About midway through the documentary "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" (opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre), Jay emerges backstage after a performance and is greeted by a roomful of people. As he acknowledges his well-wishers, he catches sight of a person filming him and says, only half joking: "Cameras. They should be avoided at all costs."
Jay, who is perhaps the best-known sleight-of-hand artist working today, could be referring to the damage a poorly placed camera might inflict on his magical effects. But you suspect he's really voicing a larger point. Jay is an elusive subject — a man who commands respect but one who doesn't necessarily want to be known.
In case you make the mistake of thinking otherwise, a message on his web site will set you straight: "As Mr. Jay is always in pursuit of a scholarly mongoose said to clearly enunciate the words 'Time is – Time was – Time is past,' he is unable to respond to requests."
This caginess presents all sorts of difficulties for filmmaker Molly Bernstein and her collaborator Alan Edelstein, who filmed on-and-off with Jay over 13 years. "He's a somewhat reluctant subject for many reasons and everything that he does is secretive," Bernstein said by phone from New York. "Normally when you make a documentary about an artist you shoot their process." (Her previous projects include TV profiles of filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and John Sayles.)
"We couldn't do that with (Jay). He'd had a bad experience with the BBC not long before that — them being very pushy and trying to get him to do things that he couldn't really do for the camera — so he was very wary. He's also not the most forthcoming of people. That was a huge challenge, which is why we decided to focus on his mentors" — a generation of performers who no longer ring many bells for the casual fan: Slydini, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Al Flosso (the latter of whom performed at Jay's bar mitzvah). Jay's reminiscence works as both a history lesson and preservation effort.
A frequent collaborator with Chicago native David Mamet, Jay was last in Chicago in 2009, performing at the Royal George in a show that bore thematic similarities to the film: "Jay, like many in his profession and by his own admission, is obsessed with secrecy," Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote of the stage show. "So how do you do an autobiographical treatment of such a man's life and career? Seems worthy of some contemplation. You don't really get inside the man here — Jay may well not want to let us inside, but he could at least share more of his reasons, more of his insecurities. He should step out. He could give everything, and nothing, up."
It is a riddle the documentary leaves unresolved as well.
A master of close-up card magic, Jay's shows are intimate (by design and necessity but surely also by preference) and that is quality Bernstein heightens with footage of him sitting quietly, fanning, shuffling and manipulating a deck of cards. The sound of the cards is soft, almost hypnotic. Bernstein's instincts here feel absolutely right. "If I'm frazzled," Jay tells her, "the nicest thing to calm me down is probably to put me with a deck of cards in my hands and let me sit down for a few hours."
He is cerebral and charismatic and there is an antic poetry to the way he expresses himself, on stage and off. (As it happens, his wife, the movie producer Chrisann Verges, is from the Chicago area.)
His performances can be enchanting, but there is also a prickly side to the man. "When we were interviewing him, we could ask whatever we wanted," said Bernstein, "but there were certain things he wasn't going to answer. And in some ways, even though we were in control, he did have a lot of control. The thing about Ricky is that he makes those strong feelings known. He doesn't hold back if he doesn't want to do something, or doesn't want you to do something." That side is left unseen in the film. You sense a protectiveness from Bernstein. "We didn't feel that was part of the story so much," she said.
Fair enough. But it does neutralize some his complexity. And it definitely creates a cognitive dissonance when one of Bernstein's interview subjects — Suzie Mackenzie, a reporter from the Guardian who recounts a memorable outing with Jay — describes him in no uncertain terms as irascible and cantankerous.
Mark Singer, who wrote a 15,000-word profile of Jay for the New Yorker in 1993, clearly felt less inhibited about capturing Jay's temperament ("Jay responded with an opaque, querulous stare") and offers a deeper look into what makes the guy tick. The film and the magazine piece actually work best as companion pieces, with Bernstein spotlighting old footage of Jay at work (looking every bit the counterculture performer with his long, wavy hair in the '70s) as well as that of his mentors, including a terrifically joyous clip of Flosso performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show," drawing a fistful of coins from the host's nose.
"For it truly to be magic — a magical moment — it has to be spontaneous," Jay says in the film. "It has to be something that just happens — not in a stage show that's carefully plotted from beginning to end, but rather in a moment."
That could mean performing a magical effect for just a single person sitting across from him in a restaurant. There is something intensely personal about this idea. How could one not feel overwhelmed? It's no wonder Mackenzie burst into tears when Jay shocked her by doing just that when they were at lunch one day off Sunset Boulevard, nearly two decades ago.
"I think that shocked him a bit," Mackenzie says of her reaction, trying to sort through her thoughts all these years later. "It was a supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed that was done for me."
"Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" opens Friday at the Music Box. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
Paul Feig in town
An advance screening of "The Heat," starring Sandra Bullock and Plainfield native Melissa McCarthy as a mismatched law enforcement team, screens Tuesday at the Kerasotes ShowPlace ICON as part of the Just For Laughs festival, with director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids") in person. Go to justforlaughschicago.com.
Marshall Chess (whose father and uncle founded the legendary Chess Records label) narrates the documentary "Born in Chicago," which debuted earlier this year at South by Southwest and puts the focus on Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush and Willie Dixon — and details their influence on a generation of white musicians. The film screens this week at the Siskel. Friday's screening includes a post-show discussion with musicians Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel and Corky Siegel. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/borninchicago.
A screening of 2012's "La Pirogue" ("The Pirogue") this week at the Alliance Francaise launches the 11th Annual Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival. The film (which played at Cannes last year) concerns a group of emigres who venture from Senegal to Spain in a small fishing boat in the hopes of finding a better life. (In French with English subtitles.) The fest continues at Facets June 14-20. Fest co-founder Reinaldo Barroso-Spech will lead a post-show discussion. 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Go to af-chicago.org.
Danger zone medicine
A host of complications make it difficult for Doctors Without Borders to provide humanitarian aid. "Access to the Danger Zone," narrated by Daniel Day-Lewis, explores the specifics in areas such as Afghanistan and Somalia. It screens Saturday at the Siskel and Monday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, followed by a panel discussion with local medical personnel who have worked with the organization. Go to doctorswithoutborders.org.
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