Siskel & Ricky Jay and Movie Magic

Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, Illinois

The Siskel Film Center: sincere, comfy, willing to showcase material beyond the major studios’ low-budget farm teams. Two thumbs up.

Indianapolis has exactly (1) one art-film theater, which leavens its offerings with a mixture of big studio fare presumably for the sake of ticket sales, thus minimizing the number of small films they can truly show during any given week. It doesn’t help that this theater and our house are on opposite ends of town. It’s my understanding other, larger cities have more options for moviegoers who yearn for something besides sequels, explosions, and big budgets. The advent of Video on Demand has charitably broadened our access to new limited-release fare, but there’s something I like about seeing films in their natural habitat.

This weekend my wife and I journeyed once again to Chicago via reasonably priced group tour. While our fellow passengers availed themselves of the Magnificent Mile’s upscale merchandise or gallivanted around Lake Michigan on water taxis, she and I paid our first visit to the Gene Siskel Film Center to view the kind of real, live documentary that rarely plays within fifty miles of our house.

Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, Illinois

The Great Wall of Siskel.

Quick primer for youngsters: once upon a time, the late film critic Roger Ebert shared a pair of TV shows with fellow reviewer Gene Siskel. In this ancient era before all seven billion Earthlings would run their own movie review sites, the premise of each simple show was two Chicago cinephiles comparing movie opinions for better or for worse, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in fits of film-geek rage. Their feudal camaraderie taught my wonderstruck generation two important lessons: (1) it’s okay to admit when you dislike a movie; and (2) it’s okay to have a difference of opinion. Parts of the internet have turned Lesson One into their entire moral code while selectively forgetting Lesson Two altogether.

Siskel passed away unfairly in 1999; two years later the the Art Institute of Chicago’s Film Center was renamed in his honor during their relocation to their present digs on State Street in the Loop, where their second-floor home features reclining seats, alcohol for those who insist on it, and at least one digital projector to ensure their survival well beyond the upcoming celluloid extinction event.

* * * * *

Deceptive Practice, Ricky JayThe movie of choice for our first visit to the Siskel was the documentary Deceptive Practice: the Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Attentive young-adult viewers may think him a character actor of some renown (The Prestige, FlashForward, House of Games, Heist, etc.), but Jay’s true calling is stage magic. A master of card tricks who can actually throw playing cards into solid objects like Bullseye, he’s performed in many a venue over the course of decades and was once a staple of ’70s talk shows, pulling off the sort of feats that defied audience members’ grasp of reality even when they watched from the seat next to him.

While Deceptive Practice features vintage clips from those same shows in which Jay would impress the likes of Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore, we’re also treated to his memories of the predecessors who schooled him in the ways of his chosen profession. It would be a lie to say they taught him everything he knows, or even everything they know. In between relaxing moments of shuffling and cutting freshly opened decks, Jay advises that every magician has tricks they teach no one else, little things they hold back until the moment is right either to add them to the act or offer them to an apprentice if their own efforts should happen to coincide.

I’m not well versed in the history of American stage magic, though my ignorance possibly made the film that much more intriguing to me — a chance to learn about a secret world, an entire career track beyond my purview, one with its own distinct personalities and its own form of personal integrity. Admittedly, some of the archival scenes could’ve been edited down just a tad — I had the feeling the editor was really excited by some of these clips and agonized over when and where to snip. On the other hand, I’d say it’s a job well done if these scenes, photos, and Jay’s funny anecdotes convince newcomers like me to want to learn more about peers such as Al Flosso, Cardini, Dai Vernon, and Hoosier-born Charlie Miller. In a world where sleight-of-hand and uncanny manual dexterity were all the tools such men had, audiences were all the more bowled over by their intimate style of visual effects, all cost-effective and rendered without computers or entire art studios at their disposal.

* * * * *

On our walk back to the group-tour rendezvous point, I couldn’t help smiling as we walked north on Michigan Avenue and passed a street magician performing the sort of low-level, profitable chicanery that was once tempting to Jay. The guy had the cards; he made sure one was marked while the rube watched; and he had the showmanship to command the attention of a small crowd gathered ’round, even though most of them had to know the odds were entirely in his favor. In my mind, the beauty of stage magic isn’t trying to outsmart the magician; it’s in being well aware you’re about to be outsmarted, and then marveling at the charm and the finesse that go into the stunts themselves.

I was reminded of this yet again during the long ride home back to Indianapolis. The charter bus was equipped with a DVD player and several small TVs built into the ceiling at intervals on both sides of the bus. Our event leader brought a DVD along to help us while away the first two hours of the return trip. In a moment of staggering coincidence, that selection was Now You See Me, a big-budget twist-ending action film about stage magic. I’ve already gone on record previously on MCC about my disappointment with the film. An involuntary second showing didn’t help. (TL;DR version of that review: after 100-odd minutes of shiny stuntwork and flashy CG visuals that we’re meant to accept as practical tricks, I gathered that someone behind the scenes tossed out the original finale and replaced it with a Shocking Twist without bothering to rewrite anything into the first 100 minutes to lend it one iota of connective logic.)

In fact, comparing Now You See Me to Deceptive Practice intensified my disdain for the former. After watching all those clips of the congenial Ricky Jay and the long-lost talents who came before him — generally the sort of charismatic gentlemen you’d want to watch in person — I chafed while enduring the snarky, bickering quartet that ostensibly represents what the filmmakers must think of stage magic today.

I suppose it’s conceivable that Jay’s memories might be rose-colored and the field is indeed now dominated by preening Incredible Burt Wonderstone types, all too self-absorbed to give us a wink or a sincere smile backed by any personable warmth. If so, that might explain why I haven’t felt compelled to watch a stage magician in years.

I’m grateful for the Siskel Film Center and the makers of Deceptive Practice for giving us the opportunity to peek into the lives of Ricky Jay and the nimble old-schoolers who inspired him. The Now You See Me pack could stand to learn a thing or two from Jay, but I can’t imagine he would be willing to teach them.

* * * * *

To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Deceptive Practice end credits, merely a scene early into the credits of Jay walking backstage and out the door.

Chicagoans can still catch an encore presentation at the Siskel Film Center on Tuesday, October 2nd; the official movie site has a very tiny schedule of other upcoming theatrical airings, plus links to upcoming purchase options. Enjoy!

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