Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Life is absurd.
I was reminded of this when seeing crayon-colored pictures of Nazis drawn by a boy who lived under their terror. I saw the horror of the Third Reich — the destruction, the death — wiggle somehow in the child’s lines. The images, augmented by the boy’s immense talent, unarmed me. This boy was Tomi Ungerer…and his life’s one hell of a story.
Now 81, Tomi is a globally-revered illustrator and children’s book author, and Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a documentary out this Friday, chronicles his life, showcasing his wonderfully diverse work while highlighting the contradictions in his nature.
The doc’s director, Brad Bernstein, lets us into the artist’s studio and shows us the white-haired, chain-smoking twig of a man at work. We watch his pen gently slash a blank sheet of paper — which he says he “rapes,” defiles with his ideas — creating a cute little owl with cigarette burns for eyes. It’s both accessible yet unnerving — which is Tomi’s style in a nutshell. And while many of the works we see in the movie are still on the screen, Bernstein brings much of Tomi’s art to life through gorgeous animations that nicely knit together the movie’s many sections.
The doc starts us in eastern France, where Tomi spent his childhood. This place, perhaps more than anything, shaped him into the artist he would become. He lived under Nazi occupation, and they terrified him. But the Nazis did, to their credit, foster his artistic talents.
When the French liberators came, they brought freedom and terrors of their own. As a lover of literature, Tomi was horrified when the liberators burned all the classic German books in the libraries. These writers, after all, weren’t Nazis. Moreover, Tomi’s new teachers told him to abandon his love for French literature because his accent was tainted by German. So much for liberation. He was in a cultural no-man’s land.
These back-to-back experiences taught him, among other things, that those who are bad can sometimes do good just as those who are good can sometimes do bad. Tomi would write this lesson into his children’s books when he descended onto the New York scene like a hurricane of pencils.
Back in the late 50s, it was considered taboo to make children’s books with heroes that weren’t bunnies or blue jays. But Tomi did just that: He made heroes of snakes, vultures and octopuses…and he got published. Maurice Sendak says in the film that Tomi’s work inspired him before he wrote his beloved Where the Wild Things Are.
But then Tomi’s career in the kids world came to a sudden, and nearly absolute halt. Problem was…he also drew erotica — fantastic, graphic and totally NSFW stuff. When word got out about this, his books were thrown out of libraries.
Porn, after all, is probably the last place you’d expect to find the work of a children’s illustrator. But Tomi’s wit and imagination make his sexual drawings more than just porn. They’re bizarre (think: sex machines) and often funny, and we get to see lots of them on screen as Bernstein seems to have had fun animating Tomi’s sexual fantasies.
Still, being pushed out of the kids’ world left Tomi in an odd place. While he went on to do brain-searingly great work on political topics like segregation in the South and the Vietnam War, he didn’t do kids’ stuff for decades. Again, he found himself between two worlds, just as he had after WWII.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, besides being a one-man art history, is about Tomi’s coming to terms with living in a perpetual no-man’s land. He is the “chronicler of the absurd,” and thus confined to a certain solitude wherever he goes.
Leaving the film, one wonders why this was, or has to be. It’s been more than 120 years since the poet Whitman proclaimed that he contained multitudes, contradictions. Why should we expect artists — or people in general — to be just one thing? If anything, shouldn’t contradictions be expected when the figures in a kid’s coloring book are Nazis, when the world is a place where beauty and ugliness often catch us unawares, and together?
I don’t know. But at least we can say today that some of our children’s heroes are monsters, albeit cute ones.