Friday, October 10, 2008

David Blaine: Genius or Joke?

As feats of endurance—from encasing himself in ice to hanging upside down for days—David Blaine's stunts are amazing. But after he was criticized for his recent Dive of Death, has the magician's entertainment value bottomed out?

By Rachel Syme

It's dusk in Central Park, and magician David Blaine is hanging upside down, contemplating a career change: "Maybe I will become a schoolteacher after this." Ten hours into his latest endurance stunt, Dive of Death—for which he committed himself to staying in this inverted position, dangling from cables, for three days—he is already hurting. "You know the feeling when you sit on your leg and you get pins and needles?" he muses. "That's what this is like, except with my entire body, and it doesn't go away." Thanks to a pulley system designed by the team that rigged Tobey Maguire for the Spider-Man movies, David can zoom around the titanium cube—44 feet tall—he had built for the event, but he has spent his first day low to the ground, openly sharing his discomfort with bystanders. "Without any shred of doubt, this is the first time where I actually think I am crazy," the 35-year-old says, his face almost purple from the blood rush. "I would rather do all of my other stunts in a row right now than have to stay up here." He lets his aviator sunglasses slip off slightly, revealing a pair of bloodshot eyes—the first organ to falter should the trick go awry, say his doctors—and smiles a little. "This one," he sighs, "was always going to be…you know, difficult."

Onlookers come close to the magician—this is the first stunt where an audience has been able to talk to him—but quickly retreat, whispering, "That's it?" It's underwhelming, this upside-down trick. Every 30 seconds or so, David hoists himself up by a strap to get his head above his heart, and he is constantly doing yoga leg movements to keep his veins open. Every hour or so, he returns to an upright position on a platform, where doctors test his vitals and he is pumped full of electrolytes and allowed to evacuate his bladder through a catheter. Bystanders and bloggers immediately call him out as a cheater. A crowd of high schoolers in uniform show up to chuckle and hiss. People snap pictures of David's upright breaks, sending the evidence to Web sites like Gawker and Gothamist for ridicule. Later, even Anderson Cooper piled on, devoting part of his CNN show to question the magician's authenticity. If David was hurt by the skeptics, he didn't show it: "I'm not going to piss all over myself just to keep the integrity of the stunt."

The same thing happened in London in 2003, when David fasted for 44 days inside a glass box above the Thames River. Crowds grew bored and started to taunt the magician, hissing, hurling sausages and sending up a remote-control helicopter carrying a hamburger. On the one hand, the stunts of endurance he puts himself through—testing the limits of vertigo or body temperature—are amazing. But watching a hunger strike or a man doing nothing but hanging upside down is not exactly entertaining. David says that's not the point. "People expect to see something crazy—it's like going to a rap concert and expecting a shoot-out. But 99 percent of the time that's not going to happen," he says. "There's nothing flashy. The magic is happening to me. I feel my body change, and it is amazing. I just choose to feel that in public."

David Blaine gets a bad rap these days, but it wasn't always that way. When he first gained notoriety with his Street Magic TV special in 1997, he was considered a throwback to the great magicians of an earlier era. He was only 24, ruggedly handsome and able to blow minds with a simple card trick. A Jewish–Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn, David wowed crowds by underwhelming, and then shocking. Even the niece of Harry Houdini, Marie Blood, said of David's 1999 Buried Alive stunt, which occurred at Trump Place on the Upper West Side, "My uncle did some amazing things, but he could not have done this." Thousands of people braved a rainy November night in Times Square in 2000 to watch him emerge from a six-ton block of ice. The TV broadcast of that stunt attracted more than 15 million viewers. Suddenly, in addition to performing for famous fans like Bill Clinton and Madonna, David was a celebrity himself, hanging out with Hollywood's so-called Pussy Posse of actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Lukas Haas and Tobey Maguire and dating singer Fiona Apple, actress Daryl Hannah and model Josie Maran.

But over the past couple of years, public perception of David Blaine has flipped from genius to joke. He's earned a reputation in the media as a womanizer with a quick temper, and just two weeks ago, "Page Six" ran an item claiming that David ditched a bar after staff refused to comp his bottle service. (David says of the gossip: "People can believe what they want about me. The press loves to drum up a good story.") Days later, when he ended his Dive of Death stunt, bystanders actually booed. Viewership of the event's ABC broadcast last week clocked in at just 7.7 million—less than half the number of people who tuned in to see him eight years ago. And then there's the fact that his two recent tricks faltered: He did not break the underwater breath-holding record with 2006's Drowned Alive, and he is unhappy with Dive of Death, even calling his dismount a "full disaster. The whole show was spent promoting my final moment, and then it was so underwhelming." David was supposed to jump off the cube and fly over Central Park attached to balloons. Instead, he had to do a minor bungee jump due to wind conditions and was hoisted up slowly by a crane—a banal end to a much-mocked stunt.

What's worse, members of the magic community feel betrayed by the fact that David focuses more on these endurance stunts than on old-fashioned magic. "He started to go AWOL with all the stunts. It was very off the deep end," says Brad Christian, CEO of Ellusionist, a Web site that trains and supports aspiring street magicians. "To a majority of magicians, he is a bit of a joke now." Critics say it's one thing to see Houdini, one of Blaine's heroes, escape from a straitjacket, and another to see David nearly slipping into catatonic shock or blacking out underwater. His stunts are self-flagellation in a public arena, to the point that you wonder if he has a death wish. But David disagrees: "It's the opposite of that. Doing these things makes me feel more alive." Still, even his producer and president of David Blaine Productions, Denise Albert, admits, "He needs to be reminded sometimes that people want to see the magic," she says. "There are ways to make money without selling out."

It's easy to make fun of David's flair for the dramatic, which can swerve into camp. Promo photos feature him shirtless with devilish cocked eyebrows. He speaks almost in a whisper. He has serious tattoos—among them memoirist Primo Levi's Holocaust number and a crucifixion scene—as well as a penchant for reflective poetry. (While in the glass box in London, he is said to have written lines from Siddhartha.) He commissioned a deck of playing cards that depict him as a king. In the poster for Drowned Alive, two angels watch over David, as if anointing him.

So is he a tortured artist or just a dude who's insecure? David notes that as a boy, he always "wanted to see how long I could hold my breath in the pool—and I would go further than everyone else." In 1994, when David was 21, his mother, Patrice (who raised him on her own until she remarried when he was 10), died after a battle with ovarian cancer, and he says, "Seeing my mother fight inspired me to see what I could endure and made me obsessed with that. I no longer fear death."

David says he got his first deck of cards at age 4, and by 5 he was "standing on tables in restaurants doing tricks for people." Mostly self-taught, he started performing at parties at 13, and earned a cult following by his late teens. "When he first came out, I loved what David did," Brad says. "He reignited magic and took it out of the top hat and bunny cliché. But he doesn't seem to care much about the magic anymore."

David argues that his heart is in the right place and that his stunts are magical. "It's amazing and surprising what can really be endured," he says. "I lose money on every stunt I do. Money has zero motivation for me." Later, a member of David's staff breaks rank and says, nodding to his three motorcycles and many employees, "Look around—do you think that's true?"

Tucked in an alleyway, David's Tribeca office has an otherworldly feeling, like stumbling onto Harry Potter's secret train platform. Inside, three days before Dive of Death, a team of 20 or so assistants, magicians, apprentices, publicists, producers, technicians, doctors and trainers rush around, all part of the Blaine machine. Below, in the basement, David preps for his stunt by hanging from his ankles inside a tiny boiler room. He keeps an apartment within the office, complete with a king-size bed and a Jacuzzi, though his real home is in Chelsea. On the office shelves, David stocks multiple copies of the same books, all in the truth-seeker vein—The Fountainhead, as well as the Holocaust survival memoirs If This Is a Man and Man's Search for Meaning. "I find books I love and then hand them out as gifts," he explains.

"David has thousands of books, and he's read them all. You go to his apartment and he has really dog-eared the pages," says his assistant, Bridget Davidson, a beauty with raven hair, whom David met at a Chelsea gym. She describes her job as "intense." "I do everything down to hard-boil his eggs at home and make sure he has toilet paper. He'll ask me if his shirts look OK. But he is also always telling me to trust no one."

It's hard to imagine how someone who trusts no one can function in a relationship, and David says the Dive of Death is the first stunt he has done "without a girlfriend. It's difficult for them to be supportive because they feel like nothing will resonate"—in other words, that they'll never be able to talk him out of anything. He has been single for more than a year now, but he says that he "is not really looking for anyone. I have no one who I am accountable to or who accounts for me."

Without a family or a girlfriend, he has no one to warn him against failure either, and that's the way he likes it. "When you work for David, you can't be the [person] that tells him no," says Denise. "So you have to be an enabler. It's scary! I mean, when he was holding his breath for the world record on Oprah last year, I was thinking, 'I'm either going to be the one that pushed him to die on Oprah or fail on Oprah, and either way, it's going to be bad.' "

In a lot of ways, David takes failure harder than he might take injury. "I'm always upset after the stunts end, because I only see what I could have done better," he says. "I'm not really proud of anything I've ever done." After he missed the record on Drowned Alive, he "got pretty depressed. I'll never consider myself great. But I know I am working toward something."

His main focus now: a handful of stunts, and when he completes them, he will be done. What drives him, he says, is the chance to inspire audiences to look at suffering in a different way. "What I do is about finding the beauty in simplicity," he says. "When you take away comforts and extravagance, you're left with the truth of what is. I show that we as humans have so much, especially in America, and we can endure. You break a leg, you adjust."

The results of David's 44-day U.K. fast ended up in The New England Journal of Medicine. He was happy to be a specimen of human survival. And that's at the heart of the genius-or-joke conflict: While he sees his work as a serious, scientific endeavor, audiences want to be entertained. But whether crowds are cheering him or booing him, people are still talking about David Blaine. And there's some magic in that.

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