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Monday, October 21, 2013

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

A title card at the beginning of Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story tells us, “He was once the most famous children’s book author in America.” After a brief pause (during which you may try to recall the titles of his books), another card says, “Then he disappeared.” An intriguing opening, to be sure.

And then we meet Tomi Ungerer – white hair, glasses, young eyes – and he lights a cigarette. He says, “I have the full respect of a piece of white paper, which I then shall rape with my drawing or my writing.” Yes, he is immediately likeable, and quite personable. He has such joy when talking about creating. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. (But then he talks about being uncomfortable in his chair while being interviewed, and the light in his eyes interestingly dims.)

The centerpiece of this film is an interview with Tomi Ungerer, but the film also interestingly mixes in  animation  based on Ungerer’s work. And there are other interviews, with folks such as Maurice Sendak (author of Where The Wild Things Are, who says he isn’t as crazy or as great as Ungerer), Therese Willer (curator of the Tomi Ungerer Museum), Michael Patrick Hearn (children’s literature scholar), Jules Feiffer (Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist) and Steven Heller (author and critic).

The film basically sticks to a chronological telling with regards to Tomi Ungerer’s life. He was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1931. We see footage of the area, and it’s gorgeous. Tomi Ungerer then disarms us by saying, “Strasbourg is the sphincter of France.” Even when he’s being negative, he sounds positive. Looking at some of his early work, he says that each drawing is “a misbegotten child,” and that looking at those drawings is “facing a family of failures.”

Tomi Ungerer often put elements of fear into his children’s books. He claims that fear is good, because then you’re forced to find the courage to survive. We see a drawing of a child in a boiling pot, with a man lurking nearby with a knife. “I’m sure the child deserved it,” Tomi jokes. He says, “Children should be traumatized.”

Certainly he himself was. His father died when he was quite young, and then World War II came along. Ungerer says, “Four years under the Nazis. You cannot get rid of that. There’s no way.” He had to learn German because French was forbidden. His anecdote about his mother speaking French is incredible – what she said in order to get permission to continue speaking French. Interestingly, under the Nazis, Tomi’s drawing was encouraged. He talks about a homework assignment to draw a Jew. And yes, we see his art from that time.

That’s one of the strengths of this documentary – not only are we shown lots of his published work, but we are also treated to lots of his childhood drawings. It’s fascinating to see drawings done by children under the Nazi influence, but it’s particularly interesting to see the drawings done by a child who then grew up to be a professional in that field.

Interestingly, later when he lived in the United States, Tomi Ungerer would create a series of posters commenting on the Vietnam War. His anger about the war was a source of inspiration. But he also talks candidly about how the style for those posters came from the Nazi propaganda he saw during World War II (and the film shows us selections of Nazi posters).

It was when Tomi began creating erotic drawings that he got into trouble. He took something of a chance, because he was known for writing children’s books. One evening at a children’s book convention, someone in the audience verbally attacked him for doing erotic drawings. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome anywhere. His children’s books were removed from libraries. Though this is of course what that title card at the beginning (“Then he disappeared”) was referring to, we are pretty far into the film before this actually takes place.

This is a really good film, but it is very much in praise of its subject. We don’t hear from anyone, for example, that was critical of his creating erotica at the same time as he was writing children’s books. We hear only from his friends and admirers on that subject, so we really get only one viewpoint. That is really its only weakness.

Special Features

This DVD has several bonus features, including a commentary track by writer/director/producer Brad Bernstein and animator/co-producer Rick Cikowski. In the commentary track, they give us more information on Tomi and the people in his life, as well as information on the making of the film.

There are several deleted scenes, including a shot of Tomi Ungerer looking at some of his work, and explaining how he created it. There is a scene about the power of libraries and librarians back in the day. A scene titled “The Farmhouse” features Tomi showing rusted objects he’d found that together resemble a turtle. Perhaps the most interesting of the deleted scenes is titled “The Breakdown,” and it shows Tomi suddenly stopping, having lost his train of thought. A small bit of this scene is included near the beginning of the film, and they talk about it in the commentary track.

There is also a moderated conversation with Tomi Ungerer and Jules Feiffer at The Society of Illustrators. In that conversation, Tomi Ungerer mentions how collecting things cuts down on your freedom. He also says, “I think they should teach despair in art school.” In “Tomi Ungerer In Ireland,” we see Tomi collecting old objects (a bicycle, a shovel) to create an art piece.

There is a short piece (approximately one minute) of Maurice Sendak critiquing the film The King’s Speech. It’s pretty funny.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story is scheduled to be released on DVD on October 22, 2013 through First Run Features.

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