One of my favorite films from last year's New York Film Festival is finally getting its theatrical release at Film Forum, here in NYC. Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay will be running through April 30 and I can't urge you strongly enough to run and see it. When it played the Festival last fall, I wrote this for Jewish Week:
Once the walls of the ghetto came down, Jews began to face a similar range of career opportunities to non-Jews. Even with the burdens of anti-Semitic quota systems the Jewish people have made an impact in the physics, medicine, government, literature, the visual arts and magic.
Magic, you say? Well, there was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, a rabbi’s son but . . . .
Yes, there was Houdini, but he was only the most prominent of many Jewish practitioners of the mysteries of prestidigitation.
Consider the new documentary playing at one of the sidebars in this year’s New York Film Festival, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein. Jay, who was born Ricky Potash, was first inducted into the world of magic by his grandfather, Max Katz, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Katz played an important role in shaping his grandson’s by-now legendary performing skills and introduced him to a generation of geniuses of card manipulation, billiard ball sleight-of-hand and other dazzling, if arcane, skills.
“The way to learn [magic] is personally,” Jay says early in the film. It’s an insight that is repeated frequently and illustrated both by footage of the masters with whom Jay studied and the words and artistry of Jay himself. At one point he likens the process of transmitting such knowledge to the relationship between a rebbe and his hasidim, and given the oddly quotidian nature of the tools of his trade – coins, handkerchiefs, a deck of ordinary playing cards – one cannot help but think of the hasid who said he wanted to learn how the rebbe tied his shoes.
More than that, the magicians skills are passed generationally, l’dor-va-dor, although in Jay’s case, a generation was skipped. He left home at 17 because, as he says tersely, “My parent’s didn’t ‘get’ me.” Still, he admits, they did one good thing for him; at his bar mitzvah the entertainment was the great magician Al Flosso, the “Coney Island Fakir.” It is, he says rather darkly, the only nice memory I have of them.
“Deceptive Practice,” on the other hand, is filled with better-than-nice memories. There is a great deal of the sheer fun of watching him grow up from little Ricky Potash, a 7-year-old performer of surprising poise (although his grown-up self dismisses the tricks as poor), to a shoulder-length-haired hippie in a three-piece suit working the daytime talk shows with gusto, to the wry elder statesman of today. Jay’s memories of Flosso and other mentors like Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, Cardini, Slydini and his grandpa Max are warm, charming and instructive. The glimpses we get of his relationship with his own younger colleagues are no less satisfying. It’s safe to say that for the foreseeable future the fate of the magic arts are in safe – frequently Jewish – hands. And “Deceptive Practice” is one of the only films I’ve seen this year that I wish had gone on much longer.
Meanwhile, back at the Israeli lemonade stand, the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan is in the midst of its first film festival, and the array of films on display highlights the dazzling variety coming out of the Jewish State. There is a full slate of programs, including a selection of recent short films, all over town this evening. The closing night screening of Fill the Void is a particular must, although the film will be playing at Film Forum later this year. I'd still check it out; it's a densely worked piece that will reward repeated viewings. In addition, the festival includes two bonus screenings tomorrow night at the Cinema Village. By Summer's End is a first feature from Noa Aharoni, who was an assistant on Saint Clara (which is beginning to look like an important meeting ground for a lot of current Israeli filmmakers). The World Is Funny is the lastest film from Shemi Zarhin, director of Aviva, My Love, a personal favorite of mine. You can buy tickets for any or all of these goodies here.