Slight of Hand, by Chase Beck
Anyone going to see Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay expecting to have the secrets of legerdemain revealed to them or the artistry of prestidigitation exposed for all to see might be a little disappointed. This documentary was not made to tear down centuries of mystery surrounding magic as a profession. Rather, it goes a long way to reaffirm the secrecy of the art. That’s not to say that we don’t get a little bit of insight into the world of stage magic as we watch Ricky Jay repeating the same card shuffle over and over again in front of three angled mirrors (the better to perfect his sleight of hand techniques). The film itself is simple and straightforward. It begins with the early life of Ricky Jay as he grows-up, mentored in the world of performing by his grandfather. As he transfers to different stages in life, his mentors change and he continues his apprenticeship over years and years. He names the various influences in his life like the great Slydini, Cardini, Francis Carlyle, etc. The film not only describes who they were and what knowledge they imparted to Ricky, but also shows us brief clips of their acts. At the end, the film focuses on Ricky and who he is today.
If you are familiar with Ricky Jay you’ll know that he does not fit the image we all have of a professional stage magician. He’s rather large and sports a beard, not the well-trimmed and oiled mustache of the stereotypical stage magician. Often appearing onstage in a suit coat with the sleeves pulled back, his presence doesn’t immediately evoke the classic magicians in their elegant tuxedos. Yet, through his skill and knowledge, he never fails to impress. Ricky Jay is a near constant figure in Hollywood (most likely due to his consulting firm Deceptive Practices). He has appeared in bit parts in various films and television episodes. I was familiar with him before I heard about the film but had always wanted to learn more about Ricky Jay. This film satisfies my curiosity.
Directed by Molly Bernstein with co-director Alan Edelstein, the movie is approximately 88 minutes long. This is by no means Bernstein’s first documentary although up until this point, the majority of her work has been for television. Perhaps that explains why, as I watched Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, I got the feeling that I was watching a television documentary. It just has this very ho-hum, hum-drum quality. Ricky Jay does not overcome any great obstacles in his life and there’s no impressive transition or transformation that he goes through. At times, I even got the feeling I was watching a commercial, perhaps for Ricky Jay’s various books or stage productions. I enjoyed this journey into the history of magic and professional magicians but I felt there could have been a lot more. As interested as I was in learning about Ricky Jay, the movie that would have been far more impressive, in my mind at least, would be Ricky Jay taking me through the history of magic and magician performances. Based on the documentary, he’s more than capable of such a film. He has made learning about the history of magic his personal ambition. Why couldn’t we see more of that side of Ricky Jay?
At times Ricky laments the secretiveness of the profession, how the men whom he was apprenticed to refused to impart some of their greatest tricks to him. That lost knowledge seems to depress and disappoint Jay. Yet he still concedes that there are things he knows that he will never share. It seems that knowledge among magicians is not freely bestowed, it must be earned. This perfectly explains why there are few real secrets revealed by the film. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay only delivers on half the promise that the title makes, there are plenty of mentors, but no real mysteries to speak of. I’m okay with that.