Ricky Jay: master of misdirection. (kino lorber productions photo / June 6, 2013)

Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Opens Friday, June 7, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006,


Magic tricks are best seen up close. For maximum mind-blowing effect, you want to be able to stare at the magician's hands and inspect the table, or his coat pockets, or any other hiding place that might help a trickster pull off an illusion. Ricky Jay — magician, sleight-of-hand master, author and the subject of the new documentary Deceptive Practices — routinely lets his audience members sit a few inches from him on stage as he performs a card trick. The observers put their noses to the table top, hunch forward and generally crowd the magician's personal space in order to catch him in his trickery. They never do. Some of the wonder is admittedly lost by watching feats of illusion captured by a camera, a device that in the hands of a skilled filmmaker can certainly aid in the perpetration of trickery itself. But even on the screen it's a head-scratching wonder to gaze at Jay's deft hands as he shuffles and reshuffles and cuts the deck and always pulls the card that he or his audience members are asking for.

But Deceptive Practices isn't devoted exclusively to showcasing Jay's magic act, which is card-focused. (The documentary shows at Real Art Ways in Hartford this week.) You may have seen Ricky Jay in his roles in HBO's "Deadwood" or in the films Tomorrow Never Dies, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Boogie Nights or Magnolia. Before all that he was a regular on late-night television, appearing on Carson and "Saturday Night Live" in the '70s. He's worked closely with the playwright and director David Mamet, who appears in the film. One of his first big gigs as a teenager had him sandwiched between Timothy Leary lecturing about LSD and Ike and Tina Turner. Over the years Jay, whose real name is Richard Jay Potash, has become something of a scholar of legerdemain and card tricks, collecting old books on the subject and attempting to revive lost acts from hundreds of years ago. He was the rare Cornell student who would shuttle into New York City to do shows in between studies.

What the film doesn't directly address is what drove Jay to pursue his obsession with magic tricks. He started at the age of 4, egged on by his grandfather, an amateur magician who helped the young Jay apprentice with some of New York City's best sleight-of-hand artists.

"I was around magic all the time," he says. "It's my earliest memory."

There's loneliness and sadness at the heart of this pursuit, but it's only tangentially signaled in the film. Jay alludes, barely, to a troubled relationship with his parents. And he talks about his feeling that "cards are like living, breathing people." He says that sitting and practicing, working on a particular "effect" or shuffling cards for hours, is his idea of a good time. It's "as close to pure joy as anything I can imagine," says Jay.

"There's a thing about holding cards in one's hands that's amazing," says Jay. "It becomes like a meditative tool."

Magic and cards soothed him spiritually, but they also linked Jay to a bygone world, a world of old New York immigrants, of 19th century tricksters and vaudevillians. As the "mentors" part of the film's subtitle indicates, time is spent celebrating those old men who taught Jay the ropes.

Jay says he's lucky to be "part of this ongoing continuum of sleight of hand that can be traced back... more than a century."

The film conveys hints of that lost world, with its gypsy jazz and klezmer-tinged soundtrack, its antique posters, bits of vintage film and TV clips. What goes unanswered is the question of how Ricky Jay does his amazing tricks, other than through relentless practice. There's a code among magicians: mysteries are not revealed to the uninitiated. And they leave it at that. Another possibly fruitful subject that goes mostly unexplored is why we're drawn to illusions. Why do we want to be deceived?

A few accounts of tricks perpetrated by Jay on acquaintances or journalists are truly mind-blowing. Jay seems to have turned two single dollar bills, supplied to him by surprise, into a single two-dollar bill before the eyes of a friend he studied martial arts with. (The guy still has the two-dollar bill, and clearly can't wrap his mind around where it came from.) In another anecdote Jay made a huge block of ice appear on his table at a crowded restaurant with no logical explanation of how he could have done it.

Playwright Mamet suggests that magic and drama have much in common, particularly in the way they thwart expectations, inviting us to scrutinize a situation in anticipation of an outcome, then switching up the material right before our eyes. We find some strange thrill in being misdirected. But we also want to understand the mechanics of the deception, too.

"We all want to know how the trick is done," says Mamet. And yet we respect the magicians' code of not revealing their secrets. "To tell [the secrets] to the uninitiated would be a desecration."

What separates card tricks from the occasionally related field of cheating at gambling is that with magic, "You tell someone you're going to deceive them before you deceive them," says Mamet. Magic, he says, is "inherently honest."

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