Nowadays, with the abundance and popularity of fantasy literature and cinema, when someone says “magic,” they immediately conjure images of entrenched warlocks and fire-breathing dragons. The art and performance of practical magic – things like card tricks and making stuff disappear – has faded into the background, unless you stumble upon one of those neverending loops of David Blaine specials on cable or remember how David Copperfield was once one of America’s most popular celebrities (he did have great hair). But as “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” an intriguing (if intermittently stuffy) biography of a true master magician, shows – practical magic can be just as thrilling as anything you see on “Game of Thrones.”
There are a number of ways that you could potentially recognize Ricky Jay. He’s a frequent collaborator of cantankerous playwright and filmmaker David Mamet (who directed a pair of the magician’s popular and critically lauded Broadway shows) and with his velvety voice he was the narrator of both Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Magnolia” and Rian Johnson‘s “The Brothers Bloom.” And there’s the fact that he’s been performing magic in various forms since he was a small child, noticing a spike in popularity thanks to the abundance of variety and talk shows in the ’70s (when his hairstyle spilled off his head and down his back in cascading waves) and then, years later, he moved to more formal stage productions of illusions.
The track that ‘Deceptive Practice’ chooses to take, however, is in following Ricky Jay’s influences – his heroes, mentors, and contemporaries who helped shape his development as a performer and contributed to his current status as a historian of the art form and a leading member of the old guard of practical magic. In broad biographical strokes, the filmmakers, Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein (both seasoned veterans of the documentary form), chart Jay from an eager young magician (a newspaper profile of Jay from when he was around seven, quotes him as saying that he doesn’t see himself having a career in the field of illusion) to a restless and somewhat angry young man, who essentially left his family to pursue his career as an illusionist. What’s so fascinating is that you get the impression that it wasn’t raw ambition that drove him, but it was curiosity. Ricky Jay wanted to study under the greats of magic, to learn from them in essential ways while adding enough of his own flavor to really have an impact of his own.
And he did it. Jay says repeatedly in the documentary, which is compiled largely of one-on-one interviews with the director, that the only way to really learn about anything is to study underneath those identifiable as “masters.” So he set about finding the surviving elder statesmen of magic, crisscrossing the country in a kind of pointed aimlessness, shacking up with them, learning what he could, and moving on. When he did move on, though, he didn’t leave his mentors behind. Far from it. Besides keeping in touch with them, he would forward their teachings, both through his own performances and via several electrically entertaining, best-selling history books about magic and other oddities. Jay was an acolyte-turned-prophet.
Every time Jay brings up one of his mentors, either someone who he stayed with and learned underneath, or those ancient magicians who he studied deeply, the movie stops and takes the time to teach the audience a truncated version of what made them so fascinating to Jay. Sometimes this is absolutely deathly to the narrative flow of the documentary, because, honestly, we don’t really need that much history in a biography of a very contemporary jack-of-all-trades (footage from those variety shows still dazzle – there were audible gasps in our audience), and more importantly, these detours obscure Jay as a person. We want to know as much as we can about this guy, but like any good magician, he keeps things shadowy and hard to pin down.
You get the sensation that when he left his family to devote his life to magic there was something deeply troubling going on. (It’s never really addressed.) There’s a single-minded obsession that drives him, to the point of near self-destruction. During his self-defined quest to learn all of magic’s secret history, Jay attended a series of colleges, but none for very long (there’s a great black-and-white photo of Jay discussing card tricks on Mars with Carl Sagan). There is little reference to any kind of romantic relationships Jay might have had until about five minutes before the end of the movie when he goggles at the fact that he met his wife and married her seven years ago, something that he admits he thought would never happen. And while Jay doesn’t have children, you get the sensation that his mentorship is as close to a paternal relationship as he’s likely to have, paying forward the lessons that he learned to a whole new generation.
Sleight of hand has always been about misdirection, and maybe that’s the movie’s great trick. It gets you to focus on the arcane history and the heaps of magicians that came before (and influenced Jay) while revealing more about the man than he’d care to admit. You’ve just got to pay expertly close attention, because in magic you think you’re seeing one thing, and it ends up being something else entirely. [A-]