|Not Kidding Around|
|Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor|
A new documentary introduces us to Tomi Ungerer, who took children’s literature to some very strange places
“Far out isn’t far enough,” says illustrator and author Tomi Ungerer, in an accent that rings with both German and French undertones. “It means that no matter how far your thinking, or your actions, or your reactions -- no matter how far it is -- it still is not far enough. Because one challenge, if it is worthy at all, has to be followed by a greater challenge.”
The now 82-year-old proclaims this at the end of a documentary titled, yes, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, about his fascinating, outrageous, profound life, showing at the Miami International Film Festival this month. To say that Ungerer is a far-out character is an understatement, which is what intrigued the Miami-based filmmaker Brad Bernstein enough to bring his life to the big screen.
So who is Tomi Ungerer? Phaidon Press Limited, which began reissuing his books several years ago, described him to the New York Times as “the most famous children’s book author you have never heard of.” The reason for that, along with the reason the books have not been seen in English-language print for decades, is the basis of the tale, beautifully told through interviews with the author and other pioneering illustrators, such as Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, and with images of his work, which are animated throughout the documentary.
In fact it was the 2008 New York Times article that caught the eye of Bernstein, a New York native whose media company, Corner of the Cave, is now based in Midtown Miami. Seeing the headline “Watch the Children, That Subversive Is Back,” Bernstein says, “I thought, who is this guy? I’ve got to find out more.” Eventually he flew off to meet Ungerer at his birth home in Strasbourg, France, where, over numerous bottles of wine, a documentary was born.
Far Out made its first big splash at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Ungerer flew in from Europe for the screening and, says Bernstein with a laugh, took advantage of the Q&A session to show the audience what a strange character he really is.
In short, Ungerer is a tortured genius with a wicked sense of humor and an affinity for the perverse. He is always pressing boundaries, but as we see in the film, always with a twinkle in his eyes.
Born on the cusp of World War II in the border region of Alsace that straddles France and Germany, Ungerer tells us that fear and death were always close, but something he had to embrace to move on. At age three he was already doodling, and by the time the Germans invaded, he was documenting his battle-ravaged home in illustrations, early works that his mother would keep, and that the film utilizes.
These years clearly shaped his future outlook, which is why they play such a large part in the film. It was a life of perpetual fear, where small children were exposed constantly to the extremes and injustices of life.
Postwar Europe proved no better for Ungerer and, in 1956, he took off for New York City. This world was also in transition, but in a more creative way; the city was attracting artists, writers, and musicians who would revolutionize American culture. Ungerer was one of them.
The beginning of the film shows a collage of Ungerer’s illustrations, some of them funny and some of them disturbingly violent, and violently sexual. “I am a self-taught, raving maniac,” says Where the Wild Things Are author Sendak, in one of the last interviews he gave before his death. “But not as crazy as Tomi. And not as great as Tomi.” Sendak tells us that, even for an unrestrained city like New York, Ungerer’s antics sometimes went too far, a habit which would color his reputation forever.
Ungerer’s first success as a children’s author was Crictor, about the adventures of a cuddly green snake -- but still, a snake. Another was Three Robbers, which features three black-clad, axe-wielding men, who are eventually redeemed by an orphan girl.
Ungerer thought that children’s books needed some darkness. As he tells us in the film, how can we know the good without knowing the bad? It’s something that his friend Sendak agrees with, explaining that making illustrations about bunnies, where skies are perpetually blue and clouds white is “a conspiracy against children…. The assumption [being] that they are vacant.”
And yet Ungerer took it a step further.
In a great scene that reveals the deep complexity of the man, he is walking around an exhibition of his early work, mostly shocked at how bad the stuff is, until he comes across a sketch and reads the caption out loud: “Ogre Burning Books and Boiling Child.” He breaks out into a loud chuckle. “Well, I’m sure the child deserves it,” he says.
But for someone who says he thinks about death on a daily basis, Ungerer is not a dark person. In fact, his infectious humor and laugh are almost always present in the film.
As the 1960s progressed, Ungerer grew disillusioned with the country he initially saw as liberating. He was particularly disgusted with the rampant racism he saw in the United States, comparing it to the brutal world he experienced under the Nazis.
There are graphic elements taken from Nazi propaganda posters in many of Ungerer’s illustrations, especially as he moved into making more and more provocative political pieces. These were not well-received by the publishers of children’s books. But it was the discovery that Ungerer was also producing adult erotica, some with explicit S&M imagery, that did him in for good with publishers.
His books were banned from libraries and disappeared from bookstore shelves. Ungerer went into exile, first to Nova Scotia, then to an isolated region of Ireland, where he still lives.
But while his work -- and, really, his philosophy -- offended sensibilities on this side of the Atlantic, his children’s books never went out of fashion in Europe, especially France and Germany. And now London-based Phaidon Press is bringing them back here, too.
His newfound popularity doesn’t phase Ungerer. “Success is a mine field; it can easily blow up your head,” he says in the film. Then, again with a laugh, he adds, “That’s why you must be very, very careful not to take yourself too seriously.”
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is part of the documentary competition at the Miami International Film Festival. It will be screened on Wednesday, March 6, at 9:30 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (1130 Washington Ave.) and on Friday, March 8, at 7:15 p.m. at the Regal South Beach Cinema (1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach).
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