Documentaries focused on a living icon are often made or broken by the charisma and intelligence of their subject. In Tomi Ungerer, an octogenarian illustrator with an eclectic oeuvre and strong perspective, debut director Brad Bernstein has captured a soul personable and dynamic enough to justify the talking-head format of Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. With his piercing blue eyes and disarmingly dry humor, Ungerer is a lucid narrator with a crisp memory; at once sincere and cheeky, he cannily recounts his eight decades of experience that influenced his work and worldview. Charting his prolific career, from adolescent doodler to children’s book author to renegade illustrator of political satire and controversial sadomasochistic erotica, Bernstein allows the artist space to eloquently elaborate on his country-hopping moves and sociologically significant art. The linchpin to the doc’s success is that Ungerer is so damn humane and compelling—the kind of guy you want to engage in conversation with over a pint.
In the doc’s opening moments, Ungerer expresses his “full respect for a piece of paper…because when you draw or write, you start a new life.” Ungerer treated his own existence as a blank piece of paper, reinventing himself through immersion into new milieus; this brought him from Strasbourg (his nationally conflicted Franco-German birthplace) to New York in the ’50s, to Canada in 1971, and ultimately Ireland in 1975, where he finally discovered inner peace. Each metaphorical page in his life dictates a different stage and, through Ungerer’s stories, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough often takes the form of a bildungsroman, earnestly establishing impactful coming-of-age landmarks including young Ungerer’s traumatic observation of WWII and his burgeoning adult self’s immersion into the Manhattan scene. These early time periods were dominated by a fear—an oft-repeated feeling that Ungerer finds essential to human development, to experience and overcome—that bleeds into his sublime drawings, whether the intended audience is a child or an art collector.
Bernstein doesn’t completely relinquish the spotlight to Ungerer, though, as he synthesizes Ungerer’s elucidations with a hyperactive visual panache—chock-full of stop-motion recreations of Ungerer’s art—to aesthetically manifest the artist’s boundless, almost overwhelming imagination. “I simply have too many ideas, and with age it gets worse—it just snowballs,” Ungerer says as he draws a comparison to the unrelenting falling rocks seen in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances. He briefly pauses, then continues, “I’m crushed by my ideas.” Bernstein’s manic necessity to animate Ungerer’s work is equally exciting, but crushing. Technically, the design is impeccable, but on a narrative level the interspersed integration of animation occasionally sputters, often resulting in a stalling, mixing-and-matching hodgepodge of Ungerer’s art. The images—often wry meditations—are infrequently given time to breathe and be absorbed by the audience. For better or worse, this rapid collage of Ungerer’s art functions more as a timeline than an exhibition, mirroring Ungerer’s casually anti-establishment knack for ingraining himself in the events and cultural upheavals of the time. And, with his introspective life reflections and a legacy of provocative imagery, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough proves that Ungerer’s legacy is as historically significant as it is artistically.