A good talker can be a mixed blessing for the documentary biographer. Tabloid‘s Joyce McKinney, for instance, the beauty queen alleged to have abducted and raped a Mormon missionary in the 1970s, proved hypnotically chatty. Every nutty tangent and girlish inflection, as presented by Errol Morris, contributed to a portrait as strange and magnetic as the personality at its center. Then there are those subjects whose every knowing anecdote and aphorism serve to polish a jewel-cut—and ultimately deflective—self-mythology. Artist Tomi Ungerer is one such subject. Watching Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, it’s clear that no one ever told this illustrator and author’s story bigger, longer, and with better sound bites than Ungerer himself.
That the film’s title is drawn from the stream of epigrams Maurice Sendak called “Tomi-isms” needn’t suggest that director Brad Bernstein succumbed entirely to the Strasbourg native’s spell. Nor would it be a disaster for the project if he had. But the film’s delighted affinity with Ungerer’s well-turned perspective does lend an advertorial slickness to what might have been a more challenging study of a fascinating and famously elusive subject.
For all this, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough opens on a man clearly agitated, acting the quintessential difficult subject. A muttering Ungerer, lost in thought and unhappy to be on camera, has what Sendak described as “big, staring” blue eyes, a tidy thatch of white hair, long limbs, and a long jaw. What rankled him that day is unknown, and thereafter Ungerer is shown in more relaxed, storytelling mode—often with a glass of wine in hand or standing close by—across a series of interviews Bernstein combines with the testimonials of Ungerer’s contemporaries in the art and publishing worlds and a dazzling animated survey of his striking, often darkly satirical illustrations.
Ungerer’s early history could double as a recipe for how artists are made. “My life has been a fairy tale,” he says, “with all of its monsters.” Born in Alsace in 1931, neither entirely French nor entirely German, Ungerer saw his childhood interrupted by the war and Nazi occupation. “If you want to give them an identity,” he says, “children should be traumatized.” The war and the death of his father (also an illustrator) provided plenty of trauma, but the problem of identity seemed to follow him across a life of transience, creative growth, and controversy.
An early encounter with Saul Steinberg in the pages of the New Yorker convinced Ungerer to light out for New York City. He describes a New York where an aspiring writer or illustrator could walk into an editor’s office and ferret out a job, which is exactly what Ungerer did in the mid-1950s, at the height of the magazine boom. From editorial and commercial work, Ungerer moved on to children’s books, where, with darker themes and unlikely heroes (including the pig family The Mellops, a bat named Rufus, Crictor the very civilized snake, and Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley), he practiced his belief that books “should give children a taste for life, even if it tastes bad.”
Bad taste is relative, as Ungerer discovered when sidelines in erotica and political commentary clashed with his reputation as a beloved children’s illustrator. His remarkable protest images—many dealing with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war; he designed the Dr. Strangelove poster—caused him less trouble than a book like Fornicon, a collection of pornographic drawings that depict women having rather creative sex with machine-like contraptions. Ungerer claims the project responded to the feminist proposal that machines replace men as sex partners, one of several moments when, to put it mildly, I would have liked to hear a little more.
The question of whether, in publishing light pornography alongside his delicate bedtime stories, Ungerer was naive, stubborn, or just terminally European hangs unanswered. But even a great artist’s prerogative—even in the early ’70s—faces limits. “They really went after me,” Ungerer says, “like a pack of bitches.” Told he’d never draw little piggies in this town again, Ungerer moved to a rough outpost of Nova Scotia with his new wife, and began raising a family (in 1984 he published a book about his time there also called Far Out Isn’t Far Enough). Eventually, requiring further exile, Ungerer moved to Ireland, calling it the country he always wanted.
Despite this new sense of home, Ungerer’s daughter claims her father still lacks an identity. Now in his 80s, Ungerer remains obsessed with the female body—his studio is well stocked with doll and mannequin parts—and talks in great swirling metaphors of a lifelong struggle to harness his teeming supply of ideas. Though nobody’s citizen, the artist, as this engrossing if somewhat oblique career portrait confirms, is still present.