“Far out isn’t far enough” is the way the once-banned children’s book illustrator/writer Tomi Ungerer describes his belief that creativity should have no limits, should face no boundaries.
That line in the sand gives the brash new documentary on the artist its overly long and winding name — “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.” The man we meet in this excellent examination of his controversial work would probably have gone with something pithier and more subversive. Ungerer did famously name a children’s book “No Kiss for Mother,” and another, “Oh, That’s Ridiculous.”
Though Ungerer is most celebrated for his children’s books, he has a diverse artistic portfolio. Yet the provocation is always there. An illustrated poster from the Vietnam era features a Statue of Liberty being shoved down the throat of an Asian rice farmer. The erotica he sketched features women in bondage attire and little else. That particular creative stream got his children’s books pulled at the height of his career. There is a quick tour of a trunk in his studio filled with the raw material of his sculpture — dismembered Barbies. “They are much better without the heads,” he says as he pops off and tosses one he had missed.
So it does leave one wondering, what is enough?
Despite the candor of long interviews with its lively subject, now in his 80s, the film never quite gets to that one. What writer/director Brad Bernstein does give us, however, is plenty of everything else. The film is packed with family photos, historical footage, interviews with the critics and the curators, a great deal of the work and lots and lots of Ungerer himself.
Bernstein, a veteran of TV documentaries, became intrigued with Ungerer’s story after he came across an article in 2008 about the reintroduction of the artist’s work in the U.S. The filmmaker wanted to understand why Ungerer had disappeared. When his letter to the artist proposing the documentary came back with a hand-drawn Ungerer sketch of a cat — pen in one paw, wine in another — saying “yes,” the filmmaker thought it might go easily.
But as soon as the cameras were set, Ungerer has an agitated change of heart. The moment captured on film becomes the entry point into Ungerer’s childhood, his fears and how they shaped his world view. As Ungerer narrates, news footage and family photos give us a sense of growing up in Strasbourg, the principle city in France’s Alsace region, during World War II, living through the Nazi occupation. Boyhood sketches feature tanks, guns, and bodies spouting blood.
As seminal as the war was for his subject, Bernstein keeps a brisk pace to get to present day. A good deal of the film is focused on Ungerer’s time as a young illustrator in New York — the city he still loves best — and his first foray into children’s books. Ironically the cultural revolution that was underway in the ‘60s and 70s, both opened the door, and closed it, on Ungerer.
His children’s books with their darker than usual characters — a vulture was the star of “Orlando, the Brave Vulture,” a large green snake the pampered pet in “Crictor” — captured the imagination of the public and caught the eye of other artists. The style itself is very clean, lots of pen and ink lines and a few well-chosen words telling very rich stories.
Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a fan and a friend, brings real insight in assessing the art and the artist. “Where the Wild Things Are” creator Maurice Sendak talks of Ungerer’s influence on his own work. Art historians, librarians and others weigh in.
Setting up Ungerer’s artistic merit before diving into the erotica was a smart move by the filmmaker, though he is not shy about showing it once he does (and perhaps he lingers a bit too long). Sketch after provocative sketch fill the screen as Ungerer explains what he was thinking.
By contrast, a satisfying family life hinted at is the one topic that seems off-limits. A daughter speaks briefly about her father’s work, a few photos of the family are included, but no details, and no explanation.
As intriguing as the facts are, much of the documentary’s charm is the way in which it embeds the work. A hand-drawn Ungerer cat, perhaps the one that penned that first letter, may stop in to add a flourish. The imagery keeps coming to life.
Yet as provocative as the art is — whether G-rated or R — the artist is even more interesting. Still sketching, still engaged, and, as the film closes, still searching for the outer reaches of enough.
‘Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story’
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: At Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles