Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Jay

The private eyes of culture

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Yesterday, in my post on the late magician Ricky Jay, I neglected to mention one of the most fascinating aspects of his long career. Toward the end of his classic profile in The New Yorker, Mark Singer drops an offhand reference to an intriguing project:

Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer…He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weber—a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson.

When the article was written, Deceptive Practices was just getting off the ground, but it went on to compile an enviable list of projects, including The Illusionist, The Prestige, and most famously Forrest Gump, for which Jay and Weber designed the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs. It isn’t clear how lucrative the business ever was, but it made for great publicity, and best of all, it allowed Jay to monetize the service that he had offered for free to the likes of David Mamet—a source of “arcane knowledge,” much of it presumably gleaned from his vast reading in the field, that wasn’t available in any other way.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of another provider of arcane knowledge who figures prominently in one of my favorite novels. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, Casaubon, comes home to Milan after a long sojourn abroad feeling like a man without a country. He recalls:

I decided to invent a job for myself. I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I wanted to be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date. I dropped in at the university, to see if I could fit in somewhere. The lecture halls were quiet; the students glided along the corridors like ghosts, lending one another badly made bibliographies. I knew how to make a good bibliography.

In practice, Casaubon finds that he knows a lot of things—like the identities of such obscure figures as Lord Chandos and Anselm of Canterbury—that can’t be found easily in reference books, prompting a student to marvel at him: “In your day you knew everything.” This leads Casaubon to a sudden inspiration: “I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning. Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments…I was lucky enough to find two rooms and a little kitchen in an old building in the suburbs…In a pair of bookcases I arranged the atlases, encyclopedias, catalogs I acquired bit by bit.”

This feels a little like the fond daydream of a scholar like Umberto Eco himself, who spent decades acquiring arcane knowledge—not all of it required by his academic work—before becoming a famous novelist. And I suspect that many graduate students, professors, and miscellaneous bibliophiles cherish the hope that the scraps of disconnected information that they’ve accumulated over time will turn out to be useful one day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (Casaubon is evidently named after the character from Middlemarch who labors for years over a book titled The Key to All Mythologies, which is already completely out of date.) To illustrate what he does for a living, Casaubon offers the example of a translator who calls him one day out of the blue, desperate to know the meaning of the word “Mutakallimūn.” Casaubon asks him for two days, and then he gets to work:

I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. “All right, the Mutakallimūn were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of dust cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair.”

Eco could have picked nearly anything to serve as a case study, of course, but the story that he choses serves as a metaphor for one of the central themes of the book. If the world of information is a “meaningless anarchy of atoms,” it takes the private eyes of culture to give it shape and meaning.

All the while, however, Eco is busy undermining the pretensions of his protagonists, who pay a terrible price for treating information so lightly. And it might not seem that such brokers of arcane knowledge are even necessary these days, now that an online search generates pages of results for the Mutakallimūn. Yet there’s still a place for this kind of scholarship, which might end up being the last form of brainwork not to be made obsolete by technology. As Ricky Jay knew, by specializing deeply in one particular field, you might be able to make yourself indispensable, especially in areas where the knowledge hasn’t been written down or digitized. (In the course of researching Astounding, I was repeatedly struck by how much of the story wasn’t available in any readily accessible form. It was buried in letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, and while this happens to be the one area where I’ve actually done some of the legwork, I have a feeling that it’s equally true of every other topic imaginable.) As both Jay and Casaubon realized, it’s a role that rests on arcane knowledge of the kind that can only be acquired by reading the books that nobody else has bothered to read in a long time, even if it doesn’t pay off right away. Casaubon tells us: “In the beginning, I had to turn a deaf ear to my conscience and write theses for desperate students. It wasn’t hard; I just went and copied some from the previous decade. But then my friends in publishing began sending me manuscripts and foreign books to read—naturally, the least appealing and for little money.” But he perseveres, and the rule that he sets for himself might still be enough, if you’re lucky, to fuel an entire career:

Still, I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away…I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2018 at 8:41 am

Ghosts and diversions

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Over the weekend, after I heard that the magician Ricky Jay had died, I went back to revisit the great profile, “Secrets of the Magus,” that Mark Singer wrote over a quarter of a century ago for The New Yorker. Along with Daniel Zalewski’s classic piece on Werner Herzog, it’s one of the articles in that magazine that I’ve thought about and reread the most, but what caught my attention this time around was a tribute from David Mamet:

I’ll call Ricky on the phone. I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—“A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?” And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, “That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts, and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire. But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.” He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.

Coming from Mamet, this is high praise indeed, and it gets at most of the reasons why Ricky Jay was one of my heroes, too. Elsewhere in the article, Mamet says admiringly: “I regard Ricky as an example of the ‘superior man,’ according to the I Ching definition. He’s the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who’s devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.”

And what struck me on reading these lines again was how deeply Jay’s life and work were tied up in books. A bookseller quoted in Singer’s article estimates that Jay spent more of his disposable income on rare books than anyone else he knew, and his professional legacy might turn out to be even greater as a writer, archivist, and historian as it was for sleight of hand. (“Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth,” Singer writes. And I imagine that a lot of his fellow collectors are very curious about what will happen to his library now.) His most famous book as an author, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, includes a chapter on Arthur Lloyd, “The Human Card Index,” a vaudevillian renowned for his ability to produce anything printed on paper—a marriage license, ringside seats to a boxing match, menus, photos of royalty, membership cards for every club imaginable—from his pockets on demand. This feels now like a metaphor for the mystique of Jay himself, who fascinated me for many of the same reasons. Like most great magicians, he exuded an aura of arcane wisdom, but in his case, this impression appears to have been nothing less than the truth. Singer quotes the magician Michael Weber:

Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something that’s technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledge—through books and by gaining the confidence of fellow magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from books—old books—and then when he performs for magicians they want to know, “Where did that come from?” And he’s appalled that they haven’t read this stuff.

As a result, Jay had the paradoxical image of a man who was immersed in the lore of magic while also keeping much of that world at arm’s length. “Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer,” Singer writes, and Jay was perfectly fine with that reputation. In Learned Pigs, Jay writes admiringly of the conjurer Max Malini:

Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.

This was obviously how Jay liked to see himself, as he says with equal affection of the magician Dai Vernon: “Making money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.” Yet the reality must have been more complicated. You don’t become as famous or beloved as Ricky Jay without an inhuman degree of ambition, however carefully hidden, and he cultivated attention in ways that allowed him to maintain his air of remove. Apart from Vernon, his other essential mentor was Charlie Miller, who seems to have played the same role in the lives of other magicians that Joe Ancis, “the funniest man in New York City,” did for Lenny Bruce. Both were geniuses who hated to perform, so they practiced their art for a small handful of confidants and fellow obsessives. And the fact that Jay, by contrast, lived the kind of life that would lead him to be widely mourned by the public indicates that there was rather more to him than the reticent persona that he projected.

Jay did perform for paying audiences, of course, and Singer’s article closes with his preparations for a show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, that promises to relieve him from the “tenuous circumstances” that result from his devotion to art. (A decade later, my brother and I went to see his second Broadway production, On the Stem, which is still one of my favorite memories from a lifetime of theatergoing.) But he evidently had mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, which left him even more detached from the performers with whom he was frequently surrounded. As Weber notes: “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in things. They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. They’ll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky…There’s this large body of magic lumpen who really don’t understand Ricky’s legacy—his contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think he’s an élitist and a snob.” Or as the writer and mentalist T.A. Walters tells Singer:

Some magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he can’t accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.

If the remarkable life that he lived is any indication, Jay never did get over it. According to Singer, Jay once asked Dai Vernon how he dealt with the intellectual indifference of other magicians to their craft. Vernon responded: “I forced myself not to care.” And after his friend’s death, Jay said wryly: “Maybe that’s how he lived to be ninety-eight years old.”

The joy of commentary tracks

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While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

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