Home Video Hovel: Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, by Craig Schroeder
I can pinpoint the exact reason as to why I’ve always been annoyed by magic. As a child, I saw a televised special where a prominent magician exposed one of his most prolific tricks: making a helicopter disappear. The magician momentarily dropped a large curtain between the camera and the helicopter, pulling it away to reveal an empty space where the chopper was only seconds earlier. The secret? The chopper sat on a revolving platform that simply rotated the helicopter out of view of the camera. Since then, I’ve subconsciously written off magic as a lazy form of entertainment. The magician, tricks and performances in Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay all have similarly rational explanations for their illusions and effects, but the film isn’t interested in exposing magic tricks. Instead, it’s a film that explores the history of magic and the magician’s relationship with their audience and art form.
Deceptive Practice, from documentarians Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein (with an executive producer credit from perennial NPR personality Terry Gross), profiles famed magician Ricky Jay. For his entire life, Jay has been a student of magic, having worked with or studied under an infinite tutelage of illustrious American magicians like Slydini, Dai Vernon and Charles Miller. On numerous occasions, Jay refers to his study under other magicians as an apprenticeship, comparing his education to that of a martial arts student under the guidance of a sansei. Now in his sixties, Jay is not only a magician but a historian of magic with a vast collection of vintage posters of circus performers and early twentieth-century illusionists, antique books on the practice of magic and a growing accumulation of dice from different countries and eras.
Ricky Jay is an instantly likable guy. He’s got a slightly high-pitched voice, but with a low timber, and speaks with such genuine excitement that it’s hard not to fully embrace even the most banal stories of vaudeville magicians. He has a receding hairline and a tight, patchy beard with large swatches of grey. In archival footage, Jay’s beard was fuller and he had an unruly mane of brown hair that extended down to his back. Most of the film is told through Jay’s perspective, seamlessly weaving together a series of intimate interviews with footage of Jay’s appearances on late night talk shows and club performances. The archival footage in the film is quite astounding. In addition to footage from Jay’s early life, including his first staged performance at the age of four, the film presents footage of entire allusions and tricks from vaudeville acts and World War II era magicians, in a way that never dulls the pace of the film or distracts from its subject.
My perception of magicians has always been informed by childhood birthday parties or unlikeable Vegas stuntmen. But Deceptive Practice is an exploration of magic as an art form. Jay’s admiration for magicians stems as much from their tricks and illusions as it does from their dedication to crafting a performance down to the most minute detail. Large parts of the film focus on Jay’s most precisely crafted performance, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, a mid-nineties run of theater performances directed by long-time friend David Mamet (who has cast Ricky Jay in a number of his films). In these performances, Jay’s illusions and sleight-of-hand, aren’t nearly as impressive as his rapport with his audience and his ability to captivate a crowd. Perhaps the purest example of Jay’s adherence to magic as an art form comes near the end of the film, as a journalist for the Guardian recalls being reduced to tears by a trick involving a giant block of ice that Jay performed only for her in the middle of a crowded diner. Whether performed for a crowd or a single person, Jay proves magic to be an art form as expressive as any other; each trick and illusion is as refined as a comedy routine and as precise as the stroke of a paint brush.
Ever since watching the reveal of how to make a helicopter disappear, I’ve always been hyper-aware of the conceit of magic tricks; they are simply tricks—a conceit Jay himself acknowledges. So when I am inevitably fooled, it seems like a cheap victory for the magician. But Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay has changed my perspective. It doesn’t celebrate the notion of tricking its suspecting participants. Instead, it proves magic to be one of America’s most celebrated forms of escapism and art. Magic doesn’t come from the magician making the helicopter “disappear”, but from the magician’s ability to convince the audience that it could.