Last year, Anthology Film Archives programmed a series of documentaries lumped together under the title “Talking Head.” The concept behind the series was to give lie to the idea of the traditional taking-head documentary as inherently uncinematic. According to a program note written for the series at the time, filmmakers as various as Shirley Clarke, Jean Eustache, Martin Scorsese, and Wang Bing “have chosen to focus on men and women whose eloquence and charisma, and the momentousness of the events they’ve experienced or witnessed, render their testimony so compelling that the usual documentary affectations would only serve as distractions.”
The films I saw during that series—Eustache’s Numéro Zéro, Scorsese’s Italianamerican and American Boy, and Wang’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir—didn’t quite banish my own personal doubts about such a claim (for all the praise critics have lumped onto the Eustache and Wang films, it’s Scorsese’s two short films that are more compellingly cinematic). But those films, as well as the series as a whole, crossed my mind frequently throughout Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, for reasons not always in the film’s favor.
Though there are other interview subjects in Brad Bernstein’s film, among them illustrators Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, the 80-year-old Ungerer gets the bulk of the screen time, narrating the story of his tumultuous life with a mixture of hard-earned wisdom and youthful impetuosity. Putting aside the absorbing details of his life (the traumas of his father’s death, living in German-occupied Alsace during WWII, his success as a children’s-book illustrator before the scandals of his later sexuality-saturated adult illustrations led him to flee New York and return to his hometown of Strasbourg, France), Ungerer is a genuinely magnetic interview subject: frequently funny, brutally honest about himself, articulate and outspoken about his philosophies. One could imagine sitting down and listening to him for hours on end, soaking up his pearls of wisdom and bits of mischievous humor.
But that isn’t Bernstein’s approach in Far Out Isn’t Far Enough; this is no two-hour extended interview a la Numéro Zéro, much less the three-hour talking-head epic that is Fengming. Instead, Bernstein tries to illustrate Ungerer’s life story with all manner of bits of ostensibly “cinematic” business: throwing a barrage of cutesy animated interpolations of his illustrations at us and pumping up the music to a fever pitch during more “dramatic” moments. Ungerer’s memories of both WWII and the excoriation he received at the hands of critics and the public as a result of his sexually explicit adult drawings are especially singled out for this special treatment.
Admittedly, there’s a certain logic to Bernstein’s breathless presentation of Ungerer’s biography; Ungerer himself seems loath to wallow unduly in past traumas and mistakes, preferring to express himself through his boundary-pushing, exuberantly transgressive art, and Bernstein could be said to be following suit in his style. And yet, the rampant surface activity doesn’t quite stave off the feeling that, in Bernstein’s zeal to come up with a visual correlative to Ungerer’s worldview, he ends up robbing us of a more resonant emotional experience than if he had perhaps simply filmed the man speaking in front of a camera.
Did he have so little faith in both Ungerer’s magnetic personality and the specifics of his life and art that he felt the need to unduly jazz up the film with this kind of artificial excitement? (This is an artist’s life story done in that egregiously ADD style familiar to those who listen to that NPR science show Radiolab.) It’s beside the point that the animated segments in and of themselves—conceived by Rick Cikowski, Brandon Dumlao, and Alain Lores—are often brilliantly executed; the animation doesn’t necessarily enhance one’s understanding of Ungerer’s work, mostly coming off as visual busy-ness for its own sake.
If the film’s frenetic style threatens to detract from the emotional impact and thematic resonance of Ungerer’s biography, Bernstein does occasionally show a sense of when to calm down and let his subject’s testimony breathe enough for its inspirational qualities to cumulatively come across as strongly as he intends. Here is an artist so uncompromising that he’s willing to risk ostracism in trying to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision. And on the basis of the illustrations of Ungerer’s Bernstein shows us (animated or not), his is a fascinatingly boundary-pushing vision that does what some of the best art does: forcing us to confront the deepest, darkest recesses of our minds and souls. For an artist who’s dealt with such dark subject matter as he has over the long span of his career, Ungerer still seems as sprightly as ever at age 80: unsentimental, yes, but also remarkably un-jaded for all the horrors he’s witnessed. One can sense the healing power of art simply by basking in his presence, which no amount of irritating directorial interventions can completely undermine.
DOC NYC runs from November 8—15. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.