What I'm Watching: Deceptive Practice | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Deceptive Practice


Several nights ago, after a few rounds of frustratingly unproductive Netflix roulette, I was pleased to see a familiar face staring back at me from one of the little rectangles on the screen, and clicked on it immediately. I guess this is what film spectatorship is like in the internet age. I have mixed feelings about it.

But I didn’t have mixed feelings about Deceptive Practice, the documentary that I selected on the basis of its poster-image of the face of Ricky Jay. I regard Ricky Jay as a national treasure, a man deserving of every honor this culture can pile upon him. And while I already had piecemeal knowledge of his background, I was happy to learn more. To me, Jay is one of the most fascinating men alive.

As a bonus, the film, whose full title is Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, was thoughtful, visually appealing and playful. In a number of ways, it is similar to The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary about film producer Robert Evans, a film I admire very much.

The Kid Stays in the Picture, I’ve found, is a great “teaching film,” because it challenges, in fascinating and lovely ways, some of our preconceptions about what a documentary can and should do. It’s a more highly “stylized” film than most documentaries: It employs digital technologies to make still images appear to move and have depth; it features a highly idiosyncratic and plainly biased voiceover by the very subject of the film; it uses whip-pans and photomontages and all kinds of other very noticeable stylistic devices, all in the service of telling what is, ostensibly, the true story of Robert Evans’ rather amazing life.
The thing is that all documentaries are stylized; they’re just stylized to greater or lesser degrees. “Simply” setting up a camera and letting it run, unmonitored, is a stylistic decision, even if it seems like it might be “neutral.”

Furthermore, presenting factual information in a stylized fashion is not the same thing as lying about that information. This is the preconception that many viewers have about documentaries: that somehow they are not “allowed” to be stylistically bold, because such enhancements constitute a kind of artificiality that takes away from the film’s ability to tell the truth.

To which I say: Hogwash! Poppycock, even!

Thankfully, there are no Cinema Police telling us what films must do. Documentaries may purport to make truth claims, but every single one of them does so in the name of persuasion. That’s what documentaries really are: tools of persuasion, which their makers use to attempt to get us to view the films’ subjects in a certain way. To hold them to any other standard is, in my view, unfair to the films. They need be no more or less truthful than any other media texts.

And The Kid Stays in the Picture is clever enough to admit all of this right there in the quotation, printed white-on-black, that opens the film. It’s a quotation from Evans himself, taken from the autobiography on which the film is based: “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”

Robert Evans was a maker of fiction films. If you like, that makes him a liar. But no more so than the rest of us.

Well, no. Ricky Jay is a bigger liar than everyone, and that’s why he makes such a terrific subject for a documentary.

Jay is one of the foremost magicians in the world, and certainly one of the most intelligent and entertaining. He’s also a historian, author, actor and “consultant” to all kinds of projects (fiction films, mostly) that require the services of someone practiced at the art of deception. 

Like all magicians, Jay’s job is to trick us — he’s a professional liar, in a way. Like all magicians, Jay won’t reveal many of his tricks to anyone, not even trusted friends and associates. He’s happy to talk about the magicians who influenced him (indeed, much of the film is a fascinating lesson on the history of magic), but, when it comes to discussing his own acts, Jay is quite cagey. 

On one level, this makes perfect sense: A magician does not reveal his secrets. On another, it inspires a perfectly fair question: If Jay doesn’t tell the truth about his own art and craft, how can we believe what he says about anything else?

What I admired about this film is the same thing I admire about many of the David Mamet films in which Jay himself appears. It forces us to deal with the question, “How can we trust what we’re told?”

One of the most remarkable revelations in the film comes from a British journalist who recounts the story of interviewing Jay once in Los Angeles. After a long car ride on a hot day in typically brutal L.A. traffic, she and Jay, she tells the camera, went to a crowded, hot restaurant for lunch. Bright sunlight streamed in through two walls of windows; neither person got up from the table at any point. Then, suddenly, the journalist recounts, Jay removed the menu that he’d propped up in front of him to reveal a huge block of ice sitting on the table. Flustered and astonished and absolutely baffled, she says, she actually burst into tears at this astonishing, seemingly impossible event.

It’s a fantastic story, and it speaks to Jay’s remarkable skills at sleight-of-hand. Or does it? All we have, ultimately, is a story from a woman about whom most viewers probably know nothing. Once we wonder if the story is true, we should also start wondering if this woman is actually a journalist, or if she might be just a shill or a plant. If deception is Jay’s game, then perhaps he enlisted her to tell a story that’s just another one of his tricks.

From the information provided in the film, we cannot possibly know if the story is true. But that’s what I loved about this film. A documentary about magic tricks that doesn’t reveal how those tricks are done is actually … a documentary about the practice of deception. It’s right there in the title. That Deceptive Practice is not solely that of Jay; the term refers to those of the filmmakers, as well. Every documentary, the film seems to be saying, is “lying” to some degree. This one is just a little more upfront about it.

Or is it?

The fact that we cannot, from the “evidence” presented in the film, determine its veracity is, to me, the best thing about the film. Deceptive Practice shifts the burden of truth-detection from the filmmaker to the viewer, almost as if to make up for all those years when we held documentaries to unreasonably high standards of truthfulness. I find this a welcome gesture. Go figure it out for yourself, the film implores us.

Excellent advice, I think, especially since it comes from a bunch of professional liars. Jay’s entire career revolves around that one idea/challenge: If you think I’m lying to you, figure out for yourselves how I did it. In echoing that sentiment, Deceptive Practice slyly aligns itself with Jay’s life’s work.

Don’t believe everything you see, kids.

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