Both Sides Now
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story uses a restrained few talking heads, animated sequences, photos, and several locations but relies on its subject’s charm to thread together its ninety-eight minutes. U.S. premičring at the non-fiction third DOC NYC Festival, director/writer/co-producer Brad Bernstein’s study is a joyride rediscovery of an artist-writer who flourished against the tide of the Eisenhower ‘50s and in the protest ‘60s, fell into disrepute and obscurity, has recently been resuscitated, and throughout has remained his unique self.
Drawings from his mid-century children’s books and the anti-war/anti-discrimination posters will strike chords of memory, but the whole life is of one piece. A wife and children of his own is a surprise not hinted until nearly the end, but grown daughter Aria summarizes that Tomi’s (from middle name Thomas) -- “not my father’s or “dad’s” -- life has been a search for identity.
“Search” in part, for four locations are central. And “identity,” in that the life and the work in those diverse venues is an attempt to deal with polar opposites and create the interface where they may meet as equals in one whole.
This reconciliation of contrarieties is not proved in the film, even though Ungerer suggests and affirms it himself. It is not disproved, either, nor does it matter.
Born into a cultured family, he lost his adored father early, showed drawing talent, and lived through the Nazi occupation of natal Alsace-Lorraine. Historically a ping-pong ball between two nations, the area was forced to speak German, and although his widowed mother flaunted her French, he had to change his language in school and to this day pronounces his fluent English with a mild Teutonic accent.
After long periods in New York, Nova Scotia and Ireland, he currently is helping to bring together those two longtime enemies and extends the concept to his own life and art in bridging good and bad, courage and fear, innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood, straight and kinky sex, rather than “protecting” his fellow beings.
With sixty dollars, he sailed to America, which advertising had made the postwar beacon of opportunity, and in a New York where one could still make a phone call, get an interview and be hired on the spot, the young man was soon in demand as a commercial illustrator. Eye-catching, his work went against the reigning Norman Rockwell school of freckled kids, mom and apple pie. Influenced by The New Yorker style of satirical line drawings, he also became a mightily successful author-illustrator of children’s books in which non-fuzzy-wuzzy creatures are the characters and youngsters’ bright delight is side by side with dark fear -- an essential life lesson, he affirms.
After his own WWII childhood experiences, a trip to Jim Crow Texas and the restive ‘60s youth rebellion led him into designing posters the bluntness of which still resonates true today.
He had also been doing erotic black and white drawings embellished with blood red, particularly about BDSM. These went beyond the then-controversial fetish photos of The Notorious Bettie Page, and, shorn of his trademark beard, the impish octogenarian now discusses his own coincidental experience in that direction and shows off related exhibits in one of his several scattered studios.
As soon as this side of his output was discovered, he was vilified, the children’s books withdrawn from libraries and stores, his career up in smoke. A roll-your-own cigarette perpetually in his hand or mouth -- he asks if the filmmaker minds -- he voices dismay at such fascist book-burning in the land of the free, and recounts his and his family’s stay in boondocks Canada and then finding their paradise in Ireland.
The film’s many “subversive” Ungerer drawings would be the star anywhere but here. The artist himself overshadows even his fascinating work. His blue eyes, acerbic wit and enthusiasm undimmed, he is an ideal host. In New York City again, for the launch of his first new children’s book in twenty-three years and reissue of the once-proscribed others, he charms kids and their parents -- and the filmgoer.
(Released by Far Out Films; not rated by MPAA.)