DIR/WRI/PRO: Brad Bernstein • DOP: Paul Birman, Jimmy O’Donnell • ED: Rick Cikowski, Brandon Dumlao, Jason Schmidt • CAST: Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Michael Patrick Hearn
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb will forever be the gold standard for documentaries about visual artists – especially visual artists with big personalities and weird sexual proclivities. The film is so good because Zwigoff looks at Robert Crumb the way the artist himself regards his subjects; tendentiously, sneeringly, meanly, always ready to exploit and exagerrate whatever’s wrong with a given picture. And he knows just what deserves airtime. Crazy family, jaded ex-girlfriends with their ill-gotten insights, sure. Racist iconography – crucial. But no worthily Apollonian peers, no dull critics (Robert Hughes, himself a cartoon, doesn’t count), no mickey mousing stock footage. Just a Boswell with a movie camera.
But most documentaries about visual artists – about any cultural high-achievers, actually – happen to be made by individuals who have little of their subjects’ spark, and who tend to document the smoke and not the flame. At best you get a sort of fellow traveller’s perspective, the emperor’s peer over the balcony at the orgy below – The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or the Glenn Gould documentary Genius Within. At worst there’s the fan’s film, with hours of talking heads, next to no dissenting opinions and every last great aunt gets a say in the final cut. I think of 30th Century Man, I think of Alan Yentob, I slip myself a Xanax. Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is a noble enough instance of the latter type.
This is a shame, because Tomi Ungerer is one of those artists who must be celebrated as often as possible. He isn’t that much like Robert Crumb, really; Crumb is compellingly consistent, stylistically and with regard to his preoccupations, while Ungerer, a writer and artist born in Strasbourg in 1931, is proud of his capriciousness. He’s done kids’ books and S&M manuals; in the ’60s he provided both Madison Avenue and the counterculture with some of their catchiest sight gags; he’s a top-notch sloganeer too, to blame for several of the phrases that pattern the mental wallpaper of 21st-century culture. (He even takes credit for “expect the unexpected,” but I suspect Heraclitus might have pipped him to that one.) Stocking fillers from Ungerer’s singular oeuvre: the book that gives this film its title for the Shantaram fans, Otto: Biography of a Teddy Bear for your little niece, and a copy of Fornicon for the lady in the office with the fishnets. Bernstein is as faithful to chronology as the Book of Genesis, and the film takes us from the 1930s to the present day at an enjoyably brisk pace. A character as willful as Ungerer needs neither curriculum vitae nor hagiography, though. The narrative is clear, but it’s up to the viewer to think about what all the costume changes mean.
Though talking heads, the artist’s own and many others, comprise much of the material, there’s a lot of supplementary visual stuff – photographs and archive footage, Ungerer’s paintings and drawings, and plenty of original animations of these drawings. The animated fragments of Ungerer’s most transgressive images are best. (Put your hands over the eyes of nearby minors during the final credits.) Ungerer comes out like the boy in school who does those perfectly rude likenesses of the teacher, Bernstein the sidekick charged with paper-scrap dissemination. And, of course, there’s plenty of stock footage too, usually ill-chosen and clunkily employed. Really, in the cases of the stock footage and even the animations, we would much rather be looking at the movements of Ungerer’s own face, holding forth, and decent reproductions of his actual on-paper works. His art propels itself around the imagination better when it’s permitted to sit still on the page.
Tomi Ungerer is a contrarian on most counts. The only thing he won’t be rascally about is Ireland – West Cork has been his beloved home since the 1970s. It might seem like bad form to criticise a film that could help Ungerer on his way to becoming a national treasure. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is, as I said, a noble documentary that serves a noble purpose – but it isn’t far enough. The film lacks depth and fails to engage with the artist on his own terms. In fact, the lightweight, TV arts profile-style documentary is a real problem in the culture. I know plenty of people with mildewy intellects from too much craft beer or Xbox or pesto mayo who can’t really read a book, or watch a film, at least not in a way that would let you know that they didn’t have their eyes closed for the duration. You should see them get through those Nikola Tesla documentaries on Youtube, though – two or three a day. Strangeness and complexity of thought are so much roughage when you’re cooking for the lowest common denominator. Tomi Ungerer’s strong self-identification as Alsatian, for example, is glossed over, in spite of the crucial role his childhood played in fostering his dearly-held liminal worldview, and the film merely alludes to his ongoing work towards better Franco-German relations. We’re lucky that Ungerer is still around to make his own case, and that Bernstein could get Maurice Sendak in, just before he left for the big night kitchen in the sky, as an expert witness. Maybe a film with a bigger brain might have helped Ungerer in the same way Crumb brought the titular weirdo to the mainstream. Maybe we all just need to go buy his books instead.
Darragh John McCabe
15A (See IFCO for details)
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story is released on 13th December 2013