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Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Jay

“I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness and consolidates society.”*…

Day after tomorrow– this this Wednesday, the 27th– Sotheby’s will be auctioning the late, great Ricky Jay’s remarkable collection of magic publications and artifacts…

… You have the rare opportunity to get your hands on a complete guide to the base practices of highwaymen, sharpers, swindlers, money-droppers, duffers, setters, mock-auctions, quacks, bawds, jilts, etc. in eighteenth-century London. 

That text is part of The Ricky Jay Collection, perhaps the world’s greatest assemblage of books on magic, deception, and trickery. As detailed in this enjoyable New York Times report, the Sotheby’s sale is a cornucopia of oddities from the late conjurer.

What’s really for sale — beyond the Houdini posters, guides to card tricks, and beautiful landscapes painted by armless entertainers — is the source material for Ricky Jay’s storytelling.

Jay (1946-2018) was, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of legerdemain, a word that literally translates as light of hand [see here for its amusing etymology]. In other words, he did card tricks. But not just any card tricks: His 1977 book Cards As Weapons (available for free here!) begins with a letter to the Secretary of Defense explaining just how valuable his skills might be:

Drawing on techniques developed hundreds of years ago by ‘ninja’ assassins, I have developed my own system of self-defence based solely on a pack of cards,” he wrote. “I believe I have discovered a viable method of reducing the defence budget while keeping a few steps ahead of the Russkies.”

And Jay could indeed pierce the skin of a watermelon with a playing card from across a room. But when you came right down to what he did with his 52 assistants, the man was famous for moving pieces of waxed paper around on a table. The gulf between collating stationery and  “the theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law” was filled by his deep knowledge and ready wit.

One of his signature tricks was The Four Queens, in which the waxed rectangles with the Qs in their corners are blended into the pack and need to be reunited. Or as Jay framed it, “I have taken advantage of these tenderly nurtured and unsophisticated young ladies by placing them in positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities.”

You can really see the storytelling taking shape here in his Sword of Vengeance trick. What do shogun assassins have to do with cards? That’s exactly what you forget to ask until it’s too late:

Jay’s ability to unspool a story was clearly infectious, as his profilers couldn’t resist taking flights of erudition.

“He’s like someone carving scrimshaw while surrounded by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day dirigibles,” wrote Tom Carson in Grantland.

“His patter was voluble, embroidered with orotund, baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance, as the ‘thick pachydermatous outer melon layer’,” wrote Mark Singer in The New Yorker.

To include him in the pantheon of Great Wits is to recognize why he amassed The Ricky Jay Collection and what he learned from it. The shaggy dog story, as previously detailed in GWQ #101, is a psychological non-sequitur: You follow it at great length to eventually learn it goes nowhere. But in Ricky Jay’s dexterous hands, the story was an ideal way to distract you from his dexterous hands. His words were how he could really transport the audience into a world of wonders. It’s as if he harnessed the shaggy dogs and mushed them through the Iditarod… 

The wit that powered the tricks: “Ricky Jay’s slight of tongue,” from Benjamin Errett (@benjaminerrett)

* Samuel Johnson

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As we riffle and cut, we might send accomplished birthday greetings to Marion Eileen Ross; she was born on this date in 1928. An actress with a long history in film (e.g., The Glenn Miller Story, Sabrina, Lust for Life, Teacher’s Pet, Some Came Running, and Operation Petticoat), she is best remembered for her role as Marion Cunningham on the sitcom Happy Days, on which she starred from 1974 to 1984 and for which she received two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. (That said, your correspondent will always remember her for her remarkable performances as Grandma SquarePants in SpongeBob SquarePants.)

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“No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted”*…

 

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“Joesph’s Tunic” by Velasquez (in which Joseph’s sons lie to him…)

On the sad occasion of the passing of scholar, showman, and sleight-of-hand expert nonpareil Ricky Jay, your correspondent revisited this 2009 interview, conducted by another remarkable, filmmaker Errol Morris in the late, lamented New York Times‘ Opinionator blog….

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for a “lie?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false.

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error…

Read it and reap: “Seven Lies About Lying, Part One and Part Two.”

* Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

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As we think about trickery, we might send mannerly birthday greetings to a master of the sly deception and the flattering white lie, Baldassare Castiglione; he was born on this date in 1478.  A Renaissance soldier, diplomat, and author, he is most famous for The Book of the Courtier.– a prime example of the courtesy book, offering advice on and dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier– which was enormously influential in 16th century European court circles.

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The most beautiful sight in a… theater is to walk down to the front, turn around, and look at the light from the screen reflected on the upturned faces of the members of the audience”*…

 

The magic lantern was basically a seventeenth-century slide projector: a light source (a candle), an image (a piece of painted glass), and a lens. It was an ever-evolving object, and revolutionized the way pictures were seen by an audience. It is often called a precursor to cinema, but it might better be characterized as an enabler that paved the way for film and gave rise to its own powerful visual culture. Many technical devices that explored projected imagery and the persistence of vision are sought, researched, and discussed by lantern aficionados…

The remarkable Ricky Jay [see here and here] remembers two departed friends, and ruminates on the lost art that paved the way for motion pictures even as it created a visual culture all its own: “Farewell to Two Masters of the Magic Lantern.”

* Gene Siskel, quoting Robert Ebert’s report of an observation by François Truffaut

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As we accede to awe, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 that Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon was released by United Artists.  Directed by Billy Wilder [see here], the film is widely considered the funniest comedy ever made (e.g., on the AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Films and the BBC’s poll of film critics around the world).

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Oh, and of course, it also featured Marilyn Monroe singing…

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness”*…

 

Detail from a self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger, 1724; his hair consists of seven Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Click here for larger image.

Matthias Buchinger… was born without hands or feet in Nuremberg in 1674 and never grew beyond the height of twenty-nine inches. [Buchinger had phocomelia, an extremely rare congenital disorder that was in the news in the last century as it can also be caused by a pregnant mother’s use of Thalidamide, a drug then prescribed against morning sickness.] An itinerant magician, musician, writing master, and artist active in Britain and the Continent, Buchinger combined a Grub Street readiness to produce fancy illustrated documents on demand (family trees, coats of arms, wedding announcements, and the like) with a Germanic piety so that, by some wizardry, curls of hair turn into threads of minuscule sentences from the Bible, and sturdy capital letters sprout leaves and tendrils.

Buchinger died at sixty-five, having outlived three of his four wives and fathered fourteen children. His wondrous powers have been a longtime obsession of the magician and writer-savant Ricky Jay, who has collected some fifty examples of Buchinger’s baroque work, from engraved self-portraits framed with his characteristic arabesques and curlicues to spiraling texts that would fit on a thumbnail…

“Matthias Buchinger, a phocomelic.” Etching.

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Read more at “Mystery in Miniature,” and see Jay’s collection on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 11.

* Gaston Bachelard

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As we marvel at the minuscule, we might send dreamy birthday greetings to Buchinger’s “yang,” Colin Campbell Cooper, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1856.  A seminal American Impressionist, Cooper is perhaps best known for his paintings of skyscrapers in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

“Hudson River Waterfront, N.Y.C.”

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“Self-Portrait”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

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