Monday, August 17, 2020

myth and magic in the age of mechanical reproduction


Ricky Jay’s most pristine miracles were not intended for strangers to see. 

These were events that were never captured on film. Jay preferred to deal his best magic in bright impossible bursts—ephemeral shows for audiences as small as one that will pass from living memory within decades. 
 
Arguably, Jay’s most powerful performance was staged for an audience of just one woman, in 1995. 
 
I find this to be such an interesting choice for a performer in the age of mass media, especially given Jay’s deep connections in show business. He appeared in dozens of films, consulted on others, and was a fixture on late-night television from the 1970s. On the prestige drama Deadwood, Jay played some version of himself, a card sharp from another era, and before that, he had an enormously popular show off-Broadway, directed by David Mamet and taped for HBO. 
 
Despite these many appearances on stage and screen, the fact remains that Jay’s most brilliant performances unfolded in front of a select few. Like most things in Jay’s carefully controlled life, this was surely by design.
 
He was an enthusiastic and careful historian. So it seems meaningful that Jay’s most profound acts of magic appear on the historical record only as described by the handful of people who were lucky enough to witness them. Like the great acts of his beloved forebears—magicians and other oddball performers who lived in a time before video—the most deeply compelling magic of Ricky Jay will persist only in arcane territory, somewhere between history and myth. To reconstruct these transient works of art, we’re confronted with the wonders and limitations of imagination.
 
Authenticity is not reproducible.
 
Jay’s most elaborate tricks required intricate setups that were informed by a lifetime of experience and made possible by months of site-specific preparation. These were artful illusions that hinged on opportunities that might have never presented themselves.  (I wonder most about the magic that Ricky Jay never had the chance to perform.) It’s thrilling to read about a diabolical card trick he performed at a party, late at night. Or an uncanny display of mentalism at a bar. This past Saturday, I had a complicated feeling watching a scene in a documentary where a man described the time Jay manufactured a two-dollar bill out of thin air—not on the stage, but in the shower after a workout. This interlocutor was a skeptic who had hoped to catch him off guard. But Ricky Jay was always ready.
 
Each of these perfectly executed moments in time was a polished piece of technical theater seamlessly woven into the events of everyday life, to the wonder and delight of whoever was watching. In the 2012 documentary Deceptive Practice, Jay described this genre as “impromptu magic,” which he regarded as the highest form of art. 
 
One of the magicians Jay most admired and studied was Max Malini (1873-1942), a world-famous practitioner of impromptu magic. Malini was known for his splendid spur-of-the-moment performances. He often staged them in rich people’s homes in a bid to capture their interest (and their dollars). These were acts composed not of scripted stunts, but minor miracles. Or so it seemed.
 
Jay’s innovation in the practice of impromptu magic, from what I gather, was in catching people completely off guard, and his near total lack of agenda. This kind of magic was very personal and enormously special. Jay loved to surprise people in mundane places and offhand moments—in a diner, say, or at a hotel bar. The banality of the setting must’ve made the magic that much more real. 
 
“For it truly to be magic…a magical moment, it has to be spontaneous,” Jay explained in the documentary. “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 which withers in the age of mechanical production is the aura of a work of art.
 
In the film, Jay describes how Malini was known for a dinner-party trick in which he produced a large block of ice from the seemingly empty space beneath a hat lying on the table. Jay recreated this magnificent show and arguably did it better, if only because the person he performed it for never saw it coming. (For Malini, it was a signature piece.) But Jay’s performance did not appear in the documentary; it was only described by the woman who saw it. The actual event had transpired in a diner some 15 years before.
 
The context is very important: in 1995, Jay was being filmed for a BBC special. He had been clashing with a producer who wanted him to perform Malini’s ice trick as a set piece for the show.
 
Jay had zero interest in doing this. But privately, he planned a surprise: instead of performing for the camera, he chose to conjure the huge block of ice for one person, a journalist named Suzie Mackenzie who had been hanging around the set. At the time, they were having lunch in a busy diner. I think she was profiling him for a story.
 
As she described the ice trick in Deceptive Practice, Mackenzie visibly struggled to find words to express how much it moved her. It was like religious awe: not for Ricky Jay, but the for the experience that he had given her.
 
The BBC didn’t get the footage, because there was none. At the diner, between Jay and Mackenzie, the ice began to melt on the table—a potent symbol for a fleeting moment. It was a very hot day.
 
Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. 
 
At a memorial service for Jay in 2019, Mark Singer (who wrote the definitive profile of Jay and worked as a producer on Deceptive Practiceadded this remarkable coda to Mackenzie’s story:
 
It was the only time Ricky performed this [trick]. For anyone, ever. … When it happened, Suzie Mackenzie burst into tears. In the film, she says, “It’s a moment I’ll never have again. I’ll never forget it. It was a kind of supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed, that was done for me.”
 
What she doesn’t say is what Ricky told me, years ago, about her reaction. After she had regained her composure, he asked her what she felt. 
 
“Love,” she said. 

Jay often spoke about the difference between magicians and con men. I don’t think he’d put it this way—he seemed to think about the distinction in terms of honesty—but my understanding is: one gives where the other takes. 
 
“He’s unbelievably generous,” David Mamet said of his friend. “One of the world’s great people.” 
 
Jay reportedly worked very hard. Before a performance, Michael Chabon once said to him, “You must get tired of it sometimes, night after night, show after show.”
 
“Yes, Michael, sometimes I do,” Jay said. “But once I get out there, I guarantee you, not you or them or anybody is ever going to know.” 
 
As a performer, Jay kept a lot of secrets, which people sometimes regarded as elitist or stingy. “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in doing things,” said Michael Weber, the magician who was Jay’s business partner. “They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own.”
 
The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.
 
It seems to me that Jay’s professional secrets were in the spirit of giving people something (an experience, a feeling) rather than a selfish wish to withhold. Jay had his reasons for performing his most amazing magic for so few people. It certainly wasn’t a problem with resources; he had access to all the right people, plenty of money, and a surplus of tools. 
 
“Today, audiences are just as curious, just as willing to be amazed” as audiences from the distant past, Jay remarked. “But look at everything we’re barraged with—it just doesn’t lodge in the imagination in the same way.”
 
Everything we’re barraged with.
 
As a magician and a historian, Jay had a special understanding of perspective and constraints. Talking about the HBO special of his off-Broadway show in an interview, he said
 
The show is different live. Particularly something that deals with magic: The very essence of it is the spontaneity; that’s the moment you’re looking for. The very idea that you have a TV camera there, even though we went through great lengths not to cut away and not to use camera trickery… [Mamet] even came out and directed himself, which was nice. But it’s still different. It’s a live show, and it’s meant to be seen live.
 
Reading the interview, I came to an understanding of why Jay saved his best stuff for off-camera; it would have been a degradation to film it. Impromptu magic cannot occur on film, by definition; it’s an experience that only occurs if and when the right moment presents itself. 
 
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be
 
Jay wasn’t interested at all in showing people how his tricks were done. (Why would it matter?) But he did impart a kind of understanding of what it might have felt like to experience them. The experience was the art. His process was only a method.
 
In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it is perhaps notable that the obituaries for Jay in mainstream outlets differed on the point of whether he had died at the age of 70 or 72. Like so many of the magicians who came before him, the details of his life are fuzzy. Most of us don’t know so much about him as an individual who existed in the world. We watched the parts he wanted us to see, and the rest is stories.
 
The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.
 
I’ve always had a fondness for people who do amazing pointless things. I don’t have that kind of talent, but it’s an impulse I understand. It resonates with me now more than ever, in this sad time of accelerated media consolidation. It hums faintly somewhere deep within my chest as I try to live through this period of US collapse. 
 
“Behind every transcendent, unforgettable performance is a deeply ordinary chore,” Jay’s former assistant wrote. I can’t decide if that’s some rarified philosophy, or just one way to describe a life. 
 
I read a story about a time Jay performed a stunning miracle for yet another audience of one: Steve Freeman, a fellow magician who stopped by Jay’s apartment to return a shirt. 
 
“It was nice to be fooled,” Freeman said of the experience. “That’s not a feeling we get to have very often anymore.” 
 
A mystery doesn’t always yield an answer, but may yet offer some reward.
 
I don’t know much about magic. Nevertheless, it exists.  
 
 
 
 
--
All italicized passages are from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Walter Benjamin.

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