Centuries ago, magicians tactfully called themselves jugglers. Both talents require dexterity, but the latter was less likely to get practitioners burned at the stake, or what have you. Just ask Ricky Jay. The illusionist and Mamet film regular is an expert in the history of his craft, as viewers quickly learn straight from the source in Molly Bernstein & Alan Edelstein’s documentary profile, Deceptive Practice: the Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, which screens as part of the 50th New York Film Festival’s On the Arts sidebar.
Ricky Jay can make a deck of cards sing and dance. He is also an old hand with the cup and balls. Magic effects with gambling implications are clearly his specialty, but he is well grounded in the entire tradition of illusionism. He had some talented teachers, beginning with his grandfather, an amateur magician who counted many professionals amongst his closest friends. It was from such storied figures as Al Flosso (the Coney Island Fakir) and Dai Vernon that Ricky Jay really learned the secrets of his craft.
While Ricky Jay is certainly seen doing plenty of effects (to use the preferred terminology), Deceptive is more about his work as a historian of magic and his relationships with his mentors and colleagues. Fortunately, the professional performer definitely knows how to tell a story. For the uninitiated, it also offers an intriguing peak into an exclusive but collegial world, where headliners and hobbyists rub shoulders and forge friendships based on their mutual passion for magic.