Not Just For Children: Berstein Elegantly Draws An Illustration Legend
Documentaries on the eccentric or tortured artist are a dime a dozen, but it seems each year a few view worthy films pop up, reminding us of forgotten gems by presenting their work through a reflective lens. This year we’ve already seen the release of the humorous and endearing Beauty is Embarassing, the bizarre Pushwagner, and the politically charged Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, but with Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, director Brad Bernstein’s first feature, we are blessed with the opportunity to delve into the incredible life story of an often overlooked, but legendary figure of modern illustration, and like the aforementioned films of 2012, highlights the artist’s voracious propulsion to create. With signature eccentricity and heartfelt candor, Ungerer himself recants his tale that begins with the Nazi take over of France, moves through his rise to popularity as a children’s book writer and illustrator in the New York print industry, and ventures into his exploits in erotica, fatherhood and beyond.
It’s easy to compare Bernstein’s film to other illustrator bio-docs like Spike Jonze’s Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak (Sendak is actually featured here showering Ungerer with praise in one of his last interviews before his passing) or the seminal Terry Zwigoff film, Crumb, but the truth is that this film, while being much sleeker and just as genuine in its presentation than the films mentioned, is enwrapped with the history of the many countries Ungerer migrated to throughout his life. Each cultural sea change directly informed his art, and we are given plenty of opportunities to experience each period for ourselves as Berstein features plenty of Ungerer’s ingenuity throughout with either gorgeously stylized spotlights or carefully animated recreations of his many storybook characters, never including any strictly for visual flair, but as a perfect compliments to the elegantly told story.
Not only is Tomi an insanely gifted artist, but he is also a vivid storyteller. Bernstein’s many interviews that make up the narrative body were done in multiple sessions, allowing several takes on a given subject, often times yielding a variety of emotional responses. With these takes in hand, Bernstein often gives brief cutaways midway through tough conversation to other interviews where Tomi couldn’t handle the emotion retort, bluntly cutting off questions all together, showing us just how touched he often is. Behind his zany countenance and quirkisms, Ungerer is a man of unquenchable creativity and an unbearable appreciation for human curiosity. With Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, we get an affecting look into the forgotten talent’s incredible struggle with artistic eccentricity, and through it we are reminded to stay hungry for life, even in death.
Reviewed on September 7th at the 2012 Toronto Int. Film Festival – TIFF Docs Programme – 98 mins.