Nathalie Atkinson | Sep 6, 2012 8:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Sep 6, 2012 8:38 AM ET
It’s hard to know where exactly to start when talking about a biopic of Tomi Ungerer. The man has packed at least three lifetimes — and five careers — into his 80 years. Commercial illustrator, graphic designer, children’s author, erotic artist, sculptor, political agitator, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, needle-sharp satirist, pig farmer.
As the documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, premiering at TIFF on Thursday, elaborates, the artist has juggled multiple identities all his life.
“I was French at home, Alsatian in the street and German in school,” Ungerer recalls on-screen of four long childhood years in his hometown of Strasbourg, where he was subjected to Nazi indoctrination during the annexation of Alsace by Germany, and rapidly learned to speak fluent German. “You don’t need Berlitz — a knife at your throat is enough,” he says with a shrug.
After reading a New York Times article about Ungerer in 2008, director Brad Bernstein, a producer of VH1′s Behind The Music, and co-producer Rick Cikowski spent three years rediscovering (and obsessing over) his life and work.
“His story spans these incredible seminal moments not only in American but in European history as well,” Bernstein says in an interview. They were finally granted access by their subject last year, filming in Nova Scotia, Strasbourg, New York and in a rare glimpse of Ungerer’s guarded private life, at his home in Ireland.
A bio-doc is a huge risk, Ungerer himself admits in a phone conversation from his home in West Cork, in advance of his Toronto visit. “You can be turned into a clown or an idiot,” he says. “But I think it’s very important in life not to concentrate totally on knowledge and we must still rely on instincts. It just smelled good — I didn’t smell a rat.”
Ungerer has written dozens of books and has been published in more than 30 languages; he was at one time one of the bestselling, award-winning children’s book authors in the United States and throughout the film Ungerer’s loose, expressive and colourful work — from naïve crayon art dating from his childhood to his later erotic sketches — comes to life, painstakingly animated with motion graphics. These were available thanks to loans from the award-winning museum dedicated to his work that opened in Strasbourg in 2007.
Until recently, Ungerer’s many famous children’s books — such as Crictor, about a pet boat constrictor or The Three Robbers, in which a trio of bandits kidnap a little girl — had been out of print in English. While both Ungerer and his friend Shel Silverstein did ribald illustrations for Playboy in the 1960s, only Ungerer was, effectively, driven out of town in the late 1960s. Between his other careers — drawing strident political posters and orgiastic adult lit — Ungerer was deemed too edgy for the children’s book establishment. For example, take Fornicon, his 1969 adult book of drawings riffing on the mechanization of sexuality. “It was always my worry that my erotic work should get into children’s hands,” he insists of the controversy, “but that is actually the responsibility of parents.”
No matter that the latter works were not intended for children, and never marketed as such. Instead, at the time he was reproached about the elements of darkness and fear in his children’s books as the excuse. Ungerer believes that a conspiracy against children’s intelligence persists today, assuming they are innocent and vacant. “My classic line is that children know where children come from, but they don’t know where the adults are coming from,” he chuckles over the phone. Fear and darkness are necessary for children, “because once you have fear you have to discover courage, to survive.”
In the doc, Bernstein spends an afternoon with Maurice Sendak, a dark children’s illustrator who was celebrated instead of vilified, filming what would be one of his last interviews. Sendak declares that there would probably be no Where the Wild Things Are without Ungerer’s influence. “I’m a self-taught raving maniac,” says Sendak, “but not as crazy as Tomi. Or as great as Tomi.”
“That speaks for itself,” Bernstein says, adding, “we could make a film just based on Maurice’s interview. You could do three films just on [Tomi's] New York years.”
“He was raised on hypocrisy, and was taught by the realities of his school days that ‘truth’ is whatever those in power say it is,” another friend, the Oscar-winning animation director Gene Deitch, says via email from his home in Prague. “It is the fear of reality that caused school boards and so-called educators to be terrified of Tomi Ungerer.”
The thousands of picture books indelibly inked with a screaming “discarded” stamp are the testament to the systematic removal of his books from libraries and institutions across the United States, yet the librarians and educators from that era who agreed to be interviewed on camera seem disingenuously vague about the details of his banishment (“I knew that they remembered, but that they didn’t want to revisit what they had done,” Bernstein says).
Ungerer took refuge in Canada when, in 1971, he and wife Yvonne settled on a pig farm in Lockeport, an island in Nova Scotia, where they lived for five years. (Ungerer chronicled that time in the illustrated journal Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, which lends this documentary its title.) In 1976, the couple moved to a sheep farm in rural Ireland to start a family.
That’s what’s most inspiring to Bernstein: that Ungerer simply kept moving onward. “He didn’t stop. His life didn’t end, his career didn’t end, it just ceased to exist in North America.”
“In my life I would rather take corners than curves and keep them very sharp,” Ungerer unapologetically tells the camera. It’s just as evident over the phone that Ungerer’s imagination still teems impatiently with more ideas than he can accomplish in a day.
“I’m simply having too much fun,” Ungerer says. “And I’m writing a lot. I have only that much time left so I am busier than ever.” Several museum exhibitions are planned, a Moon Man movie, new books and in particular an earnest love letter to his homeland, Ireland, called Fog Man. “It’s my homage, it’s the first time that I really put my feelings and my soul on the page, leaving aside satire.”
“My life has been a fairy tale,” he reiterates, before signing off. “Just like a storybook, with all its monsters.”
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough screens Sept. 6, 9:45 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, Sept. 8. 9:30 a.m. at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9, and Sept. 15, 4:30 p.m. at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10. Ungerer makes a special appearance and book signing Sept. 8. at 2 p.m.at Little Island Comics (742 Bathurst St.)
The official companion app for the documentary is available for free download on iTunes.
A Brief Cultural History of Tomi Ungerer
Forrest Gump has nothing on Tomi Ungerer. If there was an important cultural moment in the Sixties, he was present and part of it:
- In 1956, with $60 in his pocket, Ungerer moved to golden-ad-age New York as an illustrator and commercial graphic designer. One of his earliest gigs was illustrating Art Buchwald’s New York Herald Tribune column ‘The Brave Coward’ and soon, after cold-calling art directors (and becoming known for the collapsed Trojan Condoms packing box he carried to appointments in lieu of a portfolio), clients included Esquire, Life, Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times; he coined the slogan ‘Expect the Unexpected’ for The Village Voice and won Society of Illustrators awards.
- Next, he drew a charming fable about little pigs (Mellops Go Flying) for which Harper & Row’s legendary juvenile book editor Ursula Nordstrom paid him a $600 advance and the hits kept coming, for 14 years. Later, Ungerer paid it forward and brought his friends Shel Silverstein and Edward Gorey into her orbit. “We were kind of a whole gang – we both worked for Playboy,” he says of introducing Silverstein to Nordstrom, and urging him to write for children. (That’s right: without Ungerer, no parents would be reading Silverstein bedtime rhymes.)
- He designed Ice Capades and Monterey Jazz Festival art.
- He illustrated the original Dr. Strangelove film poster for Stanley Kubrick.
- Percy Adlon made his first movie with Ungerer in Canada (and would go on to make Bagdad Café).
- Ungerer shared a house in the Hamptons with Philip Roth. (Roth, Bernstein says, respectfully declined to be interviewed for the film.)
- During Expo ‘67, Ungerer kept a studio in Montreal (“I was doing things for the Canadian Pavillion at the time”), where he started a production company, Wild Oats, with Gordon Sheppard and mixed with the likes of Leonard Cohen and Pierre Trudeau at the artsy downtown Montreal hangout the Bistro.