by Ken Korman
Documentaries seldom seem as powerful as when they’re used to illuminate the life and work of an iconoclastic figure, especially one who enjoys greater cultural influence than personal fame. Tomi Ungerer is an artist, author, and illustrator, and creator of what may be the greatest children’s books ever published, including the much-loved Moon Man and The Three Robbers. He was also responsible for the most powerful and iconic socio-political art of the 1960s. Then he effectively lost his career overnight, at least until the world finally was ready to accept Ungerer’s uncompromising vision on its own terms many years later. As seen in writer-director Brad Bernstein’s elegant documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, Ungerer’s brilliant career is inextricably bound to the seismic cultural shifts that shaped both his life and his era, and which give his story, and Bernstein’s documentary, unexpected significance and appeal beyond the world of visual art.
Ungerer was born in 1931 in the French city of Strasbourg, near the German border in the winemaking region of Alsace. It was difficult place to grow up during World War II. The Germans treated Alsatians as French. After the war, the French largely treated them as Germans. The absurdity of his early existence would find its way into every corner of Ungerer’s work as an artist. He never got over the fear instilled in him as a child by Nazi attempts at his personal indoctrination.
MORE AFTER THE JUMP...
Ungerer escaped to New York City at 24, just in time revolutionize illustration in American print media, which was then at the center of a culture not yet dominated by television. He broke through the multiple taboos that limited children’s publishing just to “give children a taste for life, even if it tastes bad.” Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and a far more popular figure in that realm, appears throughout the film (in one of the last interviews before his passing) to acknowledge his debt to Ungerer and express sincere awe at his monumental talent. Ungerer continued to grow as an artist in the 1960s, ironically using propaganda techniques borrowed from the Nazis to support the civil rights movement, protest the Vietnam War, and exorcise his personal demons. He was blacklisted for decades when he pushed his work into areas deemed unacceptable for anyone creating books for children, no matter how successful or revered.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough has a great story to tell, and one great storyteller at its center. Now in his eighties, Ungerer remains as full of fire and spunk as he was in his youth. The film’s biggest surprise is the innovative use of a variety of digital animation techniques, through which Bernstein enlivens seven decades worth of enthralling art without changing its character or impact. Taken alone, the film’s presentation of the artist’s work would be more than enough to recommend it. But Ungerer’s tale of sacrifice and redemption is just as hard to resist. It’s already been a banner year for documentaries, and this one runs near the front of the pack.
Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story begins an exclusive one-week run tonight, August 2, at Zeitgeist Movies. More info here.