Sunday, June 16, 2013

Brad Bernstein's TOMI UNGERER STORY -- that famous/unknown children's book artist

Why does so much of the work of Tomi Ungerer, considered by some -- most likely the very old or the very young -- to be one of the world's finest children's book artists, seem barely known here in the U.S.? As we learn from the exemplary documentary FAR OUT ISN'T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY, this most interesting artist was quite literally blacklisted by our guardians of culture here in the U.S. and so for a quarter-century produced no more children's books. This period, beginning in the early 1970s, pretty much coincided with the birth of our daughter, and so we (and she) missed out on this artist's gift to kids.

Directed, written and produced by Brad Bernstein (shown at left), the documentary begins with the artist, now in his early 80s, living in Ireland, then backtracks to his earliest days. Born in 1931 in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France (in Strasbourg) which had long been fought over by the French and the Germans, the region, like the rest of Europe, was soon embroiled in the Nazi plans for universal conquest. (Ungerer's anecdote about his mother and the speaking of the French in Strasbourg under the German rule is an eye-opening look at both the Nazi mind and the character of Mrs. Ungerer (who was herself an actress and a noted beauty of the day.)

We see plenty of archival photos of Ungerer (above, today) as a boy and  young man (below) and learn of the death of his father (also an artist) when Tomi was still pre-teen. As a young man he comes to the promised land of New York City, and his recollections of finding work are delightful, unique and lots of fun. Quite successful, too. Among the icons who herald the artist are the late, great Maurice Sendak and the still-with-us Jules Feiffer.

Ungerer has kept his wits about him, as well as his sense of humor, which makes the movie such an enjoyable ride. His career ran from, first, advertising art (below),

through poster work, shown further below, which was often extremely political and shocking (as someone who had experienced war up close, he was firmly against the U.S. role in Vietnam),

and finally to those now famous children's books -- art from which appears toward the bottom of this post.

There was one other category in which Ungerer excelled -- erotic art as shown below -- done in his typically off-the-wall, direct and unfiltered style. Though completely separate from his children's books, this art, once viewed by "the public," caused such an alarm in the minds of our cultural gatekeepers that Ungerer's work was banned from libraries (then a key source of income for book artists) and from reviews in most magazines and newspapers.

This led to the move of Tomi and his wife to Canada, and then to Nova Scotia (to a town, it would appear, all about guns and death) and eventually to Ireland, where he now remains. The artist speaks of Ireland in such a loving and kind manner that you may think you're hearing of this long-term, war-torn country for the first time.

 How he spent most of those 25 years between children's book is not addressed, and though the movie lasts 98 minutes (a bit long for documentaries these days), it could have done with -- as a friend pointed out who watched the documentary with us -- at least a few more words about this period and what went on during it.

What makes the movie especially enjoyable is the character of Ungerer himself, and the wit and style with which the film has been put together -- using Tomi's art and some occasional animation, along with some very good editing (mostly by Rick Cikowski) so that everything moves along at a pleasant clip.

Among the important themes that crop up (in addition to what kind of literature is "good for" children) is that of repression via censorship -- a more-or-less constant in Ungerer's life, beginning with the book burning by the Nazi's, followed by that of post-war France (in Strasbourg, at least) burning the great literature of Germany (which may surprise some viewers) and continuing into his time in the USA, when his work was blacklisted. When you insist on breaking new boundaries, I guess, you'd better expect some negative reaction.

Far Out Isn't Far Enough (one of Ungerer's commandments concerning creativity and how to keep it going) -- unrated and from First Run Features -- opened theatrically this past Friday in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and will open in Los Angeles (at the Landmark Nuart) this coming Friday, June 21. Click here to see all upcoming playdates and theaters.

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