by Angelo Muredda "If you want to give them an identity, children should be traumatized," illustrator Tomi Ungerer says in Far Out Isn't Far Enough, speaking about his life as much as his career obsession with drawing the macabre. Brad Bernstein's feature debut has the benefit of an articulate subject with a captivating life story, from his confused wartime upbringing in Strasbourg--"the sphincter of France," as he calls it--to his early American days as a freelancer, to his later erotic drawings (of "bondage and so on," he explains) and role as a sort of artist-in-residence for the civil rights movement. What it lacks is assurance, frequently getting in the way of its powerful material with hammy stylistic flourishes and a treacly score better suited to a Disney-channel docudrama.
Ungerer's life is a fascinating one, beginning with his profoundly ambivalent childhood education, steered by Nazi schoolmarms who encouraged his artistic talents, assuring him that "the Fuhrer needs artists," and later stunted by French liberators who burned the local libraries. That seemingly backward turn of events, the film suggests, resulted in his peculiar worldview, translated into children's books that emphasized fear rather than comfort. Bernstein is reticent to delve into Ungerer's depression, or to mount a sustained inquiry into how his mental state became the expressionist mark of his work. He's wise, though, to draw on Maurice Sendak, another famous depressive in the field, to contextualize why Ungerer's work was such a watershed in children's literature of the time--chronically averse as it was to acknowledging the darkness of being a child.
Sendak does his best to claim his friend as a serious artist of the absurd, and Ungerer himself is never less than candid, but Bernstein's appropriation of stock footage from WWII and Vietnam is distracting at best, and tactless at worst. The tone is even spottier, careening from goofy animations of Ungerer's drawings scored to ragtime to bizarre insert photos of machine guns backed by military drumbeats to signify wartime occupation. Ungerer deserves better, but one still comes away charged by the bevy of contradictions that define his life and work. Programme: TIFF Docs