May 22 2013 04:01 PM

If you know who he is, you know how cool he is, and if you don't know who he is, you should

film1
Oh, it’s that guy! From the movies!
Photo by Theo Westenberger/Kino Lorber

There are two sorts of people in this world: those who are fully aware of Ricky Jay and his work and those who haven't yet had the pleasure. Now, there's nothing to be ashamed of if you aren't familiar with him. Despite his books, his acting work in films by directors like David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson and, oh yes, his Broadway shows and TV specials, plenty of people just don't know who the guy is, even though he also appeared in a James Bond film and an episode of The X-Files. He exudes a bit of unfamiliarity, and it's certainly possible that he wants it that way.

Simply put, Ricky Jay is one of the world's greatest sleight-of-hand artists. He can throw a playing card so hard and fast that it'll puncture the skin of a watermelon. His conversational magic shows are astounding, because he lets the audience know exactly what he's going to do, and then he goes ahead and does it, and how he pulls it off is still a mystery. Now in his mid-60s, he remains one of the coolest customers around. An analogy for the musically inclined: Ricky Jay is the Tom Waits of magic.

Molly Bernstein's new documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, which opens for a week-long run at the Ken Cinema on Friday, May 24, lives up to its name. This portrait of Jay, based on a New Yorker profile published more than two decades ago, is in many ways an origin story, offering Jay the opportunity to discuss his background and the amazing magicians who took him under their wings at different times in his life.

Before we go much further, I should say that, aside from Jay, Houdini, David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Penn and Teller, I'm largely unfamiliar with magicians. I know little about the history of the field, and I found this world and the characters Jay admires fascinating. I knew about neither Slydini and Dai Vernon nor most of the other names he drops or the stories he tells. You see, beyond being an extraordinary artist with cards, Jay's a historian and a collector and a showman, an expert in the history of magic and con artistry, which, naturally, go hand in hand. The tales he weaves, and the way he ties them into his own act, both on stage and in his interviews, are entrancing. You can't help but want to hear more. Luckily, Bernstein gives us plenty more, in the form of archival footage that goes all the way back to when little Ricky was performing magic six decades ago.

It's worth a reminder that Jay's a deceiver. That's his line of work, as he tells a BBC reporter who recounts an extraordinary trick that Jay did for her, and only her, prompting her to burst into tears. When he's on stage, he's a master with the cards and also a master of placing his audience's attention exactly where he wants it to be.

The same can be said of the film. I read Mark Singer's New Yorker piece—hence my understanding of Jay's work—and though I got to know what Jay's all about while watching the movie, I never got a chance to know exactly who he is.

That's likely intentional, however—Jay doesn't want to give away too much about himself, and the through line of Deceptive Practice supports that, allowing others to talk about him on a personal level while Jay keeps his emotional world out of the spotlight. Keeping some of his life shrouded in a bit of mystery is probably a good move, of course, because, as they say, a good magician never reveals his tricks.


Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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