Magical Mystery Tour: A magician and acrobat of the early 20th century, Long Tack Sam spent his life touring the world with his family and performance troupe.
Creating a Magician
Anne Marie Fleming pieces together the fantastic life of her once world-famous great-grandfather, Long Tack Sam
By Laura Mattingly
'In some ways I completely reanimated this life that had completely been lost," says Anne Marie Fleming, writer and director, researcher and animator of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, a biographical documentary about her great-grandfather. A magician and world-renowned vaudeville celebrity of the early 20th century, Long Tack Sam had somehow slipped between the crack of the East and West into complete obscurity, until Fleming's documentary proved that some family secrets are worth dredging up.
Fleming spent six years researching and making the documentary, interviewing dozens of relatives, professional acrobats and historians of magic, and eventually taking her journey to China, the birthplace of her great-grandfather.
The film, in form and content, functions as a family scrapbook, or a historical collage that provides fragments of information alongside intriguing holes in the historical record. The Chinese-born Long Tack Sam married an Austrian woman, an unthinkable feat at the time, which their friends refer to as a "great love." Their two beautiful daughters became performers as well, and were often the main attractions of the magician's shows. Many people Fleming interviews can still remember witnessing the family's dazzling feats. But the more people Fleming asks about who her great-grandfather was, what family he was from and where he learned his trade, the more varied answers she receives, causing Fleming to strongly suspect Long Tack Sam of having been perpetually creating and recreating his own history and mythology throughout his life.
Fleming presents the many treasured pieces of her unearthed family history by using comic books, old photos and various techniques of animation, giving the entire film a quirky, tactile quality, a joy to view.
"Originally it was quite serendipitous; I was not intending it to be an animated documentary," says Fleming. "I was looking for footage that I'd heard existed of my great-grandfather's act, and I just couldn't find any, even though I spent years searching for it. But I did start to retrieve all of this archival material, the illustrations, the photographs, and some of the photographs are quite extraordinary, they look so contemporary. And I am an animator; that is my background as well."
Some of the animation technique Fleming uses in the film is experimental, inspired by a film Fleming saw transforming the paintings of artist Jack Shadbull, involving the re-creating of a photo's background, and then repositioning the foreground figures, cutting them out and moving them in the fashion of paper dolls.
"I ended up working with a whole bunch of animators and artists, which I don't usually do," says Fleming. "I usually do all my own stuff, so I ended up with all of these different techniques and all of these different styles, which I think kind of suites the subject matter perfectly. Because what he did was a variety act, and he did do so many different things, and he was changing stuff up all the time. So in fact it's kind of like a circus of visual styles."
The film's hodge-podge of techniques evokes the spirit of her great-grandfather's show. Though a child of the East, Long Tack Sam gained fame in the West among contemporaries such as Houdini with multicultural performances that tended to play up his Eastern mystique.
As an animator, Fleming considers herself to be carrying on the family tradition, likening her great-grandfather's amazing feats of acrobatics and needle swallowing to her own ability to transform the image for the sake of captivating an audience.
"Of course in the end animation really is the legacy of magic, and it's the closest line from me to my great-grandfather, who died the year before I was born. It was magicians and photographers who did the first films. ... So it seems perfect that animation is the magic in the film."
Ultimately the film provides a lesson in the phenomenon of resurrection. To make it, Fleming swam against a tide of language barriers, the passage of time and the sometimes irreparable fragmentation that results from an immigrant experience where each individual embraces the aspects of their old lives that their new home allows while burying others. In the end, Fleming has managed to beautifully reassemble the identity of a man she felt the modern world might benefit from knowing.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam will screen as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival Saturday, Oct. 7, at 7pm (when the filmmaker will also be present) and Monday, Oct. 9, at 4pm at the Del Mar Theater, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.