Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ricky Jay, David Mamet, Winston Simone, Persi Diaconis, Suzie Mackenzie, Michael Weber, Fred Neuman
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Molly Bernstein
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 98
Date: 06/28/2013

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Out of Thin Air

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ricky Jay has been a respected conjurer for many years, working with David Mamet many times, and also Steve Martin a few times. He has been on television and appeared on stage. He has acted in movies, and consulted on movies about magic. He's not a flashy type, and doesn't wear costumes. Rather, he's a bear of a man, heavy and bearded and highly guarded. This is not a man to give up secrets or let anyone in very easily. Thus the new documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is, in itself, a kind of magic trick.

The main thrust of this movie, however, is Jay talking about all his mentors, all those old-time magicians that would be forgotten except by other magicians. This might be the reason that Jay agreed to such probing. Among his heroes, there was Max Katz (Jay's grandfather), Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Francis Carlyle, and Roy Benson. These were among the finest magicians of the last century, and Jay talks breathlessly about their best tricks.

At the same time, while Jay is happy to record all his knowledge -- and his firsthand meetings with all these legends -- he is elusive about letting the filmmaker too far in. He performs a few tricks (or describes them), and recites a poem (written for him by Shel Silverstein). We see his manager expressing unbridled relief when Jay approves of some arrangement for a show, and we hear Jay admitting in the movie's closing minutes that he's in a relationship with a woman, though who she is is still a mystery.

In fact, the movie's most breathtaking moment is a trick that Jay performed for a journalist. This trick is not shown, and Jay himself doesn't speak about it. The journalist, Suzie Mackenzie, tells the entire story, and her genuine astonishment even in recalling the story is infectious. She and Jay spent a day driving around, stuck in traffic and lost on a very hot day, before arriving at a restaurant for lunch. Not their first choice, and they were seated next to a giant window, with the heat streaming through. Jay picked up his menu, told her a story, and when he removed it, there was a block of ice, beginning to melt.

I know that Jay did not actually conjure a block of ice from thin air, but I'm mesmerized by this trick anyway, and I have continued to ponder it. I happen to love magic tricks. If you don't like magic tricks, you probably won't care much for this movie. Deceptive Practice gave me a healthy dose of them, plus a good bit of history as well, and I appreciated it. It's probably just as well that Jay remains mysterious and secretive. This way he remains in our good graces. We go on thinking, and wondering about him. And his block of ice.

Kino Lorber has released a DVD edition (no Blu-ray), with a huge collection of neat extras. There's some footage of Steve Martin, Paul Thomas Anderson, Heather Graham, and David Mamet, etc., talking about Jay; a fifteen-minute featurette with Jay and Michael Weber, a promo for Bob Dylan's Love and Theft featuring Jay, random performance footage and anecdotes, about a minute of animation made for the movie, and a trailer. On DVD-Rom is a copy of the New Yorker article by Mark Singer.

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