The Leunig Fragments
Michael Leunig, Phillip Adams, Sunny Leunig
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Leunig is quite fascinated by what art is and where inspiration comes from, but he is also deeply suspicious of exposing too much to the light in case it shrivels and dies.
A French poet once said, “there is another life, but it is inside this one”. That could describe the way of being of Australian illustrator and cartoonist Michael Leunig perfectly. Now, finally we have a documentary about his life and work called, revealingly enough, The Leunig Fragments. We are never going to get the whole guy, he is too contradictory and fractured for that.
Documentarian Kasimir Burgess (who made the fictional feature Fell to great acclaim back in 2014) has taken nearly three years to get this in the can and, though he is patient with Leunig, you can feel touches of exasperation. It is not that the great cartoonist is not helpful, in fact there are endless face to face conversations in which he tries to explain his thoughts and processes. Most of the film is made up of this with several of his cartoons and animations thrown in. Like many artists, Leunig is quite fascinated by what art is and where inspiration comes from, but he is also deeply suspicious of exposing too much to the light in case it shrivels and dies.
Also, Leunig is pretty much a ‘national treasure’, and so it is not hard to find other people in the media to be sympathetic talking heads. ABC Radio broadcaster Phillip Adams points out that no one stays the course for decades unless they really have something to say and care about being heard. Adams neatly nails Leunig’s sly apparently-innocent approach as ‘weaponised whimsy’. Indeed, the best of Leunig can be uniquely memorable. Like the Canadian cartoonist Gary Larson, everyone has their favourite Leunig, and his drawings adorn middle class fridges throughout the land. On occasions, he can stand in for the conscience of a nation.
That said, he has made the occasional misstep in his long career and felt the pain of rejection. His sometimes ill-judged gags about LGBTI issues saw him recently fall on the wrong side of cancel culture. The film implicitly alludes to the fact that Leunig’s is a Boomer sensibility. Up and coming entertainers definitely don’t feel that they need to treat him with kid gloves or reverence.
The film also circles around the fact of his sometimes strained personal relations. Only one member of his semi-estranged family takes part in the film. Leunig worries away at this a bit, but then he worries about a lot of things. He also notices a lot of things that other people don’t notice they have noticed. He has a poet’s eye for detail, and he is primarily concerned with what he calls the ‘felt life’. He also prizes simplicity and being true to oneself (he is Christian in a quirky kind of way). But, for such a determinedly simple man he is decidedly complex.
Ultimately it is not a matter of forgiving or condemning the man or his art; that would be to fall into a very modern form of judgementalism. Though the film is slightly unsatisfactory in some ways, it nevertheless has a fascinating person at its centre. In the end artists care about their art and, yes, they contain multitudes.