Cameras, according to Ricky Jay, should be avoided at all costs.
He’s only half joking when he makes the crack, midway through “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” a documentary portrait of the magician, author and actor who is known as one of today’s preeminent practitioners of close-up magic. As we see in the film, Jay frequently works with nothing but a deck of cards in front of a slack-jawed audience a few feet away.
A carelessly placed camera could ruin one of his tricks by catching an inadvertent glimpse of his sleight of hand, which is, without exaggeration, amazing. So it’s a little surprising that Jay allowed filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein to film him for more than a decade.
Of course, the man born Ricky Jay Potash plays his cards close to the vest, literally and figuratively. You won’t learn any of his secrets by watching him perform them in the film, and believe me, I tried. I was watching it on DVD, so I could hit rewind and pause whenever I wanted. He’s too careful and too good.
But Jay is also pretty guarded about his personal life, glossing over his estrangement from his parents by saying that a lack of “rapport” drove him out of the house as a teenager and into a magical world that he first entered as a child performer. He now dominates that world. In addition to working as a stage magician and movie actor, Jay has written several books, and he runs a consulting business with magician Michael Weber that offers advice to film, theater and television productions involving magic. He is acknowledged as an expert in his field.
That expertise forms the spine of “Deceptive Practice,” much of which is devoted to Jay reminiscing about the older magicians who taught and inspired him as a boy, many of whom were friends of his amateur-magician grandfather. There is a lot of grainy footage and archival photos of such performers as Max Malini, “Slydini,” Al Flosso, “Professor” Dai Vernon and others.
These are the mentors alluded to in the film’s title. And it’s almost as fun to listen to Jay wax sentimental about their influence on him as it is to watch them perform. When Jay laments the fact that none of today’s young rising magic stars saw Vernon (who died in 1992) in action, the sadness and loss — not just to Jay but to the art form — really registers.
As for the film’s “mysteries,” there are several, not the least of which is a trick involving the conjuring of a square-foot block of ice out of thin air. Rather than seeing that illusion, we hear tell of it, in the words of British journalist Suzie Mackenzie, who was writing a profile of Jay for the Guardian and was, apparently, the only witness to the trick, which she says made her cry. If listening to her story doesn’t have quite the same effect on us, it is nevertheless a good enough yarn that it raises goose bumps.
But the biggest mystery in “Deceptive Practice” has to do with the central tenet of magic: Never reveal how a trick is done.
It goes without saying that this code of silence is broken all the time. How else would Jay have learned his art without the benefit of lessons? And yet, according to Weber, Jay’s trusted confidant and business partner who has exchanged many trade secrets with him over the years, there are still lots of tricks that neither of them has shared with the other.
It’s a little worrisome. Maybe Jay has written down all of his techniques somewhere or, better yet, recorded them. Maybe he has locked them in a vault (other than his head) for the next generation of illusionists and prestidigitators to find someday. But if he hasn’t — and the film is silent on that question — the inevitable loss of such a great artist, along with the potential loss of at least some of his vast knowledge, is enough to give you chills.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief obscenity. 89 minutes.