Monday, October 15, 2012

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012) New York Film Festival 2012

Well, another year, another New York Film Festival. It ended last evening with six, count 'em, six screenings of Robert Zemeckis's if you got confused by it, you could have just darted out and duck into another screening so you could catch up on what you missed. But after that, call it a wrap: NYFF12 is over. It's time to roll up the red carpets, put the films back in the cans, and sweep up the mountains of popcorn on the floor. Time to start thinking about the Tribeca Film Festival, that marathon of a movie extravaganza, and to reflect on the movies we've just seen this year at NYFF, both the good and the bad.

Except...I don't think I saw any bad films this year. Some were definitely stronger than others, some delighted and tickled me and drove me to sympathetic tears, but there was never a moment when I was tempted to walk out and just get a sandwich. In fact, the time I did have to walk out...when they cancelled the screening of The Last Time I Saw Macao for technical reasons...both DB and I were anxious to see the rest of it, compelled and hooked from just the first twenty minutes. (Alas, it wasn't to be, as the re-screening passed us both by at an inconvenient time.) I saw many more movies than I did at the 2011 NYFF, and yet I wasn't able to see everything I wanted. There wasn't enough time; there never is.

Which brings me to my last review for New York Film Festival, and my clumsy segue of Go make time to see this film : Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Jay is one of the greatest playing card handlers alive—there's a reason why one of his successful stage shows was called Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. Magic is a tough sale on TV or film. It often lacks the same astonishing immediacy and intimacy of see a conjurer or a sleight-of-hand artist on stage. But Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein's visually innovative and cleverly edited documentary does the (ahem) trick.

Deceptive Practice is a biography. not merely and not mainly of Ricky Jay, but of sleight-of-hand magic itself, through Jay's education of magic at the hands of, and inspired by, the greatest twentieth-century card illusionists, the last generation of vaudeville magical entertainers, forgotten to most of us: Slydini, Al Flosso, Dai "The Professor" Vernon, Charlie Miller, Francis Carlyle, Cardini...and Ricky's grandfather Max Katz, who taught Ricky and introduced him to the world of magicians. There's a large assortment of great clips of these mentors in the film, as well as archival footage of Jay himself (including the young long-haired Ricky appearing on that archetype of the 1970s variety show, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert). If you're not going to go see the movie (and you really should, you know), go educate and entertain yourself by looking up the above magicians on YouTube, and prepare to be baffled and delighted. There's interviews with Ricky Jay's friends, contemporaries, and collaborators (including an almost perpetually awestruck David Mamet), and wonderfully, warmly filmed close-ups of Jay practicing his card handling. It's visually hypnotizing and compelling: you don't want to take your eyes off the screen.

This is a movie that is joyful but without snark, and a grand celebration of a unique art form that can only be appreciated visually. Sure, it's a documentary and you may say to yourself I'll catch it when it comes on PBS or Sundance or Ovation, or I'll rent the DVD or Netflix ii...but stop, listen here. This movie doesn't require a big screen, true. Jay's card-handling is impressive close-up, but many of the historical clips are blown-up YouTube quality, grainy and old, and yet the effects and the magic are perfectly displayed. No, go see it in the theater for the joy of it: the shared laughter when a trick or move is performed perfectly (or flubbed), for the cornball yet earnest routines of the mentor magicians, for Ricky's acerbic and low-key wit, for the pure joy of learning from these men. Deceptive Practice will leave you grinning, and this is a movie to be shared among an audience, much like a great magic act itself. In that way, actually, it's much like the movies themselves: fine at home, okay on an iPhone, but you're missing out on the true community experience of sharing the emotions of the rest of the audience. That is the magic of film itself, the very heart and soul of what the New York Film Festival itself has celebrated and honored over the past fifty years, and hopefully for many, many more to come. I'll see you at the Festival next year—I'm the one gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the moving pictures of the screen, taken to another world, the magical world of the motion picture.

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