ours or any time.
(Article first published as Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted August 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.