Through the magic of Photoshop & animation software, potentially interesting documentaries can nowadays be screwed up by talentless dweebs turning worthwhile topics into cheap-ass cartoons.
I'm reminded when "table top publishing" was new a couple decades ago & every book & newsletter self-publisher had to frame the page, use fifty different typefaces, excerpt quotes or insert pictures in fancy boxing frames of numerous sorts, & arrange pages in sundry variations of one, two, three, or four columns wide. And every dumbass option available had to be used with no sense of restraint, typographical design, or taste
Lately just such amateurish documentaries are trashed up with every kitsch trick that can be concocted by any moron with the right software. Old still photographs or classical paintings can be made to hop & dance & swing or blink the eyes. And if it can be done then it must be done, in the logic of the minimally talented.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003) takes just such stunts to extremes. An amazing photograph can be on the screen, of a Chinese family on the American vaudeville circuit, looking straight out at us from the past. And right there in the midst of a blissful Ken Burns moment, suddenly the figures in the photo start bobbling their heads or blinking their eyes.
Now a low-budget documentary can sometimes eem heroic rather than amateur, in making the most with the budget at hand. But suppose you're a second-rate cinematographer plus your'e a second rate cartoonist. Mixing the two can reinforce the sense of not being up to the task, making it harder to fob off as only budget limitation.
So added to the animated photographs we also get poorly designed cartoon animation of Long Tack Sam's childhood experiences in China. Well, that part might've worked for preschoolers the same way Barnie the Dinosaur seems real to two year olds. But this ain't no kiddy documentary, & the childish animation pounds the show to the lowest level of tacky.
Sure, it must've been difficult to come up with pictorial material for the childhood portion of the biograhy, but a really ugly-ass cartoon was not the the right answer to that dilemma.
As an entertainer there was good pictorial material to uncover for Long Tack Sam. The documentarian should've had faith enough in the subject to not trash it up with cruddy animation of real photos & concoction of poor comic book images set in motion.
The resulting documentary is so phony looking, so homely, so aggressively cheezy, that for half the film I wasn't convinced it wasn't a mocumentary pretending that such a man as Long Tack Sam once existed, in the tradition of the brilliant Watermelon Woman (1996).
A little of the funny-pages nonsense might've gotten by, but it dominates long patches of the film. A viewer has to struggle to see around the antics of the filmmaker to find the authentic subject buried in this mess.
And what one glimpses through the cartoon haze is a man of wonderful integrity & talent who should never have been forgotten, an important piece of vaudeville history, history of stage magic, & of the Chinese contribution to North American popular arts.
The subject was so amazing that it's all the more condemnable that it should be spoilt by the egotism of a mediocre cartoonist intruding unrelated visual nonsense & trickery. Maybe, maybe, maybe a cartoon could've been used for a title sequence if animation were important to the documentarian. But it in no way reflects the life of Long Tack Sam & the film was supposed to be about his life, not about modern comic books & computer animation.
The film is further padded with redundant "personal quest" diary-like notations of the "I, Me, My" sort which one would expect from an individual who mistook her great-grandfather's life for her own animation software. A little of the autobiographical bits could've added a lot. But the redundancy of it is gruelling to sit through. Excise the "Me" material & the cartoons & what we have is about twenty minutes on the actual topic.
If padding was required, I would rather have seen ut be about the vaudeville context of Long Tack Sam's career. He performed at the Roxy in Chicago for example, & a sidebar about the time & place when & where Chicagoans lined up to see his show would've enriched rather than sidestepped the topic.
It might even have been apropos to include a little more of the history of Chinese vaudevillians in America & Europe, a sidebar about Long Tack Sam's predecessor Ching Ling Foo & the worldwild marketability of Chinese magicians generally (birthing even fake Chinese acts by Caucasians).
That could have lent greater understanding of how a society could be so damnably racist & yet so eager to see Long Tack Sam's stage spectaculars. Or why even to this day classic & standard magic tricks continue to bare such names as "Chinese Linking Rings" (a trick more than two thousand years old in China), or Houdini's "Chinese Water Torture Cell" which would be his last trick this side of Death.
If authentic pictorial material about Long Tack Sam were honestly too scanty for a feature length documentary, there were lots of ways to repair that without resorting to homely animation. A collection of orientalist posters from the period showing Chinese & faux-Chinese magicians generally would've been a whole carnival for the eyes, & without animating the posters.
Long Tack Sam was in his heyday a famous magician & vaudevillian whose family produced & starred in extravaganzas from one coast of America & Canada to the other, & on three continents. He was momentarily a household name of entertainment, a peer of Houdini, an opening act for the Marx Brothers, a friend of Orson Welles.
When movies began to undermine vaudeville, movie contracts were the direction entertainers were taking. Long Tack Sam with his extravagant talent & beautiful daughers certainly could have gotten cast in films.
But he'd spent his career creating entertainments that while exotic were never offensive to Chinese values & realities. The opportunities provided by the film industry were the opposite of all that he believed in. To go from the master of a big impressive show to bit parts as Tong war villains or houseboys who recite fortune cookie slogans in broken English simply was not acceptable.
Because he refused to move into the new medium, his fame evaporated like a will o' the wisp, & even his own descendants forgot that he existed.
The director is Vancouver filmmaker Ann-Marie Fleming, the great-granddaughter of Long Tack Sam & his Polish wife. Fleming set out on a world journey tracking down the few people who had any information about her illustrious ancestor whose own descendants had so little knowledge of his life.
The biography that bubbles to the surface is part mythic reconstruction shaped to fit the cartoon rather than the life, but for the non-animated portion we are permitted to glimpse a man who rose out of poverty, overcame language barriers, struggled against shocking racism & attitudes against interracial families, coped with the Anti-Chinese Act, lived through two world wars, & much else in order to entertain the masses.
If we wait for perfect documentaries on such topics it could be a long wait, so this film really is a must-see for anyone interested in histories of the Chinese in North America, or histories of vaudeville. The good parts of this film provide eye-opening moments.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl