For years I’ve had a mild obsession with Ricky Jay. He’s one of the best living magicians in the world. He’s an archaeologist of magic lore, human oddments, and other curiosities; he’s a great raconteur; and his version of the cups and balls moves me to tears. I’ve watched it dozens of times, I understand what he’s doing with his hands, but always without fail, my eyes well up at the end of the routine.
You’re probably familiar with Ricky Jay. He (or his voice) has appeared in several films, including Magnolia, The Prestige, The Brothers Bloom, and The Spanish Prisoner. He also appeared on an episode of Mythbusters to show off his deadly accuracy with playing cards. (One of Ricky Jay’s books is Cards As Weapons, which I’d love to own if I could only find an affordable copy.)
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a documentary on the man. There’s no deception, obfuscation, or misdirection in the film a la F for Fake. It’s a straight ahead portrait of his upbringing and his craft.
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the limited theatrical release of the film.]
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Directors: Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein
Release Date: April 17, 2013 (NYC)
When someone talks about something they’re passionate about, you can hear the enthusiasm in their voice. Even old people become giddy, childlike almost. That’s the way Ricky Jay sounds whenever he shares a tale about a dog-faced boy, a bit of clever chicanery from Bartholomew Fair, or the great masters of legerdemain who would be his models growing up. But since it’s Ricky Jay and given that voice of his, the glee would manifest itself as some a deadpan “Wheee” or droning “Wow,” perfectly timed, impeccably delivered — the world-weary carnival barker who’s got vaudeville in his heart.
Much of the film is devoted to the magicians who refined Ricky Jay’s craft in sleight of hand. His primary hero in that regard was his grandfather, Max Katz. Through Katz, Ricky Jay got introduced to the magicians of the New York scene and began performing shows at a young age. There’s passing talk about Ricky Jay’s parents, who were never really a presence in his life. It was all his grandpa and his grandpa’s friends: Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini. Later as an adult while making a living as a magician, he’d find a second grandfather in Dai Vernon.
I’d never seen any footage of the young Ricky Jay at work. And I don’t mean the Ricky Jay of the 1970s with long hair that goes down to his ruffled shirt. I mean very young. Deceptive Practice has some footage of a pre-pubertal Ricky Jay on TV. He couldn’t have been older than eight. The flair is in its infancy, and his ability to talk is still just childlike rather than adult yet childlike. He still had natural talent and presence, and a knack for practicing effects. (I like that people in the trade refer to their work as “effects.” It has a better ring to it than “trick.”) Towards the beginning of Deceptive Practice, he admits that if you just stick a deck of cads in front of him, he’ll be content to shuffle and shuffle for a few hours.
Much of Deceptive Practice serves as a kind of “Ricky Jay’s Greatest Hits.” The interviews were shot on and off for the last 15 years, and the routines that show up in the movie are culled from many of his TV appearances and magic shows. I wonder how much footage Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein shot in total. While the interviews are generally good, I could have listened to more from and about Ricky Jay even if he is guarded about his homelife. Maybe there was only so much access that could be granted, or, and I think this is more likely, Bernstein and Edelstein didn’t want to probe too far into those family issues. You can tell from Ricky Jay’s voice and reticence that it’s understandably something he’d rather not discuss, at least for the camera. There are still other things that could have been added into the doc, so perhaps more of the interview material can get weaved into the film rather than relying too much on the familiar routines.
Some of the greatest hits that appear in Deceptive Practice include throwing cards into a watermelon, remarkable shuffles, and a bit of three-card Monte featuring a bewildered Steve Martin. Some of the effects are clipped, which is one of the difficulties of fitting some of Ricky Jay’s best work into a documentary. Since he’s a good raconteur, a full Ricky Jay effect can take up to eight minutes. He drops in little touches at the beginning in order for the effect to make full impact. Sometimes, like his cups and balls trick, he’s weaving history and lore — those ecstatic interests — into the routine. It’s as if historical figures and bits of legend are, like the little red balls, popping up in unexpected ways.
Two interview subjects discuss effects that Ricky Jay performed in front of them that left them startled. One effect, the set-up of which took a few hours, left the interviewee in tears. It was unexpected and so beautiful, and the way that Bernstein and Edelstein build into it in the film has a similar construction to what Ricky Jay does as a raconteur on stage. I was hoping for a few more interviews like this and additional constructions like this since they say something important about who Ricky Jay is without saying it outright: either he’s always acting the part of the illusionist, or he’s never been acting on stage or off; Ricky Jay is always Ricky Jay. (If they do say this outright, maybe I missed it.)
Being moved to tears by a magic routine may go back to the idea of childlike enthusiasm. Childlike enthusiasm might be an essential part of art, storytelling, and magic. Ricky Jay suggests that magic is an honest kind of deception, whereas crime is a dishonest form of deception. With magic we allow ourselves to be fooled. It can make us feel like kids again. An effect — whether in magic or in a work of art — can make us feel like something impossible can happen, and maybe that brief moment of impossibility is a reason why people can be moved to tears by books, by movies, by a painting, or by a magician. We get to share someone’s enthusiasm.
I’d like to see more documentaries that center around Ricky Jay’s enthusiasms. For one, I’d love to see what kind of collection of old magic books, trinkets, and gewgaws he’s got. His own books are filled with a great collection of pamphlets and posters from the last few centuries that are an absolute hoot to look at. I wouldn’t mind him doing a mockumentary based on Cards as Weapons, which from what I’ve read is like a martial history of playing cards as conceived by Groucho Marx and Jorge Luis Borges. Maybe Ricky Jay can do his own take on Orson Welles’s F for Fake. Even just a straight-up history of legerdemain narrated and structured by Ricky Jay would be great.
Deceptive Practice is basically Ricky Jay 101, which is a nice intro to the subject. While I liked it okay, I’m eager for some upper division/advanced courses in Ricky Jay. That’s where the true enthusiasm will shine through.