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


Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

(2012) Documentary (Corner of the Cave) Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Michael Patrick Hearn, Patrick Skene Catling, Steven Heller, Burton Pike, Patrick Joseph Sheehan. Directed by Brad Bernstein   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

Children’s books are a big business. Dr. Seuss is a household name after all. There have been other authors – Maurice Sendak, Martin Handford, Margaret Wise Brown and Jo Rowling – who have made a good living at influencing young minds and stirring up young imaginations.

Another name on that list should be Tomi Ungerer. Unless you’re my age or older, his name might not be familiar. In the 60s, he was one of the most popular and highly-regarded illustrator and writer of children’s books that there was. He had created such books as Crictor, The Three Robbers, Flat Stanley and Moon Man.

He was born in Strasbourg and was quite young when his father passed away. Not long after that, the Nazis invaded France and in Strasbourg, a city near the French and German border, French was forbidden. Young Tomi learned to speak German (although his mother defiantly spoke French) and became so fluent in it that even today he speaks with a distinctly Germanic accent, so much so that many assume he’s Austrian or German.

After the war he emigrated to New York City, believing (correctly as it turned out) that he could make his fortune here. He had always loved to draw and had become quite good at it. Inspired by the line drawings style of the New Yorker, he got a job with a children’s publishing house (Harper & Row) and soon became very familiar with the top of the bestseller’s lists. Although a bit on the eccentric side, he was tolerated because his books were selling.

As the 60s wore on, Ungerer – whose sympathies lay with the counterculture – produced a number of posters protesting the Vietnam War. He also created a book of erotic drawings called The Underground Sketchbook followed by Fornicon,  a book that not only was erotic but satire as well, commenting on the increasing mechanization of sex.

That was all it took. Abruptly Ungerer’s services were no longer needed. His books were pulled from the shelves and remained so for decades (some of his books only recently returned to print and others remain so). Eventually Ungerer fled New York for Newfoundland where he worked briefly as a pig farmer – by that time he was married with children and had to do something to support them. Eventually he relocated to Cork in Ireland where he remains today.

In his 80s, Ungerer remains something of a gadfly. The filmmaker (a veteran of VH1’s Behind the Music series) effectively utilizes Ungerer’s artwork and animations to great effect, interweaving talking head interviews, archival footage and home movies to flesh out Ungerer the man. As interesting as the art is, Ungerer himself is even more fascinating. He has lived several lifetimes and seen so much – yet he retains that eye that artists have, that personality that allows them to see life through eyes that reject the normal while understanding it.

I found this to be fascinating stuff. I was familiar with his name more than I was with individual artwork or books – although I’m the right age, I don’t remember having any of his books in the house (my mom and sister might chime in and disagree but I simply don’t remember them if we had any) and watching the movie his style looked familiar but not overly so. I might have wished to spend more time looking at his drawings but then there’s always a visit to the museum devoted to his work in Strasbourg. I even have a good friend who lives in the area.

REASONS TO GO: Ungerer is an engaging presence. His work speaks for itself. Brings his story and artwork back into the public eye.

REASONS TO STAY: Some folks might find his point of view and art offensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some artistic nudity and sexual humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like many films of late, this one got much of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been firmly established on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crumb

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shepard and Dark

Where the Wild Things Are


Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

(Warner Brothers) Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini (voice), Catherine O’Hara (voice), Forrest Whitaker (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Chris Cooper (voice), Mark Ruffalo, Paul Dano (voice), Pepita Emmerichs. Directed by Spike Jonze

In all of us there is a wild side. It is the side that defies authority, the part of us that breaks the rules and the part of us that acts out when we don’t get what we want. It is the part in us that is closest to the child in us, so it is no surprise that children are more cognizant of their wild thing than we are.

Max (Records) is a young boy being raised by a single mother (Keener) who is too busy working to have the time for him he would like her to have. He doesn’t have many friends, and his sister (Emmerichs) is older, moving into teenager things and having even less time than his mom does.

He has a vivid imagination, turning a snowdrift into an igloo and old toilet paper dispensers into fantastic skyscrapers. However, he has had difficulty adjusting to a life without his dad and when his mom starts dating a new boyfriend (Ruffalo) he has a nuclear meltdown and runs away.

He finds a small boat and navigates it out to see. After a day and a night he arrives at a strange island with a rocky shoreline as dusk is falling. He is attracted by flickering torches and is startled to discover a group of strange, shaggy creatures, one of whom is in the process of destroying their huts. His name is Carol (Gandolfini) and he is distraught because one of their number has left the family. Max reveals himself and Carol takes to him immediately as a kindred spirit.

Not all the others are so welcoming. Judith (O’Hara) is described as a bit of a downer, and that’s accurate enough – she is suspicious of Max and wants to eat him. However, when Max reveals himself to be a king in his own country, the others (even Judith) relents and accept Max as their new king, the Wild Things being without a king at the time. Max declares a wild rumpus and the commotion attracts the attention of KW (Ambrose) who also instantly takes a liking to Max. Max, for his part, has found the family he’s always wanted.

That family also includes Ira (Whitaker), a gentle giant who is in love with Judith and is also nearly as fond of making holes in things; Douglas (Cooper), Carol’s best friend and right hand, Alexander (Dano) who is consistently ignored by the others and the Bull, who mostly communicates in grunts. Max decides to have them build a fort where only the things they want to have happen occur. He gets the idea when Carol shows him his secret spot on the island where he has built a model city out of twigs, complete with canals and figures of his family members.

At first building the fort gives them purpose but as time goes on Max begins to realize that being King of the Wild Things isn’t as easy as it first appeared and that his more aggressive nature was causing some of his new family pain.

There is no doubt that Spike Jonze has an incredible imagination, and he may well have been the perfect choice to bring the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak to life. Visually, this is very imaginative, unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. The faces of the Wild Things are amazing, CGI representations of the actors who are voicing them given a Wild Thing treatment. These CGI faces are then digitally inserted onto actors wearing oversized costumes, creating a natural movement that no computer could have replicated.

Records is a pretty decent actor as children go in a part that is not a typical kids part. For one thing, Max doesn’t have all the answers – in fact, he has far more questions than answers. He isn’t smarter than the grown-ups around him and he doesn’t save the day. Basically, he’s an unruly boy with emotional issues.

Therein lies my problem with the movie. Max is never accountable for his actions; when he bites his mother, she screams at him that he’s out of control and he screams back that it isn’t his fault. Well, whose fault is it then?

More egregiously, the movie diverges from the book on some key points. Now, while I’m usually fine about movies being different from the books they’re based on, one of the key elements of Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is that it all takes place inside Max’s room, literally inside his head. Here, the Wild Thing Island is literally an island that Max travels to.

The ending of the movie isn’t terribly realistic either. When Max arrives home after (presumably) running away for several days, his mother greets him with dinner and chocolate cake for desert. I don’t know about your mom but mine would have hugged me and then killed me had I run away like that.

This is such a visually arresting movie that it’s worth seeing just on that basis. There are some terrific performances, particularly from Gandolfini who captures the blustery Carol’s mood swings and inner pain. I do have a problem with the movie’s message, which seems to be that it is okay to give in to the Wild Thing inside and there will be no consequences, no repercussions. Lots of kids will be seeing this and get the message that acting out is ok, whether that’s the message the filmmakers (and Sendak) wanted to send or not.

We all have wild things inside of us. It is a part of us, as is the part that is responsible and caring for each other. The Wild Things tend to be the side of us that is selfish and undisciplined, necessary for our creative sides to come out but at the end of the day, merely a component of our psyches. Sendak always meant the Wild Things of his book to be elements of Max’ personality, and they are here as well; the important thing is that the Wild Things are not the Only Things. As for the movie, it’s flawed but I applaud the effort, the imagination and the visual sense. It’s certainly worth your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Jonze amazing visual sense makes this a treat for the imagination. It is, after all, the filmed version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie veers away from the book in some significant ways. Max is so troubled that at times it’s hard to watch him act out. There are almost no lessons in accountability and the ending is far more of a fantasy than the rest of the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of language and violence, as well as some kid-in-jeopardy scenes but all in all suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original songs in the movie were written and performed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who was dating Jonze at the time of the production. They’ve since broken up.

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen on the big screen, no question.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins!