In California: Ricky Jay & David Mamet on Deception

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Besides being an actor, world renowned magician, and ex-sideshow-outside-talker — the person who dares you to look inside the tent — Ricky Jay is a scholar and collector of shameless intentions.

Writers love strange, faltered truths as engines love combustion — each metaphor needs such a truth for contrast, each character needs three or four for intrigue, each ending needs to leave a few unexplained.

Recently, Jay met with writer, director, novelist, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and long time collaborator David Mamet and talked about stories pulled from essays in Celebrations of Curious Characters, Jay’s new book. Mamet talked about the lure of illusions, comparing it to reality’s rigid cause & effect. A trick with a good finale gives “the pleasure of being proved wrong,” he said. Makes me think of the line from The Brothers Bloom, “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just the thing they wanted.”

Jay detailed the centuries-old myth of the The Pig Faced Lady. Though the myth has many variations, the lady’s allure always hinges on the cruel irony of her immense fortune. When this myth was translated to stage, the part would often be played by a bear. They’d shave the bear’s face, put a dress and gloves on it, and have a kid under a table poking it to make it growl, “to make it seem like he [was] answering questions.”

Then, Jay described successful poker cheats like Jon H. Green, who found new careers as ‘reformed gamblers.’ To earn credibility with his audience on book tours, Green proclaimed that all card decks produced in the US were marked and, after asking the crowd for a random deck, could tell the face value of any audience-chosen card by glancing only at its back….with the aid of the mirror affixed to his podium light. After, Green asked about any games going on that night in the area.

From an essay about soap’s role in subversion, another in the collection, we heard of John Dillinger and his accomplices, who escaped from prison using fake guns carved out of soap and painted with shoe polish. From the 1508 how-to publication, The Book of Beggars, Jay also pulled a suggestion: to put soap in one’s mouth to make it look like foam. The Book of Beggars is one of many which explored the subject, as did The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry.

As you might expect from someone who understands that the success of the Flea Circus depends on how well you “fasten the thorax of fleas,” Jay is a master storyteller. He’s a living example of the way slight of hand is an entire performance. His speech is perfectly casual — the speech of the guy who makes you think you’re having the idea all on your own while in fact leading you to it like metal to magnets. Mamet, the restless antagonizer, is an obvious writer. A man who’d like to be nothing but punches. That invisible line between normality and abnormality seems to be an obsession for both, a place where you burn your map just to keep warm.

“It’s all a trade off” — a conclusion Mamet offered and on which both agreed. This conclusion illuminates the shared walls between filmmakers and con artists. Keeping his head in the carnival, Mamet compared directing to ‘plate juggling,’ reminding me of Bob Dylan’s comparison of songwriting to tightrope walking.

Jay is currently exhibiting many pieces from his personal collection at the Jewish Magicians of the 19th Century exhibit at The Skirball Center. If you can think of a joke to go with that that doesn’t involve a disappearing foreskin, I’d really, really love to hear it.

–David Ohlsen, an LA native, is a thoughtless product of UC Riverside’s Creative Writing program and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.

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