Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bernstein/Edelstein DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

It's magic! At least it sure looks likes it. Sounds like it, too. And while "sound" per se has never been something that we imagined magic took in, the new documentary about the famous magician/raconteur/
actor Ricky Jay features Mr. Jay at his mellifluous, mysterious best -- which should give you some idea of why classy movie-makers from David Mamet to Paul Thomas Anderson to Gus Van Sant have used him in their films. (And not primarily as a prestidigitator.) Mr. Jay, a smart performer and actor, possesses an odd but very effective charisma, which filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein put to excellent use in their new documentary DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.

Unlike information provided in the pseudo-documentary TrustMovies covered a couple of days ago, This Ain't California, Mr Jay, shown at left, immediately allows that he and other magicians belong to an "ongoing continuum of sleight-of-hand." This does not mean, however, that we get even a hint of how any of this "sleight" is managed. We get a glance or two at the character and history of young Ricky Potash (which was Jay's original family name) and at his parents. But mostly the movie concerns, as its title tells us, his mentors. (His mysteries remain just that.)

In addition to a few of whom only the most magician-enthralled of us may have heard -- Slydini (love that moniker!), Al Flosso (who sounds a bit like the animated character who shows you how to properly clean your teeth) and Cardini (whom Jay notes had "the best act I ever saw"), Jay's primary two mentors were Charlie Miller (an absolute loner, whom, appropriately enough, we learn little of) and Dai Vernon, another mysterious but actor-level handsome fellow of whom we see quite a lot.

Still, it's mostly Mr. Jay whom we see, hear and watch with increasing fascination -- from his childhood "magic" to his early appearances on the Dinah Shore TV show (first with a very young and beautiful Elizabeth Ashley, and later sucking Steve Martin into a Three-Card-Monte bet). Most interesting of all, I think, is that, so far as the "magic" goes, we really hear more about it than we actually see. And that's just fine because -- in addition to this magician's terrific vocal power that brings to life his every word -- since this is a film rather than a live stage performance, "visual reality" is already compromised on one level. Also, the stories Jay tells us are so funny and amazing and bizarre that they manage to bloom beautifully in our imagination. As we listen, they come to life. (Wait till you hear about the hypnotized chicken!)

Filmmakers Bernstein and Edelstein (that's Molly on the left, below, and Alan on the right) have been awfully smart regarding the manner in which they've put this film together. Their use of archival footage is fine as far as it goes (there isn't all that much in the movie, but there's enough to take us back in time when necessary).

More than anything, I think, the success of the film rests on the way in which the filmmakers make the many  "stories" we hear come to such vital life via Mr. Jay and the occasional pungent interview. The best of these is with a reporter named Suzie of The Manchester Guardian who is taken out to lunch by Mr. Jay after a rather grueling day of work, from which Jay seems somewhat exhausted. While at lunch, Jay pulls the rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, with a piece of prestidigitation so fine and eye-popping that as Suzie recalls it -- we simply see her face and hear her voice -- she is so full of amazement and emotion that we live the whole experience ourselves, right there in our theater seat. This may be movie-making about magic once-removed, but by god, it works! I am not certain seeing the actual trick would have impressed me any more than hearing and seeing this woman tell us of it.

We don't learn much that's very personal here; like Charlie Miller, Mr. Jay, too, seems a loner in the extreme. By film's end we at least discover that Ricky has a significant other, for which we're grateful. The movie closes with a poem Jay recites by Shel Silverstein. And once again, using those words coming from his special voice, we, the audience, create all the images in our own mind.

If, as Jay has earlier told us, the best prestidigitation is about how the eye is directed elsewhere than the place where the trick is actually being done (we see a fine and funny example of this during the doc), then Ricky is clearly the master of misdirection. But so are Ms Bernstein and Mr. Edelstein -- by giving us a lovely motion picture about visual magic in which sound and storytelling beat all.

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay -- from Kino Lorber and running 88 minutes -- opens a two-week run this Wednesday, April 17, in New York City at Film Forum. Over the months of May and June, it will expand into another dozen cities and theaters. Click here (then scroll down) to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Personal Appearances: The New Yorker’s Mark Singer
(a Ricky Jay profiler) will appear at Film Forum, 
along with filmmakers Molly Bernstein and 
Alan Edelstein, in person, on Sat., April 27 at 8:10pm.

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