Friday, October 5th, 2007
Ten years ago, while rehabilitating from a traffic accident, Ann Marie Fleming came into possession of several reels of 16-millimeter film, home movies of her great-grandfather that revealed a curious bit of family history: her great-grandfather had been a famous magician who performed under the name Long Tack Sam. Inspired by this discovery, Fleming set out in search of her great-grandfather’s story. She wanted to know who he had been and how a man born in rural China carved out a career during the tumultuous and racially-tense days of the early twentieth century. Moreover, she wanted to understand how Sam—whom she soon discovered was not merely famous but world-famous, one of the most beloved performers of the first half of the century—could be almost completely forgotten.
Fleming’s search took her all over the world, from Vancouver to Illinois, from Illinois to Australia, from Australia to Shanghai. Fleming first chronicled her findings in her award-winning documentary film The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. She has now adapted the film into a visually and narratively complex Technicolor graphic memoir of the same name in which she tell the story of her search, her great-grandfather’s rise to fame, and his extraordinary life both on- and offstage. See an excerpt here. —Matt Tanner
Even though it’s framed around one man, this is a very expansive story that spans generations and millions of miles and deals with a lot of very complicated issues of race and identity. Were you ever intimidated by the scope of the story you were trying to tell?
That’s it exactly! It’s like a revisit of the twentieth century through the prismatic nature of this one particular man. It was like an ever-expanding puzzle as to issues of race and identity and global travel. That is the story of my family. Through my own journey, I learned how much it is the story of so many families. What was intimidating about the process was that I knew so little at the start . . . about anything . . . magic, vaudeville, acrobatics, Chinese history. It was daunting! It took me years. . . .
There are really three stories in the book: the show business myth of Long Tack Sam, the story of his actual life, and your search for your grandfather’s history. How difficult was it to disentangle these threads and then weave them into a memoir?
Are there only three main stories? Good!
I knew almost nothing about Long Tack Sam when I started this process, but I picked up this book called Continuous Performance by Carrie Baliban who wrote about the Baliban Katz Dynasty, and Long Tack Sam was a friend of theirs. At the back she had, year by year, things that had happened and pop songs and movies, etc. So, I made a time-grid, put politics on one line, pop culture on the other, and the little I knew about my great grandfather on another, and so on, and extrapolated where he would be and why from other events in the world. And often, I guessed right. It was the hardest thing to do, to weave the different stories together and balance them. It took me two years to write and edit the film, and almost another two years to adapt it to a book. As you know, it could be a thousand different films, a thousand different books. . . .
There’s a great line at the end of the book: “Distances and differences keep us apart, and we forget to remind each other of our own stories.” To what degree do you feel the book is your story, and to what degree is it Sam’s?
Well, first, I wanted to keep myself out of the narrative, and then, I saw I was actually an important component of it, a way to enter into the story, and I realized at the end of the project, my connection to Sam — where we went, what we did. I’m an animator, and animation is the legacy of magic. It was magicians and photographers who made the first films — the fantasy works of MeliÈs, for example.I have a little flip book off a tumbler in the bottom right hand corner of the book, to give you the sense that this is a world of motion, and of repetition too.
There seems to have been a lot of unhappiness in the latter portion of Sam and Poldi’s marriage. You mention Poldi’s dislike of life on the road, but did you get a sense that it was more complicated?
What isn’t complicated about family? I believe she had Alzheimer’s later in life. She was institutionalized, before or after Sam’s death, depending on who you talk to. A mixed marriage, life on the road, Sam’s charismatic nature — it must have been exhausting. But they were a completely devoted couple. Show business marriages are often difficult. I want to make a dramatic feature that explores more about that very special love affair that crossed so many boundaries and could not have been easy.
You mention in the book that many of your relatives are performers or artists. To what extent do you credit your family’s history in show business?
Well, it really never occurred to any of us that any of us were in show business! or that we had anything in common, but there you have it, one big published family reunion, so to speak, and we can see our similarities. Is it in the genes? It isn’t in the stories that we weren’t told. Oddly, Neesa’s family, who perhaps were the most aware of their legacy, are not in the arts at all.
You met a lot of relatives during your search for your grandfather’s story. Are you still in touch with most of them?
I started this project ten years ago and, sadly, a lot of people have passed away. But the film and the book really has been a passport to our reconnecting with each other, and yes, I am much more in touch now than before. It’s great.
Your memoir is bookended by two car accidents, one that begins your search and one that ends the story. What does that coincidence mean to you?
Well! I think I always look for coincidences in life. Thanks for noticing that one. But besides [teaching us to] “cross at the light,” I can’t think of how these two things join us other than they were extremely life-changing and unpleasant incidences.
Was it hard to get details about Sam’s actual life, as opposed to the showbiz mythology?
Very hard, because he was creating the mythology himself. And he would tell even good friends, relatives ever-changing stories. It was easier in his later years, when his life was more about family and friends.
I can imagine it the picaresque tale of Sam running away to study magic and acrobatics would be a pretty exciting find in and of itself. In some ways was the myth more appealing to you than the more prosaic day-to-day life of the real man?
What I love is that everyone has a story. And everyone lives a day-to-day life. I loved finding the romantic tales of Sam running away to the circus, but like everything else, it is hard work that finds it’s loveliest expression in the retelling.He had one hard life.
The book is based on your documentary film. Were there portions of the story you felt needed to be either to be cut or expanded for the book?
I both expanded and cut from the information that is in the documentary. The page gives a different way of approaching material, and I felt I could be more tangetial, as it wasn’t time-based and you had to keep pretty focused in the film (not that the film isn’t all about diversions…). Because I didn’t have the benefit of the sound and music to help me flesh out the life and times, I came up with other strategies — like the historical timelines in the margins, for example, like Stickgirl, the narrator, who takes you through. The layout is different on each page so you can sit in it and read around the page, sometimes.
How did you decide to adapt the film into a book, and did you always conceive of it as a graphic memoir?
I always wanted to write a book, expand the story and include the full fascinating interviews I had with all the people involved, but I couldn’t find an entry into the publishing world. Then, quite fortuitously, Megan Lynch, an editor at Riverhead Books in New York City, saw the doc on the Sundance Channel,called me up, and asked if I’d like to adapt it into a graphic novel. She said it would be an excellent was to teach young people, especially children of immigrants, how to value themselves through the stories of their own families. It was like a dream come true. I was so intimidated, it took me almost a year to begin the process.
Do you feel you have a complete picture of who Sam was, or are you still looking for parts of his story?
I have only started to find out his story. but there are so many others. He keeps on coming up, though. People are still sending me memorabilia and stories through email. Whenever the film comes out people email me and tell me what they are thinking. The book is being used in schools, too. It’s such a specific and personal story, yet it has enormous resonance and relevance to a lot of people from very different walks of life, culture, background, etc.
I wanted to start a conversation. One that can continue after I’ve left the room. It’s been a very hard journey—it’s not over yet—but one that I’ve been very honored to have been asked to go on.
It’s about valuing who you are, valuing your family (whether you get along with them or not). We are all history. We are all in it, and we all make it. Like the book says . . . history is relatives.