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Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

July 1, 2013
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

If, by some strange circumstance, you happen to be a movie lover who does not also love stage magic, you will still know Ricky Jay from his long association with David Mamet’s caper films. If that’s not enough Ricky Jay for you — and, honestly, can you ever have enough Ricky Jay — you can get some insight into how he became the magician he is today in Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.

Aside from his performances, Jay is known as a historian of magic and other oddities of entertainment, and as a collector of books and documents relating to stage magic and magical performance. And this alone would guarantee him entrance into any magicians’ hall of fame. But Jay is first and foremost a grandmaster of card tricks. To watch his performances on camera is amazing, but the effect is even more impressive up close and personal. Though it isn’t organized around them, Deceptive Practice makes it clear that there are three keys to Jay’s greatness.

The first key to being a great magician is misdirection: people think they see far more than they actually do see. The famous “gorilla experiment” is a perfect illustration, and it works even if you know what’s coming. In the realm of film, the Kuleshov effect shows how easily our perceptions can be molded. Even more technically, the projection screen is actually completely dark more than half the time a movie is showing, and yet our brains seamlessly edit that out and sew the flashes of light together into the illusion of motion. This is really more about the audience than the performer, but a magician understands and relies on it all the same.

The second key to being a great magician is sleight-of-hand: the technical skill involved in manipulating, say, a deck of playing cards. Jay spends almost his entire life with cards, and he can handle them as effortlessly as you or I can walk. Still, he sits in front of a three-part mirror, endlessly repeating a certain fan or shuffle, analyzing it from every angle. He talks about how Al Fosso and Slydini would make him practice an effect “until you can do it better than anyone else in the world” as a child, and about Charlie Miller’s continued perfectionism late into his life. To take full advantage of an audience’s blind spots, the magician must have exactly this sort of attention to detail.

The third key to being a great magician is showmanship: the ability to take the practiced effects that capitalize on the ability to misdirect the audience, and to weave them into an entertaining and engaging story. This is what lifts Ricky Jay out of the pack of merely expert card mechanics and into the realms of the greatest of stage magicians. The effect at the core of a dozen card tricks may be the exact same technical skill to force an audience’s choice or insert a known card where it needs to be, but the stories around the tricks are what make them magical.

Telling a good story is what makes us want to suspend our disbelief in the impossible, and what allows the magician’s technical skills to create the illusions we want to see. There may be some few others in the world even better with a deck of cards than Ricky Jay is, but none of them can put on a show like he does.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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