The film opens on a masculine pair of hands having intimate relations with a deck of cards. Shuffle, cut, caress, they are as rhythmic and intricate as partners in a "Swan Lake" pas de deux.
"Cards are like living, breathing human beings," intones a male voice, "I suppose because they give you real pleasure."
The speaker/card choreographer is Ricky Jay, whose sleight-of-hand artistry has long secured his spot atop the magic mountain. "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" shows as much as tells his story at the Nuart Theatre in West L.A. starting Friday.
Occasionally cantankerous and famously brilliant, Jay is an historian and scholar of magic, an author, speaker and actor who has been known to make people weep with incredulity. In reviewing his 1994 one-man show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," The New York Times said "You aren't asked to suspend disbelief--you have no choice."
He's juicy grist for the documentary mill. This is a man who can turn the jack of clubs into club soda but can't program a number into his cellphone. This is a man who claims to "know absolutely nothing about the 20th century," but waxes sweetly in a telephone interview about Nippy cheese and the joys of pastrami at Langer's Deli.
Like many illusionists and conjurers, Jay's affection for deception came early, courtesy of his grandfather Max Katz and his network of renowned magicians--Slydini, Cardini, Al Flosso, Francis Carlyle and Roy Benson--who taught the kid how to fool people. By the time he was 4, Jay was performing, and by 7 was making money at it.
Magic is deception, but also, as Jay says in the film, "inherently honest. That's the major difference between deception as crime and deception as performance."
The best practitioners amuse while they deceive. A black-and-white TV clip in the film features Flosso's Catskills patter as he pulls coins from the nose of the usually leaden Ed Sullivan, who can't contain his laughter. As a kid, Jay, who grew up in Brooklyn, was enamored of Flosso; estranged from his family, Jay recalls poignantly that the only kind memory he has of his parents is when they arranged, as a surprise, for Flosso to perform at his bar mitzvah.
In the 1970s, after appearing on "The Tonight Show," flirting with academia at Cornell and performing at The Electric Circus nightclub sandwiched between Timothy Leary lecturing about acid and Ike and Tina Turner, Jay left New York for Los Angeles, where he hooked up with two seminal influences, Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon. As Jay describes, it was a time of "total immersion" in the art of artifice, when they'd hang out at the Magic Castle until 2 a.m., then repair to Canter's until dawn.
Vernon, a charming raconteur and ladies' man, approached card handling as an engineering feat. He once told Persi Diaconis, Jay's friend and a professor of statistics and mathematics at Stanford, that he had captured the essence of pure sleight of hand in a single sentence. Which he declined to share with Diaconis.
"Did he ever tell it to you?" LAObserved asked Jay in the phone interview.
"Do you think he'd formulated such a sentence, or just said he had?"
"It's absolutely possible that [Diaconis] was being conned," Jay said with a note of reverence. "Vernon was that kind of character. ... He was a game player and a terrific one." Jay spontaneously recites by heart a passage from a decades-old New Yorker profile of Vernon: "In the performance of good magic the mind is led on, step-by-step, to ingeniously defeat its logic."
Some of the film's talking heads are recognizable. David Mamet, who directed Jay's stage shows as well as his performances in feature films, speaks to his intellectual devotion to magic. Steve Martin makes us laugh as he's being conned by the long-haired, bell-bottomed Jay on Dinah Shore's afternoon talk show.
Other satellites in the Jay orbit are unfamiliar. Fred Neumann was Jay's aikido teacher. He remembered his pupil's stage trick when he turned two $1 bills into a single $2 bill, and decided to test Jay's magic mettle one day after class. Jay was in the shower when Neumann asked him to perform the trick.
"I'm not prepared," Jay objected. Then, naked and dripping wet, suddenly conjured two $1 bills and rendered them into a single $2 note. There is no martial art with that kind of power.
Jay's currency is the small-scale, sleight-of-hand act, so LAObserved asked his opinion of the Baz Luhrmann-esque magic extravaganzas popular in Vegas--you know, where the Statue of Liberty disappears, or people get sawed in half, then, one hopes, reconstituted. "It would be nice," Jay said, "for people to realize that magic is as different as styles of dance."
So the deceivers' clubhouse is a big tent, and if Jay isn't always keen to work with the elephant who is or isn't in the room, he still can do business there. Medical shows hire doctors and police procedurals hire cops to ensure plausibility, if not veracity, in their storytelling. Illusionists hire Deceptive Practices, the consulting company Jay and his partner, Michael Weber, own. Secrecy is to magic as omerta is to the Mafia, so Jay and Weber don't necessarily dish the tricks of their trade; they're more illusion-helpers who supply, as they say, "arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis."
They made Gary Sinise's legs disappear in "Forrest Gump." They built the heavenly stairway in "Angels in America." Such projects, Jay said on the phone, are an "exercise in problem-solving, which is particularly intriguing when it's probably nothing you'd do in your own performance. It's intellectually exciting."
Jay, who lives in L.A. (and won't identify the neighborhood because he deems that information "on a need to know basis"), seems unable to live without intellectual excitement, whether he's in the shower or having lunch.
Suzie Mackenzie knows. The British journalist was covering the filming of a BBC documentary about Jay when the director wanted him to recreate an illusion originally performed by Max Malini, a notable magician from the early 20th century. Jay balked at the request and left the set, suggesting to Mackenzie that they go to lunch. It was a hot day, the restaurant was noisy and Mackenzie was wary of Jay's mood and his prickly reputation.
Once they were seated, Mackenzie recalls in the film, Jay began to relax and talk about the difficulty on the set. With his menu propped in front of him, he explained the trick he'd been asked to replicate. Malini had made coins appear three times under a lady's hat sitting on a restaurant table. The fourth time he lifted the hat, instead of a coin there was a block of ice the size of a six pack.
At that point, Jay lifted his menu to reveal a huge, six-pack-sized block of ice.
Mackenzie burst into tears. "He said, 'I deceived you. It's what I do for a living."
"It's a moment I'll never have again. ... It was a supreme piece of artistry I witnessed, it was done for me. It was the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen in my life."
You must be quick to see "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" at Nuart — it's a disappearing act after May 23.
Photo and trailer courtesy Kino Lorber Inc.