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Ricky Jay is an American magician. Make that the American magician. Not only does he make coins appear, he also writes bestselling books, collects arcana, elucidates history and stars on Broadway and in David Mamet films.
Anyone who has seen his one-man shows Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants and Ricky Jay: On the Stem knows that Ricky is possessed of esoteric knowledge handed down from Hermes. It’s equally clear that he’s divinely entertaining. Both his genius and his game receive riveting closeups in Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, which magically appears in the 50th New York Film Festival’s On the Arts sidebar.
As its title suggests, Deceptive Practice aims to penetrate the titular “Mysteries” of Ricky’s art. Far from watching the making of sausage, the audience emerges with amped up marvel and hunger for more. The fact that Deceptive Practice cannot possibly crack said mysteries only adds to the burlesque and elevates the film itself to a form of deceptive practice that Ricky should well appreciate.
The tortoise-eyed trickster retraces his coming of age, starting at four, under the tutelage of amateur cryptographer and illusionist Max Katz, who was also his adored grandfather. Young Ricky né Richard Jay Potash further benefitted from the mentorship of such “sensei’s” as Slydini, Al Flosso ("the Coney Island Fakir") and Cardini. Their names alone give a flavor of the elder teachers whose effects informed his earliest passions – and visa versa. Archival material, interviews and performance clips fetch up their spirits and bolster the context of Bernstein and Edelstein’s peep.
Ricky especially credits Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller in helping to build his balletic card skills. From the opening frames we see the now 60-something array a deck like a peacock's tail. The contrast between his graceful legerdemain and hulking frame, craggy complexion and Brooklyn honk laces the film with ample dramatic tension on its own.
To help conjure Ricky’s profile is performance footage spanning his storied career. There he is, practicing his geeky craft at age seven and on through his shaggy-haired phase as an emerging media darling. In one especially riotous TV appearance, Ricky’s buddy Steve Martin plays his foil on The Dinah Shore Show.
Hurling cards at a watermelon is the spectacle of other on-air engagements; watching this moose of a fruit repel and finally admit Ricky’s blitz becomes curiously mezmerizing.
More recent takes accentuate the ironic distance Ricky cultivates in the hoary tradition of his trade. With a raconteur’s glint, he suggests a relish for darker arts like gambling. He may be a scholar, but perhaps a gentleman only by the standards of Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth.
One of the greatest mysteries of the film is, Why do we want to be duped? What's the source of our ensorcelment? Given that deception also happens with humor, an answer may lurk in the anatomy of yuks. Like Aristotole, most current humor theorists argue that jokes are premised on a reaction to incongruity. Just as the set-up of a joke excites a neural state of questioning and makes us speculate on the logical answer -- only to mess with our conceptual framework when the punchline lobs its twist -- our brain on magic also asks neurons to reconcile prior expectations with a rudely different overload of information.
When FilmFestivalTraveler.com asked Ricky for his view, he pleaded ignorance but seemed intrigued. Until neuroscientists catch up with him, let's imagine that illusion, like humor, evolved to help us detect mistakes in our logic and reasoning, ennabling us to develop such devices as metaphor and analogy. If the payoff of pleasurable laughter helps us disrupt faulty thinking and draw constructive conclusions, why can't a pleasurable gasp of awe?
Stranger things have happened.
Ultimately, Deceptive Practice is a portrait of a discipline that transcends its featured practicioner. If timing and choreography are among the essential elements of illusion, the filmmakers have learned a trick or two on the job. We are fortunate to have feature-length evidence of Ricky Jay and his mentors' entrancing history -- even if we never get wise to their sleights of hand no matter how many times we may watch.
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