Just like the cinema, the magic show is rooted in the nature of looking. After all, the illusionist’s art is to trick the eye into seeing something different, or redirecting the eye’s attention. The earliest cinematic prototypes, like the zoetrope and the kineograph, produce optical illusions but were invented as magic tricks. Hence, cinema’s early French innovator, George Méliès, began as a magician who came across his greatest attraction, and by making it his own, helped solidify cinema history. It’s a shame that too many viewers take moving pictures for granted and forget they’re experiencing the world’s most popular form of illusion (what Scorsese lovingly combats in his tribute to Méliès, and the cinema, Hugo).
There’s a special delight in a documentary giving the magic show its due. In this sense, Deceptive Practice: the Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein and narrated by Dick Cavett), personal as it may be, is much greater than its subject. The film details Jay’s career from its beginnings, his first TV appearance in 1953 at age five, his popularity and countless talk show appearances in the 1970s (with hair to match), where he shows mastery in his performance (mostly “transformation” effects, and card-throwing records), to his present status as a cult icon. Practice tributes the art of illusion and other greats without sacrificing attention to Jay or pacing. He admits that his artistry consists of skills he acquired from predecessors (as did his earliest mentor, his grandfather) and from old-school, book-based research (Jay himself became an historian of the art).
Through these stories we learn of magic’s history more vividly than any straight-laced study of the topic would allow. Jay’s casual tone is equal parts avuncular and Brooklynite hardass (we fans of David Mamet – who appears here briefly – cannot separate Jay from his portrayal as an illusionist-con man in the writer-director’s House of Games, in which Mamet shared writing credit with Jay for all his ideas). Jay’s talking head appearances and several archival acts offer us a peek into a fervent force of creativity – as with many great artists, it’s one of which we have limited understanding though all the more appreciation. Though a writer and actor as well, his main art is one on which we look and enjoy briefly, but too soon forget. Practice captures the depths to such an art and one who’s devoted himself to continue its greatness.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.