October 10, 2013

Indie Film: Documentary on Tomi Ungerer screens Tuesday at SPACE

The artist’s movie posters made lasting impressions

By Dennis Perkins

As a movie geek, I knew who Tomi Ungerer was without knowing it.

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Illustrator Tomi Ungerer tapped into his subversiveness to create witty, weird works.

Courtesy photos

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Ungerer's cover for the beloved children’s book “Flat Stanley.”



Friday: “Romeo and Juliet.” Do we need yet another screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers, etc. The film/Shakespeare geek you’re reading right now says, “Hells yes, we do!” This one stars that girl from the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” alongside Pual Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgard, and Brody from “Homeland,” (none of whom play Romeo, thankfully).




Saturday-Sunday: “Jaws.” Now that summer’s over and you’re not going in the water anymore, why not enjoy this still-brilliant horror film about the biggest freaking shark you’ve ever seen!! (Sorry—still freaked out by this movie...)

As the artist behind the poster of one of my favorite movies, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb,” Ungerer visualized the apocalyptic dark comedy of nuclear annihilation with a deceptively simple line drawing. It’s witty, and weird, and better than 99 percent of movie posters out there.

“There’s a cohesiveness to that work,” agrees Scott Nash, chair of the illustration department at MECA. “Look at a lot of movie posters – just photos with typography. We’ve lost something with the disappearance of illustrated posters.” Nash has been instrumental in MECA’s co-sponsorship of the new documentary on Ungerer, “Far Out Isn’t Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story,” screening on Tuesday at SPACE Gallery, so I thought he’d be the perfect person to explain why people should be interested in the man’s work. I was right.

“I see him as one of the most important illustrators of our time,” Nash enthuses. “He’s really a fascinating figure – with one foot in kids’ literature and one in erotica. Coming from the European background, he had no trouble moving from one to another. He was a product of the dark age of illustration in the 60s, along with people like Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak who were rogues not just trained in children’s literature. His work wasn’t cloying or cutesy at all – there’s some real subversiveness in it.”

Starting out with still-beloved children’s books like “Three Robbers,” “Moon Man,” “Allumette,” and “Flat Stanley,” Ungerer tapped into that subversiveness, creating some of the most famous anti-Vietnam War posters ever, before turning his talents to acclaimed, if scandalous, books of eccentric erotica, including 1969’s “Eroticon” and the loopy amphibious sex manual “Joy Of Frogs,” among others. “His work makes him popular and an outlier at the same time,” explains Nash, “His adult work is both playful and cruel – you feel just a little bit guilty for laughing. It shows the ambiguity of being an artist. His various impulses demonstrate in various ways how they affect his art.”

Agreed – turn on your safe search settings before googling Tomi Ungerer. Or turn them off. I’m not your mom.

The Ungerer documentary is one of several focusing on famous illustrators being brought to SPACE with the help of MECA – and Nash is thrilled. “We’re trying to increase awareness of illustration as an art form,” he says, “It’s kind of a banner year for documentaries about illustrators.” In addition to the recently screened “Cartoon College” (about The Center For Cartoon Studies), the MECA/SPACE connection will be bringing in the docs “Dear Mister Watterson” (about the reclusive creator of “Calvin and Hobbes”) in December, with plans for recent films about artists Drew Struzan, Ralph Steadman, and more.

“We are our own little community,” explains Nash. “We have our own pantheon of heroes not necessarily shared with the greater world. I think it’s important to remind people of the great artists in any number of disciplines, including illustration.”

“Far Out Isn’t Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story” shows at SPACE Gallery (www.space538.com) on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for SPACE members or students with ID.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.

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