Though the secretive nature of magic is as crucial to the art form as oxygen is to breathing, Jay touches on how being part of such an enigmatic and mysterious society can be a lonely affair.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
When it comes to learning any kind of skilled craft, the fastest route to mastery is learning from the masters themselves. “The way you want to learn is by someone you respect showing you something” proclaims Ricky Jay, the subject of newcomer Molly Bernstein’s dazzling documentary Deceptive Practice: the Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. The film explores the ancient master/apprentice, sensei/student cascade of knowledge by detailing the astonishing career path of Jay, one of the greatest sleight of hand practitioners in the history of magic, and his meetings with his masters. Jay would likely find my description of his journey through the world of illusion as a “career path” grossly reductive—the art of magic has over the years seeped into his every fiber, and though he never allows Bernstein’s lens become too revealing (what good magician would?), we can see every bit of passion in his eyes and in his inimitable, slyly mischievous voice.
As Jay reflects on his formative years as a magician, he speaks of his mentors (an unprecedented lineup of legendary illusionists) with deep, resounding reverence. He expresses his appreciation for greats like Max Katz (Jay’s grandfather), Cardini, Roy Benson, Francis Carlyle, and my favorite, the delightfully Italian (“I’m a-gonna show you dissa way!”) master of misdirection, Slydini, accompanied by vintage footage of their classic acts. Jay’s enthusiasm and admiration for the skill sets of his forefathers is immeasurable and indicative of why he’s become one of the greats himself—he’s a true student of the game.
We see footage of Jay from his childhood, pulling birds out of top hats, to his years as a hippie-haired young man confounding Steve Martin on television (hilarious), to clips of his celebrated special, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. What’s most fascinating about the footage is just how good Jay is. He’s arguably even better than his mentors, despite their greatness. He’s met and learned from so many of them, soaked up so much of their knowledge, that he’s become a walking encyclopedia of magic, something like a Voltron super-magician. His verbosity is dry, witty, charming, and essential to his act—his gabbing keeps us busy while his hands sneak around in plain sight, doing the dirty work.
Magicians have devoted their lives to keeping their secrets hidden, and Jay is no exception. He describes a handful of his illusions, and even performs a couple for the camera, but he never reveals their mechanics, feeding our amazement. Though the secretive nature of magic is as crucial to the art form as oxygen is to breathing, Jay—in one of the film’s most poignant moments—touches on how being part of such an enigmatic and mysterious society (one that’s never caught on big like music or movies) can be a lonely affair. “I never stop thinking about how the people who were so good they’d bring tears to your eyes from the beauty of their performances, couldn’t make money” he confesses.
I find few things more interesting than listening to experts speak about their work, but one is their passion for it. It would be entertaining enough to simply set Ricky Jay in front of a camera and let him talk, but Bernstein captures the essence of Jay’s persona in a way that’s as intimate and riveting as his routines. “It was a kind of supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed, that was done for me” recalls Suzie Mackenzie about a trick (involving a giant ice cube) Jay performed less than a foot in front of her in a restaurant. After watching Deceptive Practice, I echo her sentiment.