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Non-Review Review: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough – The Tomi Ungerer Story

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

A lot of the strength of a documentary lies in the subject matter. If you can find an interesting premise or subject, then you’ve got a hook. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, the debut from director Brad Bernstein, picks a fascinating central character – writer and artist Tomi Ungerer. It is very tough to reduce Ungerer to a one-line synopsis or to define him in a relatively short strong of words, but Far Out Isn’t Far Enough takes a look at the life and times of the artist who made an enormous impression on American popular consciousness, only to fade from view surprisingly quickly – retiring first to Nova Scotia and then to Ireland. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is a fascinating portrayal of a unique talent, with Ungerer making for a charming and engaging subject. While Far Out Isn’t Far Enough might gloss over his departure from the scene a bit, it’s a fascinating overview of the life and work of a truly gifted individual.

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I’ll confess that I wasn’t overly familiar with Tomi Ungerer when I first say Far Out Isn’t Far Enough. However, the documentary shrewdly and cleverly showcases Ungerer’s drawings and concepts, and I’ll confess that quite a few of his illustrations seemed remarkably familiar – to the point where I am fairly certain that I had read one or two of his children’s books what seems like a lifetime ago. It’s a testament to the quality of Ungerer’s work that the appearance of The Three Robbers is so distinctive that I recognised them immediately without being able to remember the source.

Ungerer was undoubtedly a massive talent when it came to illustrating children’s books. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough doesn’t dwell too heavily on the praise, but the presence of interviewees like Maurice Sendak citing Ungerer as a massive influence demonstrates just how successful these books were. There’s off-hand references to the countless awards that Ungerer has garnered for his work, but Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is shrewd enough that it never seems overly self-congratulatory.

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Instead, it invites Ungerer and the other interviewees to consider what makes Ungerer’s vision unique. As Ungerer himself concedes, his work for children was written in the believe that children should be scared at a young age – that it’s okay to make them uncomfortable or nervous, because fear is a part of life defined by its opposite. As he argues, without fear, how can children know courage? Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is full of what might be described as Ungerer-isms, short snippets of the creator’s philosophy that offer an insight into his work. “Don’t hope, cope,” he advises, a piece of practical advice that perhaps explains his tendency to engage with slightly darker subject matter than many contemporaries.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough suggests that this outlook – and the rest of Ungerer’s philosophy – is rooted in his childhood in Strasbourg. Anybody familiar with European history will recognise that Alsace underwent some difficult political shifts during that time. The region was occupied by the Nazi’s during his childhood, and Ungerer acknowledges that his visceral style (“punch!” he demonstrates, offering a German translation for the poster design technique) owes a debt to the influences he absorbed at that time. Similarly, he acknowledges that the French reoccupation was not as idealistic as one might like to think. Apparently, the Allied troops burned books on their arrival, and his German accent marked him as an outcast among the French.

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Ungerer himself acknowledges that this sort of thing seems inherently contradictory – playing against the expectations that one might have of the situation. He candidly concedes that this contrast informs and influences his work. Indeed, there’s something surprisingly contradictory about Ungerer himself. At the same time that he was producing children’s literature, he was also illustrating political posters, and – at the same time – offering his own version of erotica. Such a strange and varied output seems quite surreal today, and one of the commentators suggests that Ungerer only really got away with it because this was “before the internet.”

The film delves into his work in a great deal of depth, and it’s fascinating just how multifaceted Ungerer is as an artist. Each side of the mad is thoughtful and clever, but it’s quite strange to see the man telling stories about alligators and snakes illustrating erotic artwork about S & M. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough handles his work remarkably well. The one thing that it sort of glosses over, however, is the distinction between each. Ungerer tells the story about how those different sides of his work collided with one another – going so far as to pinpoint the date in question – and acknowledges that this collision pretty much ended his work in a demonstration of absurd political correctness.

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This is fascinating, the way that Ungerer was essentially cast aside by the notion that a person must conform to one particular archetype or be easily reduced to one descriptor. However, the documentary never really handles the fact that this was probably easy enough to foresee, that – even before the internet – it was only so long before some prudish moral crusader in a dusty library somewhere found the “wrong” Ungerer work and a situation like this develops. Ungerer seems to have been quite surprised, but Far Out Isn’t Far Enough never really delves into the question of whether his editors or friends might have suspected, or even would have warned him. Ungerer comes across as surprisingly naive in the way that documentary handles this, and it’s a shame that we don’t really get to delve into that.

Still, the documentary is fascinating. Ungerer is incredibly charming. He’s witty and self-deprecating and surprisingly candid. Quick shots and outtakes clarify that he’s also a man who occasionally can be difficult or a little tough to work with, but his genius is obvious. There’s also something remarkably sweet about his life during his retirement – his purchase of a house with his wife, his move to Ireland. There’s something delightfully charming about the sound of a thick Irish accent greeting Ungerer on a walk through town (“Tomi!”) or the fact that the local children collect their broken toys for his sculptures.

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Brad Bernstein has produced a remarkable little film here. The interviews are all effective, and smoothly edited together, but Bernstein is happy enough to passively observe his subject – to let Ungerer himself drive the documentary. The film is punctuated with animations that bring Ungerer’s unique artistic visions to life in a bold and imaginative way. The focus on his work is fantastic, and I think I can honestly say that quite a few of his anti-war posters will linger in my memory for quite some time. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough isn’t a bold or dynamic documentary, but it’s better for its relaxed and casual atmosphere.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is well worth a look for anybody with an interest in art or popular culture, whether they’re a fan of Ungerer or not. It’s a charming and thoughtful look at one of the great modern artists, while also providing a solid sampling of his outstanding work. Highly recommended.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

 

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