Had Ricky Jay done nothing more than write Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, his glorious 1987 history of "unique, eccentric and amazing entertainers" — Le Petomane! — he'd have earned a seat in showbiz Valhalla. But the scholar of swindles, hustles, vaudeville lore and illusion is himself a master of sleight of hand and card chicanery, as well as an amiably corrupt presence in David Mamet's movies and an occasional member of Paul Thomas Anderson's stock company.
Until we get a Nashville date for one of his acclaimed one-man shows, Molly Bernstein's documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay may be as close as you can get to a front-row seat for Jay's master class in legerdemain and flimflammery:
Told largely in Ricky’s own inimitable voice, Deceptive Practice traces the story of his achievement, from his early apprenticeship, beginning at age 4, with his grandfather Max Katz, an accomplished amateur magician, as well as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Francis Carlyle, and Roy Benson, all of whom were among the best magicians of the 20th century. Above all it celebrates the remarkable lives of Ricky's two primary mentors of his young adulthood, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. Of the latter, Ricky recalls: “For Charlie a good evening could be asking you to do the same shuffle 16,000 times … It was just endless the variations and the craziness, but it was often as close to pure joy as anything I can imagine.” The film weaves together stunning performance footage from his one-man shows and classic TV appearances, and also includes friends and collaborators such as Steve Martin (who joins him in a hilarious turn on a '70s vintage Dinah Shore TV show) and David Mamet, who says of Ricky: “He’s devoted to that theater that he alone sees. He has the ideal of magic in his mind to which he’s devoted his life: to teaching it, to performing it, to perfecting it, to researching it.”
It screens just three times over today and tomorrow at The Belcourt as part of the ongoing "Doctober" survey of current documentaries. Maybe it'll stoke your curiosity for the Scene's Best of Nashville issue hitting the streets in two days....