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Non-Review Review: Deceptive Practice – The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

A veteran magic performer since his childhood, with a career stretching back over half a century, Ricky Jay is an absolutely fascinating subject. Jay is a master magician in his own right, but he’s also a writer, historian and actor. He is this gigantically important pop culture figure, having worked with directors like David Mamet or Paul Thomas Anderson – having appeared in film and television roles unconnected to his stage career. At one point, Jay even reads a poem written about him, The Game In The Windowless Room.

Jay has this incredible diversity of skills and interests, and it’s absolutely intriguing to delve into those interests. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay suffers a bit from never really pinning down the man himself, but it does demonstrate his long and abiding affection for the artform of magic, as well as some insightful glimpses at the long history and pedigree of this most mysterious performance art.

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Magic is absolutely fascinating, and it’s an artform that seem perfectly tailored to cinematic exploration. Particularly over the last number of years, quite a few filmmakers have used magic as a metaphor for movie-making itself – the sheer art of the process, the question of the role of the audience, the ability to do something that is at once inevitable and impossible. In many respects, it is a very close cousin to cinema. Although it seldom gets the attention and focus it deserves from the mainstream, magic is a beautiful artform.

In Deceptive Practice, writer, director and frequent Ricky Jay collaborator David Mamet explicitly compares the art to dramaturgy. In discussing his influences and mentors, Jay himself describes how important showmanship and narrative is to the craft. While the movie addresses the importance of fast reflexes and good coordination, the art is also about misdirecting the audience and drawing their attention in particular directions before making them believe in something that is impossible – or, at the very least appears to be impossible.

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Jay relishes the opportunity to talk about his career and influences. He talks very rarely about his home circumstances, and only when absolutely necessary to the narrative of the film – briefly talking about seeing Al Fosso perform at his bar mitzvah, or his decision to leave home at an early age. As befitting its subject, Deceptive Practice engages in some nice slight of hand to ensure that these more personal moments are kept at a distance. The most emotive story in Deceptive Practice doesn’t come from Jay himself, but from Guardian journalist Suzie Mackenzie, who was sent to interview him in the nineties.

Instead, Jay talks about his inspirations and his methods in an engagingly abstract manner – discussing the practised art of shuffling, or the working relationships that he had with magicians like Dai Vernon. There’s a sense that we’re peering a little behind the curtain – but never too far behind. The documentary talks about the traditions and relationships that exist within the stage magic community, but never gets drawn into particulars about particular illusions.

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The results is an absolutely engaging documentary that serves as a testament to Jay’s love of his artform. A collector of magical antiques and a scholar of past masters, Jay seems energised and enthused talking about conjurers who worked in the field before him. As Deceptive Practice points out, Jay is both a writer and a lecturer in his own right, somebody who truly basks in the history of his chosen profession.

Deceptive Practice is superbly directed by Molly Bernstein, pulling from almost twelve years of material to polish into a single linear piece of film. More than that, there’s a wealth of beautifully researched archival material here – in both visual and auditory modes. Deceptive Practice, as befits its subject, is edited with wonderful skill. Jay’s interviews and insights are intercut with demonstrations of his technical process, drawing on footage from variety show appearances and even his one-man stage shows.

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This is an fascinating exploration of just how superb a showman Ricky Jay is – even in footage recorded decades ago, it’s hard not to get caught up in Jay’s banter and storytelling. In many ways, this is one of the strongest aspects of Deceptive Practice, a willingness to let Jay discuss a piece of his art in relatively abstract form and then providing the audience with an effective piece of context. It’s very meticulously and engagingly put together.

Although Deceptive Practice never feels like it quite gets under the skin of its subject, it does serve as an effective reminder of just how good Ricky Jay is. And that is something very worthwhile on its own merits.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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