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