Close-up illusionist Ricky Jay has been mesmerizing audiences since he was old enough to grip a magic wand. At seven years of age, the “Youngest Magician in the World” – tails and all – conjured his way onto a television show, doing an extended segment in which he transformed a rabbit (actually a hamster) into a dove.
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That’s just one of many film clips and stories woven into “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay,” Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s documentary about one of the greatest close-up card manipulators to ever to shuffle a deck of cards – and then deal four aces off the top. Listening to Jay talk about working on his technique – 16,000 shuffles worth in one night – it’s clear that magic is 99% preparation.
Jay never went in for dismembering and reassembling scantily-clad assistants. Nor was he big on making airplanes and monumental statues disappear. Shel Silverstein, however, wrote a poem in his honor: “The Game in the Windowless Room.”
See trailer for “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay” HERE.
Narrated by Dick Cavett, the film opens with Jay showing off his hypnotic dexterity by effortlessly fanning 52 cards, as if they were an extension of his hands and fingers. He can gently toss one card after another high into the air so that they boomerang back to him, or just as easily fire off a Jack of Spades at 90 mph – fast enough to penetrate the thick outer skin of a watermelon. One suspects Jay could’ve developed a major league knuckleball if he’d been so inclined.
A slew of magicians with Italianized stage names, all the rage a century ago, worked with the aspiring 14 year-old magician to learn the ropes – and cards. Among them: Cardini (Richard Valentine Pitchford), Slydini (Quintino Marucci, who actually was Italian) and Max Malini (Max Katz-Breit), a magician who performed with Houdini (Erik Weisz).
One of the funniest segments in the movie shows sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon, one of Jay’s most significant mentors, recounting to Ricky and a television audience a preposterously goofy trick by Malini involving a hypnotized chicken. It’s the only illusion in the film explained all the way through. While it all sounds staggeringly implausible, Vernon makes it somehow seem somehow believable.
Usually, telling the audience how it’s done ruins the illusion. Not so in this case. For those who may attempt to try this at home, look for a chicken that is (1) Alive. (2) Healthy, and for best results (3) Pick a highly suggestible chicken.
One of Jay’s first jobs was at the Electric Circus in New York, where he appeared on the same bill as Timothy Leary and Ike & Tina Turner. Other clips show Jay sporting a gold-miner’s beard and Gregg Allman-length hair, appearing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert the same year as the Sex Pistols.
Jay flourished on the ‘70s talk-show circuit, appearing on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Michael Douglas. There’s a must-see clip from the Dinah Shore Show where he successfully performs his version of three-card Monte, in spite of an “assist” by Steve Martin.
A film career would follow. Paul Thomass Anderson cast him in “Magnolia” (1999) and as a porn movie cinematographer in “Boogie Nights” (1997). Jay’s real-life company, Deceptive Practices (tagline: “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis”), has consulted on over a score of films, including “The Illusionist” (2006), “Oceans 13” (2007), “Heist” (2001) and “Homicide” (1991).
David Mamet, who also appears in “Deceptive Practices,” cast Jay in “House of Games” (1987) and “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997). Not surprisingly, both movies were about the world of confidence people – that is, magicians who crossed over to the dark side. Jay’s shows have been known to draw some unsavory acquaintances – “big card hustlers,” according to his manager.
Talented prestidigitators can go in two directions – artists or con artists – but one habit these wizards share is obsessive dedication to their trade. “Deceptive Practice” suggests cheating suckers out of their money is simply a more dangerous, less consensual form of putting on a magic show, where everybody pays for the thrill of being conned. Getting booed for fouling up a magic trick on stage is bad enough, but being exposed during a con game can end with a stiff prison sentence – or shallow grave out in the desert.
However Jay handled that fork in the road, he reportedly always sits with his back to the wall when dining in public.
According to the wise guys of magic, the best tricks are the ones that can be produced impromptu, like the time Jay was showering at a martial arts dojo and asked to do one of his famous tricks on the spot. This was a performance more than simply “off the cuff” – he was stark naked. Without notice, he was handed two $1 bills and asked to transform them into a $2 bill.
Guardian journalist Suzie Mackenzie recounts another story about following Jay around for a story. They ended up at a restaurant. With no apparent chance to prepare and never moving from the table, Jay performed a trick using a woman’s hat, a silver dollar, and the unexpected appearance of an enormous block of ice. From behind a menu, Jay somehow materialized the ice out of thin air. Mackenzie was moved to tears.
Her tears could have just as easily flowed over of amazement at what she just experienced, or the reality that Jay’s magical world is slowly slipping away – as much from the fashionably cynical debasement of wonder as from the prying Internet – where secrets are now quaint artifacts of a bygone age.
See playdates and locations for “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay” HERE.
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