Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tommy Ungerer Story
Children need to be traumatized. It gives them identity. Not many people would have the idea and the audacity to open a speech at a conference with such a controversial notion, but visual artist Tomi Ungerer isn’t one to cower in the face of bellicose or prudish forces... far from it. But he’s also not one to conjure up scandal for its own sake, for publicity; he’s a sincere and thorough progressive with a heart as true as his mind is devious.
Not to diminish filmmaker Brad Berstein’s accomplishment, because "Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: theTomi Ungerer Story" is a finely directed artist profile, but it’s hard to imagine a film about this wily octogenarian that wouldn’t be engrossing. And it’s not that he’s the quirkiest kid or the oddest among artists. It’s that his irreverence is so heartfelt and well-articulated. He’s a rebel with a cause, at the top of his craft.
Ungerer has witnessed a lot of shit in his day. Born in Strasbourg, Alsace, near the French-German border, he experienced linguistic marginalization by the French (no Alsatian allowed!), then the German occupation during World War II nipped French. "A ’merci’ or a ’beaucoup’ could get you arrested," states Ungerer. "You didn’t need Berlitz [the Wal-mart of language academies]. A knife to your throat was enough." This bit of humor exemplifies Ungerer’s character fairly well. He is a passionate opponent of war, oppression, and fascism; he has known trauma, yet he is able to confront it with a joke and with a sardonically brilliant piece of art.
In his discussion of life during the German occupation, he mentions his mother’s linguistic defiance. She refused to cease speaking French, and found a way of getting around the Nazis’ mandate. It seems that Ungerer has capitalized on a congenital penchant for defiance and ingenuity.
Interestingly, he is best known as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. In 1998 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children’s literature, one of numerous awards he has accrued. From the beginning, his children’s stories were atypically dark. He explains that his books always include an element of fear, that he likes to induce fear because it is important for kids to learn to overcome it.
In at least one book, he made it a point to make protagonists of animals that are usually feared or detested, like snakes and alligators. This is part of his advocacy of showing the whole picture (to kids as well as adults). The good learns from the bad, and vice versa. Though we only meet his daughter briefly (colleagues and family comment on his work, but it is his own words that are most memorable by far) and don’t really get a sense of what he was like as a father, it’s easy to imagine him as the naughty liberal uncle.
The trouble came when his urge to comment on society took his creative fervor in other directions. He thrust himself into the sexual revolution of the 1960s, creating big, popular books bursting with illustrations of blatant and deviant sexuality. He also was the creator of numerous iconic (or iconoclastic) images criticizing American foreign policy, particularly during the Vietnam War. It’s remarkable that he managed to be an eroticist and political satirist while being lauded as a children’s book author, but it did eventually catch up with him.
Maybe he wasn’t to be a New York City renegade his entire life. He is proud without being a braggart, obstinate without being arrogant. Cartoonist. Revolutionary. Lover. Incendiary sloganeer. War survivor. Handsome hipster foreigner. Unapologetic artist. Berstein’s film, loaded with Ungerer’s art and with animation, effortlessly weaves a clear portrait of a philosophizing artist at peace in his twilight years, so that all his self-proclaimed contradictions seem to make sense and there seems, still, to be hope for brazen art in a time of risk aversion.