Farther than far out with enfant terrible Tomi Ungerer

By | February 27th, 2013 | No Comments

Most people know Maurice Sendak and his book Where The Wild Things Are, which, since its publication 50 years ago, has transported millions of children around the world to a darkly magical island in their minds. But who’s this Tomi Ungerer guy whom Sendak says taught him “to be braver than I was”?

A native of France who lived under Nazi rule as a child, Ungerer is a renegade artist who transformed children’s literature in America by replacing bunnies with snakes (and other hard-to-love creatures), exploring previously verboten subjects like death and evil, and generally creating books for kids as if they weren’t innocent idiots.

If only for his radical contribution to children’s literature Ungerer would be a legend. But when you take into account his iconic anti-Vietnam War posters, which were influenced by the Nazi propaganda art he couldn’t escape as a child, and his unabashed erotica illustrations, which were sexual and revolutionary even for the Sexual Revolution and eventually led to his kids’ books getting blacklisted in America (of course!) — then you realize that there never was nor never will be another one like Tomi.

To hammer home the point, here’s what Ungerer said when confronted about his erotica art at a children’s book industry event: “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have children!”

Now in his ’80s, Ungerer is no less hard-core, chain smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and sipping wine as he anticipates death with a sly smile. You can drink in Ungerer yourself when Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story screens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 6 and the Regal South Beach Cinemas on March 8 for the Miami International Film Festival.

To learn about the making of Far Out, I emailed a few questions to Miami-based filmmaker Brad Bernstein, whose studio, Corner Of The Cave Media, is located in Midtown. Here’s the Q&A.

The influence of WWII and the Nazis on Ungerer is fascinating. Can you briefly describe that influence and tell us how you think Ungerer’s art would have been different if he had not lived under Nazi rule?

BB: Tomi lived under Nazi occupation from the summer of 1940 through the liberation of France in ’44. The Germans not only required him to become fluent in German but they also forced him to draw, saying the Führer needed artists! So he really was encouraged to hone his craft at a young age and on top of this he was indoctrinated by a particular style. As we all know the Nazi propaganda machine was powerful, omnipresent and actually quite artistic. If you look at the posters they created they really do evoke a certain emotion, are quite shocking, and are actually appealing from a strictly artistic perspective. And so Tomi was imbued with this in-your-face style, which he incorporated to artistic perfection when he came to America and witnessed the injustices and social movements of 1960’s America. So no, without his experience living under Nazi occupation as a child, he would never have created the iconic pieces of art we have today.

Ungerer moved to NYC with $60 in his pocket and was a successful, published children’s book author in under two years. Is that more a testament to his talent or to that “golden age” of American illustration and magazine publishing?

BB: That’s a great question and I think the answer is a combination of both. When he got here he started creating illustrations for big Madison Avenue advertising campaigns. It was that early success in the commercial world which gave him a body of work that allowed him to show his work to the woman who was at the pinnacle of children’s book publishing at Harper, Ursula Nordstrom, who is still legendary to this day. But once he got in with Ursula, it was his talent and her equally subversive spirit that allowed him to break boundaries in the world of children’s books.

Ungerer said: “A children’s book should give children a taste for life, even if it tastes bad.” Can you briefly describe how authors such as Ungerer and Maurice Sendak revolutionized kids’ books and the resistance they faced in doing so?

BB: There were great children’s book authors living when Maurice and Tomi made their mark. People like Margaret Wise Brown and Crockett Johnson created books that kids still read today. But the catch is that the field in general was super conservative and the prevailing wisdom at the time said that kids should be treated like precious, innocent little things who should be protected from reality at all costs. And Tomi and Maurice said hell no–that’s crap! So instead of the white clouds and blue skies and bunny rabbits that prevailed in kids books in the 1950’s and before, Tomi started creating books with unusual characters like snakes and octopuses as protagonists and starting bringing blood, alcohol, cigarettes, kidnapping and axes into the equation! And the kids and adults loved it! It was this adoration for Tomi and Maurice that overwhelmed the resistance and broke the taboos of the day, changing children’s books forever.

Ungerer had such a multifaceted career as an artist-illustrator, from the kid’s books to the erotica to the political posters. Do you think he could have pursued such a varied career in our time, given the compartmentalizing affect of the Internet (alluded to in your film)?

BB: If Tomi was in his prime today, I do think he would pursue the same course he pursued back then. After all, he’s an artist and he’s somewhat compelled to pursue his vision despite the costs. So in some ways he doesn’t really have a choice, if that makes sense. But certainly he would be exposed much sooner today because of the Internet – and the conservative groups today which are equally as powerful as they were in the 60’s – so I don’t know if his success today would be as great as it was in 1960’s America.

For all his wild eccentricity, Ungerer came across as a cultured, worldly gentleman. Can you give us a sense if what it was like to spend so much time with him? And was he smoking a joint the whole time?

BB: He was not smoking a joint during the interviews, but I wish he was! He actually rolls his own cigarettes and doesn’t use a filter, so they really do look like joints. The dichotomy you allude to is what makes Tomi, Tomi. He is as well read as a literature professor and as well versed in the arts as an arts history expert. So we’d be talking about Dalí one moment and the next moment he’d be telling me about the practical joke he pulled on the French Minister of Culture in 1984. So spending time with him is thrilling, a learning experience and truly unforgettable. In fact, I just saw him in Dublin for a screening of Far Out and he was telling me about the practical joke he pulled on a flight attendant, where he grabbed a hold of her from behind and told her he had a bomb. Good one, right?

Finally, in his lifelong obsession with death Ungerer seems to have moved from panic to acceptance, even healthy anticipation. In your opinion, how did he get to this point?

BB: I agree, he’s definitely not afraid of his own mortality. But in the time since the movie was completed so many of his family and close friends have died – including Maurice Sendak – that he told me that his address book is like looking at a graveyard. So I think it’s a difficult time for him right now. But the truth is he’s been through so much in his life, do you actually think death is going to faze him? I feel bad for whomever has to deal with him in the afterlife though–think about how much he’s going to piss them off!

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