Gōng xǐ fā cái! New York City is ready to celebrate the Year of the Wood Goat (aka the Year of the Ram and the Year of the Sheep) this month with special events all over town, in all five boroughs. The sixteenth New Year Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival will explode in and around Sara D. Roosevelt Park on February 19 at 11:00 am, with live music and dance, speeches by politicians, drum groups, lion, dragon, and unicorn dancers making their way through local businesses, and more than half a million rounds of firecrackers warding off evil spirits and welcoming in a prosperous new year. The Flushing Lunar New Year Parade takes place February 21 at 10:00; following the parade, there will be a family festival at the Queens Botanical Garden ($2-$4, 1:00 - 4:00). Also on February 21 ($5-$12, 1:00 – 4:00), Asia Society will present its annual Family Day: Moon over Manhattan, featuring lion dance and kung-fu demonstrations, live music, and arts and crafts. The New York Chinese Cultural Center will present a Lunar New Year program with folk dances, paper cutting, calligraphy, and lion dances at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on February 21 (free, 2:00 - 4:00). One of our favorite restaurants, Xi’an Famous Foods, will be hosting a culinary Lunar New Year concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 21 with MC Jin, Wanting Qu, Clara C, Esther & Lara Veronin, the Shanghai Restoration Project, and Mree, benefiting Apex for Youth ($50-$165, 6:00). There will be a performance by Chinese Theater Works, a zodiac-themed scavenger hunt, and sheep meet-and-greets at the Prospect Park Zoo February 21-22 ($6-$8). The Museum of Chinese in America will give Lunar New Year walking tours on February 21-22 ($8-$15, 11:00 and 1:00), followed on February 28 ($10, 11:00 am – 4:00 pm) by its Lunar New Year Family Festival, with lion dances and workshops, food tastings and demonstrations, storytelling, calligraphy, balloon animals, arts and crafts, and the Red Silk Dancers. The sixteenth annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival will wind its way through Chinatown, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and Columbus Park on February 22 starting at 1:00, with cultural booths in the park and a parade with floats, antique cars, live performances, and much more from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and other nations.
On February 22 (free - $25, 11:00 – 3:00), the China Institute’s Chinese New Year Family Celebration boasts lion dance and kung-fu performances, gallery tours with receptions, and dumpling and lantern workshops. Dr. Hsing-Lih Chou has curated a Lunar New Year Dance Sampler at Flushing Town Hall on February 22 (free, 2:00). The New York Philharmonic gets into the party spirit with Yo-Yo Ma leading a Chinese New Year musical evening on February 24 at Avery Fisher Hall ($45-$115, 7:30); the program includes the U.S. premiere of Zhao Lin’s Duo concerto for cello, sheng, and orchestra, conducted by Long Yu. Earlier that day, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and students from the National Dance Institute will perform traditional dances on Josie Robertson Plaza (free, 4:30). The annual Lunar New Year Festival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is set for February 28 (free with suggested museum admission, 12 noon – 5:00), with puppet shows, martial arts demonstrations, dances, storytelling, tea presentations and ceremonies in the Astor Chinese Garden Court, and activities inspired by the exhibition “The Art of the Chinese Album.” And the Queens Zoo will honor the goat/ram/sheep February 28 - March 1 with scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, live live performances, calligraphy workshops, and meet-the-sheep programs.
COMPOSERS NOW FESTIVAL: PHILADELPHIA AND OTHER STORIES
46 Walker St. between Church St. & Broadway
Wednesday – Saturday, February 11-21, 8:00
It’s a match made in Brooklyn. Writer Paul Rome and composer Roarke Menzies got to know each other at the Wyckoff Starr Coffee Shop in Bushwick, where Rome works as manager. Soon they were collaborating, working on audiocentric stage presentations that were written and performed by Rome, with an electronic score composed and played live by Menzies. They first worked together on the radio play And Once Again, followed by the audio epic The You Trilogy, a series of monologues about a fiction writer created for online streaming and download. For their next project, Calypso, Rome and Menzies took to the stage of the Bushwick Starr to investigate Homer and Virgil, young love and a tandem bicycle ride. They are now collaborating on Philadelphia and Other Stories, a collection of short pieces that is moving to Walkerspace in downtown Manhattan following a sold-out run at the Bushwick Starr. The work, which mythologizes memory, will be performed by Rome and Menzies, along with actress Katie Schottland and songs by Katie Mullins and David Kammerer. Rome, whose debut novel, We All Sleep in the Same Room, was longlisted for the 2014 PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and Menzies, who composes scores for such choreographers as Adam H. Weinert, Adam Barruch, and Jack Ferver, recently discussed their creative process, the City of Brotherly Love, and making the move from Brooklyn to the Big Apple as they prepared for the Manhattan debut of Philadelphia and Other Stories, part of the month-long Composers Now Festival.
twi-ny: How did the two of you meet?
Roarke Menzies: Paul and I were neighbors for a long time in Bushwick. He kept mentioning this “radio play” he was working on at the time. This was early 2010. We’d bump into each other pretty often at the coffee shop. One day he asked me to come over and listen to what he had. I was immediately into it. The writing was really strong and I just saw so much potential in developing this format. It had certain similarities to things I was familiar with from experimental theater and contemporary performance practices, but the way it zeroed in on the sound world, and more specifically the audio world — the microphonic voice, recorded sounds, everything mediated by loudspeaker and transistor — felt particularly vital and fresh. It was right up my alley.
Paul Rome: The only thing I’d ever heard of Roarke’s was a participatory improvisation at this salon my ex-girlfriend used to host in our living room. He passed out three or four Walkmen with these prerecorded textural patterns on them and people could manipulate the sounds by rewinding or fast-forwarding or changing the tape speed while he listened and did a vocal improvisation with effect pedals. It worked really beautifully.
twi-ny: What initially made you want to work together?
PR:I was really impressed by Roarke that first day he came over to listen to my radio play, And Once Again. He was really supportive and enthusiastic and seemed to intuitively get what I was trying to accomplish. He’s also technically capable in ways I’m not, so he was able to do things like mixing and rearranging my music, coaching my performance and really helping to turn a piece of text into a work for the stage. We became close friends during that project.
twi-ny: You’ve now worked together on four projects. How has the process of your collaboration evolved?
RM: When we first started working together, the projects were really Paul’s and I would play a supporting role, helping shape and realize the vision from behind the scenes. Calypso, a show we premiered in 2012, was really our first equal collaboration where we shared the stage, shared the bill, and had equal creative duties. Paul then asked me to work with him on substantive edits to his novel. So we’ve also developed a strong writer–editor relationship.
I think the best thing about our collaborative relationship is that there’s a unity of vision and an intense amount of trust. When you’re working on something new, you don’t necessarily know what that thing is yet, but there’s this vision in your imagination that you’re trying to pursue. Because we’ve worked so intensely on a number of projects, and because we’ve had so many fruitful conversations, there’s this shared vocabulary and a thorough thematic or dramaturgical language that we can refer to. In a collaboration like this, it’s really rare, I think, to be able to trust that when you each look at that vision in your heads, you’re both seeing the same thing.
PR: It’s true. We also argue a lot over the details. For me, that ability to argue and speak openly is the most important aspect of collaboration. We both want everything to be perfect and to adhere to a unified aesthetic and vision. We’re not above arguing over the angle of a chair onstage or the color of the text on the back of a promotional flyer for a few hours. Everything is important. If we fail, whatever that means, I still get to have the satisfaction of knowing that we didn’t fail out of laziness or succumbing to any preconceived notion of what our work ought to look like or sound like. The downside of collaborating with a friend is that it gets hard to talk about things other than our various projects. Roarke told me that for months after my novel came out, I talked about little else. I still feel bad about that.
twi-ny: You’ve previously presented your pieces, including Philadelphia and Other Stories, at the Bushwick Starr, but now you’re making the big move to Manhattan, performing the show at Walkerspace. How did that opportunity come about? Are you more excited or nervous about the Manhattan run?
RM: When we were mounting the premiere of Philadelphia at BWS, we really hit it off with Chip Rodgers, the production manager there. Chip also used to work at Soho Rep. and has been involved in a number of other important productions, including Ira Glass’s touring show with the choreographer Monica Bill Barnes. When the BWS run ended, Chip and I discussed the possibility of him coming on board as a producer for a potential remount of our show. Shortly after that, Chip came to us about this last-minute opportunity at Walkerspace.
With regard to the run in Manhattan, I’m mostly just thrilled to be performing this work again, and glad more people will get to see it. It’s in such a beautiful and well-equipped space, and a more substantial run, so we’ll really get to dig into the material.
PR: I agree; it’s gratifying to be able to extend this performance. I feel lucky. I can’t really separate my nervousness from my excitement. Both emotions are firing simultaneously right now. On a personal note, I’m looking forward to spending a few weeks in Manhattan. My life has become pretty Brooklyn-centric, but I spent two of my first years in New York living on Lafayette just south of Walker Street, and apparently my uncle lived next door to the theater in the ’80s, so it’s exciting to be downtown again. Manhattan, at least in memory, still possesses this incredible energy and stimulating confluence of different cultures and people.
twi-ny: You’re also collaborating with singer-songwriters Katie Mullins and David Kammerer. How did that come about?
PR: We were both big fans of their work prior to this production. I’ve seen each of them live on a number of occasions and have always been moved. Both have beautiful solo records. We wanted musicians who could accompany themselves and deliver stories in the same way that Roarke, Katie Schottland, and I do during the show. Their songs have a moody, introspective quality as well as a rhythmic pulse that conveys a traveling and Americana feeling to me, both of which are central themes in the show. Roarke shot each of them an email and they said yes. We found out later that Katie had been taking a break from music since wrapping promotion and touring for her last record. But after the performances at BWS, she’s started writing again. To help inspire something like that is really satisfying. It makes it all worth it.
twi-ny: Do you each have personal experience with Philadelphia? What made that city the centerpiece of this project?
RM: I first went to Philadelphia when I was in high school. Our choir did a minitour to DC, Philly, and Baltimore, performing in a few venues and churches, including the Washington National Cathedral. The only other time I’ve been was in 2013 when I composed a score for the choreographer Adam Barruch, who was making a piece on a Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet company called BalletX. So I’ve only ever spent a day or two there at a time. I guess it’s always felt like a place to visit, or a stop on a tour, the kind of place you pass through.
PR: Philadelphia was the first story we completed for this project and it has a lot of the themes embedded in it. Certain aspects of that narrative are autobiographical: I went to Philadelphia a few years ago on New Year’s to see an automaton I read about in the New York Times. Although it’s only momentarily alluded to in the story, Philadelphia has this incredible parade called Mummers on New Year’s Day, which I was completely unaware of. When I left New York in the morning, everyone I passed on the street looked depleted and sad, presumably hung over from New Year’s Eve, but the moment I arrived in Philly, which took less than two hours to get to, everyone appeared upbeat and cheerful. People were friendly and drinking on the street. It was a surreal experience. I felt inspired, and gradually the idea for writing a series of stories around traveling took shape. It seemed like an effective way to explore relationships and memories and time without it feeling forced.
Cities, generally, I think, especially ones you don’t know intimately, can possess a certain allure — just hearing the name “Philadelphia” or “Memphis” or “Grand Rapids,” etc. You know that if you went there you’d encounter this whole separate ecosystem of lives and habits and restaurants and relationships. Sometimes actually visiting these places can feel disconcertingly familiar or disappointingly mundane, yet something exotic and mysterious remains. There’s all this potential.
twi-ny: Your work has a kind of analog feel in the digital age. What attracted you to this kind of staging? Just the term “radio play” is very old-fashioned, very Beckett.
RM: The physical and visual staging, even the placing of the work on a stage, is meant to frame the audio/aural experience. We dress the room in spare furnishings and lamplights, but in a lot of ways the “setting” of the work is similar to some of Beckett’s works, in that it sort of takes place “in your head” (the character’s and/or the audience’s).
It’s funny you bring up Beckett. My dad is a theater director and acting coach in LA, and he’s also a huge Beckett fan. I only found out recently, last year maybe, that one of the experiences that got him really into theater, and Beckett in particular, was acting in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape back when he was twentysomething. I’m not terribly familiar with Beckett’s body of work, and I hadn’t heard of that one before. It turns out Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-person play in which a man sits at a desk with a reel-to-reel tape player (it was written in the ’50s) that he uses to play back and record various memories from his life. I was really struck not only by the similarities between the Beckett play and my work with Paul but also by the similarities between what my dad was doing in his twenties and what I’m now doing in mine.
PR: Creating work for the stage, translating the type of literature I’m drawn to into something performative, has never been motivated by a conscious desire to do something old-fashioned. This is my way of bringing storytelling to an audience in a format that I feel is conducive to close listening. Since I was a kid, close listening, whether it was a bedtime story from my dad or a record by Miles Davis, has remained incredibly important to me. I find it sustains me somehow in a way that’s both intellectually stimulating and cathartic. I can’t deny that there’s something particularly inspiring and charming to me about the radio play, the unadorned and ingenious methods used and the way it requires the audience to rely on her or his imagination. I don’t consider Philadelphia and Other Stories a radio play in the traditional sense, but it certainly draws from that tradition. I think there’s a lot of potential to marry the old and the new, analog and digital, in thoughtful and fluid directions.
RM: There’s been some writing and theorizing about the relatively recent dominance of “visual culture” over “aural culture.” I guess it’s pretty obvious when you look at the ubiquity of televisions or flatscreens, graphic user interfaces or, more recently, touch screens and mobile devices. But an “unforeseen” aspect of this visual overstimulation is that the auditory faculties seem to be underappreciated. People relate this to recent technological advances, but some argue that it started with the transition of power from oral to written word as the more dominant use of language. You can also consider architecture, the built environment, where thin walls create visual privacy but are next to useless with regard to aural privacy or noise pollution. I think part of the reason Philadelphia and Other Stories feels anachronistic is because it’s an audiocentric work. But I think that’s all the more appropriate, since it deals with memory and retrospection, with presence being out of time.
twi-ny: What’s next for the two of you?
RM: It's a pretty busy season for me. Jack Ferver will be bringing Chambre, a new work of his that I soundtracked, to the American Dance Institute in DC on February 20-21. I’m finishing another commission for Adam Barruch for a piece he’s making on River North Dance Chicago. That’s premiering at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on March 28. Then I’m also finishing up some music for a feature that’ll premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. (It hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t name names.) From there, I’m hoping to focus on an audio work I’ve got planned.
PR: I’d really like to make some audio recordings with Roarke of our projects. I also want to collaborate again with the filmmaker Natalie Leite. A few years ago, she and I did a film short based on a short story of mine [The Game]. We’ve been discussing some ideas for a new feature. Somewhere inside me the elements of a second novel are brewing.
200 Eastern Parkway at Washington St.
Saturday, February 7, free, 5:00 - 11:00
The theme of this year’s annual Brooklyn Museum First Saturday celebration of Black History Month is “Living Legacy,” another eclectic, wide-ranging collection of music, dance, film, art, discussion, and more. The free evening will feature live performances by Chel Lo and Asante Amin’s multimedia “Soundtrack ’63,” Water Seed, and Bilal; screenings of Byron Hurt’s 2013 documentary Soul Food Junkies and Carrie Hawks’s doc-in-progress Black Enuf, both followed by talkbacks with the directors; a quilt-making workshop; a talk with artists Devin Kenny and Sondra Perry with Black Contemporary Art blog founder Kim Drew; a poetry reading and community forum hosted by Mahogany L. Browne, Jonterri Gadson, and Amanda Johnston of Black Poets Speak Out; and J. Ivy discussing his new memoir, Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain. In addition, you can check out such exhibitions as “Revolution! Works from the Black Arts Movement,” “Judith Scott — Bound and Unbound,” “Double Take: African Innovations,” and “Chitra Ganesh: Eyes of Time.”
AMERICAN SNIPER (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
In theaters now
Three dozen years ago, I remember being blown away by Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, the supposedly true story of Billy Hayes, a New York City native busted for smuggling hash into Turkey in 1970 who ended up escaping from prison five years later. Although the film was based on Hayes’s book, it took liberties with the truth, turning Hayes into a heroic figure and inventing nonexistent characters; Hayes was particularly disappointed with the depiction of the Turkish people in the film. “My problem with the movie is there are no good Turks in it,” he said years later, pointing out that in reality he had made several good Turkish friends. “All the Turks in Midnight Express are bad. . . . It’s all very one-dimensional.” In 2004, screenwriter Oliver Stone apologized for his embellishments. “It’s true I overdramatized the script,” Stone said in Istanbul. “For years, I heard that Turkish people were angry with me, and I didn’t feel safe there.” Filmmakers are always given a certain amount of poetic license, but when does it become too much? The Midnight Express scenario ran through my mind shortly after seeing American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated film about Chris Kyle, based on the Navy SEAL’s memoir about his multiple tours overseas, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. It’s a tense, expertly made thriller about a sharpshooter who is compelled by the events of 9/11 to join the military and defend his country and democracy. Bradley Cooper is mesmerizing as Kyle, making viewers watch him as closely as he watches his targets. Cooper, who has been nominated for an Oscar three years in a row now, following nods for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — he might also find himself up for a Tony for his bravura performance in The Elephant Man on Broadway, furthering confirming him as one of America’s finest actors — is especially effective when depicting the PTSD that deeply affected Kyle.
However, the film, written by Jason Hall, has come under attack for playing hard and loose with the facts and fomenting racial hatred, jingoistically creating a world in which all Americans are good, all Arabs are bad, with nothing in between. Kyle is no longer here to defend himself, but his book speaks volumes, as he refers to Iraqis as “savages” and “evil.” There have been many articles that have compared the book with the movie, and the differences are striking. The opening scene itself sets the stage for what is to come; in the book, this prologue is titled “Evil in the Crosshairs.” Kyle is on a rooftop as a troop of Marines move into a small Iraqi town. In the movie, a young woman and a boy appear on the street, carrying a Russian grenade; Kyle must decide whether to shoot the woman and the boy, a frightening choice for anyone to make. He ultimately kills them both. However, in the book, the woman is carrying a Chinese grenade, and there is no boy at all; he is a complete fiction. But by starting the film by showing that even Iraqi women and children are not to be trusted, Eastwood and Hall — and Cooper, who is also one of the producers — are making all Arabs the enemy.
It’s difficult to say how much is true and how much isn’t; Kyle was suffering from PTSD when he wrote the book, so his memory might have been shaky at times. (His claims of shooting looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been unsubstantiated, and his declaration that all proceeds from the sale of the book would go to veterans charities has been questioned as well.) Kyle’s friend and fellow Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell also wrote a book that was made into a movie, Lone Survivor, that had much of its accuracy debated as well. In December, American Sniper producer Rob Lorenz told the Washington Post, “You have to make choices and skip over some logic in order to fit the story on the screen in a reasonable amount of time.” Meanwhile, the eighty-four-year-old Eastwood told the Toronto Star that all the complaints are “a stupid analysis. . . . It was an important story, but you have to embrace [Kyle’s] philosophy if you’re going to tell a story about him.” So is American Sniper emblematic of a nation split between conservative, hawkish Republicans and liberal, dovelike Democrats? Does it matter that so many facts were changed when the “philosophy” is still intact? Should it be judged merely as a movie by itself, without everyone, including Michael Moore, Seth Rogen, and Bill Maher, analyzing its motives and themes in such detail? Well, it seems that the public, and the Academy of Arts and Sciences, has spoken. The film is breaking box-office records, having grossed more than $270 million worldwide and garnering six Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and, tellingly, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Who: Cathy Weis Projects
What: Rare screening of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, documenting collaboration between experimental artists and Bell Labs in 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory
Where: WeisAcres, 537 Broadway between Prince & Spring Sts., buzzer #3
When: Sunday, January 25, free, 2:00 (all future events at 8:00)
Why: The 2014 winter season of Sundays on Broadway begins on January 25 with a ten-hour marathon of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, consisting of films by David Tudor, John Cage, Deborah Hay, Övynid Fahlström, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Robert Whitman, Alex Hay, and Lucinda Childs; the salon-style series continues Sunday nights at 8:00 through March 29 with live performances, readings, film screenings, discussions, and more, including a selection of Trisha Brown’s early works on February 1 with Wendy Perron, a screening of Léonide Massine’s Choreartium on February 8 with Tatiana Massine Weinbaum, and a reading of Fortunato Depero’s unpublished Dramma plastico futurista by puppeteer Dan Hurlin on February 15 (advance reservations are required for the immersive installations taking place the last four Sundays in March with Jon Kinzel, Jennifer Miller, Vicky Shick, and others)
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Peter Jay Sharp Building
230 Lafayette Ave.
Wednesday, January 28, $35-$50
“Miranda July’s ability to pervert norms while embracing what makes us normal is astounding,” Girls creator Lena Dunham says of Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man (Scribner, January 2015, $25). “Writing in the first person with the frank, odd lilt of an utterly truthful character, she will make you laugh, cringe, and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be. By the time July tackles motherhood, the book has become a bible. Never has a novel spoken so deeply to my sexuality, my spirituality, my secret self. I know I am not alone.” On January 28, Dunham, who wrote, directed, and starred in the indie hit Tiny Furniture and whose memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, was released this past September, will host an evening of conversation with July, an influential multimedia artist who writes, directs, and stars in her own films (Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future), writes short stories (many of her earlier ones have been collected in No One Belongs Here More Than You), has recorded albums (10 Million Hours a Mile, The Binet-Simon Test), developed the personal messaging app “Somebody,” and makes performance pieces and art installations (“Eleven Heavy Things,” “Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About”).
In her first book since 2011’s It Chooses You (a companion piece to The Future), July introduces the world to one Cheryl Glickman, a rather persnickety, peculiar, strangely punctilious woman who lives her life and interprets situations a bit oddly. When her carefully laid out existence is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of her bosses’ troubled daughter, Clee, who will be staying with her for an indeterminate amount of time, Cheryl is forced to reevaluate her needs and her “funny way of doing things,” as Clee says. Cheryl suffers from globus hystericus, has a bizarre relationship with her therapist, pines away for an older member of the board of directors where she works, and is constantly in search of Kubelko Bondy, a “baby I think of as mine.” An eccentric both inside and out, Cheryl and her exploits are endlessly charming and plentifully weird as she deals with sexuality, femininity, class, age, and family. And just when you think you might have her figured out, she does yet another thing that surprises, delights, and confounds you. In reviewing No One Belongs Here More Than You, we wrote, “July’s characters live in their own alternate, warped realities, constantly confusing their relationships with friends, family, and even strangers, mistaking nothings for somethings,” a statement that suits The First Bad Man to a tee. The book even has a cool, chic design, courtesy of July’s husband, artist and filmmaker Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners); the dust jacket and case are all black, the title and author name in plain white sans serif type, but the endpapers are like a groovy psychedelic abstract painting. Seeing July, who was born in Vermont and raised in Berkeley, and Dunham, a New York City native, together at BAM should be endlessly charming and plentifully weird as well, making for one very entertaining evening. We’re hoping for a warped, brilliant view directly into two very particular expressions of contemporary female creative sensibility — and one very kooky discussion.
FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY (Brad Bernstein, 2012)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Monday, January 19, 8:00
Winter series runs Tuesdays at 8:00 through March 24
“I am a self-taught raving maniac, but not as crazy as Tomi, or as great as Tomi,” Maurice Sendak says early on in Brad Bernstein’s engaging documentary, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, adding, “He was disarming and funny and not respectable at all.” Another children’s book legend, Jules Feiffer, feels similarly, explaining, “Tomi was this wonderfully brilliant, innovative madman.” Born in Alsace in 1931, Tomi Ungerer developed a remarkably diverse career as an illustrator, incorporating the emotional turmoil he suffered after losing his father when he was still a young child and then living under Nazi rule. In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, Ungerer takes Bernstein and the audience on a fascinating journey through his personal and professional life, traveling to Strasbourg, Nova Scotia, New York City, and Ireland, which all served as home to him at one time or another as he wrote and illustrated such picture books as The Three Robbers and Crictor for editor Ursula Nordstrom, made bold political posters in support of the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War, and published a book of erotic drawings, Fornicon, that ultimately led to a twenty-three-year exile from America during which he stopped making books for children. “I am full of contradictions, and why shouldn’t I be?” the eighty-one-year-old Ungerer says in the film. Ungerer discusses how he uses fear, tragedy, and trauma as underlying themes in his stories, trusting that kids can handle that amid the surreal nature of his entertaining tales.
He opens up his archives, sharing family photographs and old film footage, which reveal that he’s been pushing the envelope for a very long time, unafraid of the consequences. He also visits the Eric Carle Museum to check out a retrospective of his work for children, appropriately titled “Tomi Ungerer: Chronicler of the Absurd.” Meanwhile, Rick Cikowski animates many of Ungerer’s drawings, bringing to life his characters, both for children and adults, adding another dimension to this wonderful documentary. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is a lively, engaging film about a seminal literary figure with an infectious love of life and art, and a unique take on the ills of society, that is a joy to behold. The film kicks off the IFC Center’s winter season of Stranger than Fiction on January 19 at 8:00, followed by a Q&A with Bernstein and Ungerer; Ungerer aficionados will also want to check out the new exhibit ”Tomi Ungerer: All in One” at the Drawing Center through March 22. Stranger than Fiction continues Tuesday nights through March 24 with such other nonfiction works as The Hand that Feeds, Freeway: A Crack in the System, Occupation: Dreamland, Seymour: An Introduction, and A Dangerous Game; each screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director(s), producer(s), and/or subject.