When in doubt, start with a quote:
I’m so bloody rich
I own apartment buildings and shopping centers
And I only know three chords!
— Alice Bowie, “Earache My Eye“
This post was a long time coming. In fact, bits and pieces go back almost a year when, at various times, I was struck by the fact that Blaine hatred was alive and well on planet earth. But, with David Blaine’s new television special — David Blaine: Drowned Alive — just a day away, and the frenzied — if not well worn — comments swirling like the dust that floats high in June when movin’ through Kashmir, I thought it time to blow the dust off the old stuff and add some new stuff to the mix.
I’m going to start by saying I like David Blaine — although, since I don’t know him personally, it would be more accurate to state I like what David Blaine has done for magic. My first and only brush with him was more of a shove and didn’t involve many comprehensible words. (Insert your favorite David Blaine joke here.)
Here’s a question for you: what if David Blaine really is an actor playing the part of a magician? (We’ll get back to that in a moment.)
Mentioning the words “David” and “Blaine” in the same sentence in front of many magicians is a lot like shouting “Uri Geller” in a crowded theater filled with James Randi fans. It’s just…well, I think you get the idea.
One could write a college thesis on what it is about Blaine that provokes so many in our weird little world to blow a gasket and/or suffer from immediate fits of purple apoplexy when his name is invoked. But, this isn’t college and this isn’t a thesis (although I am always looking for newer heights to ascend on my Joycean pilgrimage,) still, let’s look at a few of oft-repeated reasons people play the Blaine Game, shall we?
David Blaine: Street Magic aired on the ABC television network on Monday May 19, 1997 at 7:00 PM Central Time. It was an hour of a type of magic most people watching had never in their lives ever experienced. It was, as some have reported later, a type of magic David Blaine had not experienced before video taping the raw footage that later became part of the network pitch. But that’s a story for another day.
I loved the first special for any number of different reasons. It was different; it introduced the concept of street magic to the masses — something for which Brad Christian should hit his knees in fervent thanks every night.
The show starts off with a magnificent version of the Balducci levitation. Added to that was the virtually unheard of “Almost-Puke Move” — a nice touch and a harbinger of things to come over the next hour.
Immediately after the show aired, the Internet discussion boards were awash in Blaine commentary. But it wasn’t until the next day that, with a sense of reality coming over them, the teaming hoards really came alive. And it wasn’t a Sound of Music moment, I can assure you of that.
Was this particular version of the Balducci discussed? No. What was discussed — and what remains the center of the Blaine Controversy Universe — is the version of that levitation towards the end of the show which, arguably, was not the same as that seen at the beginning.
FOUL! they cried in one voice.
Why? Well, phrases such as “camera trick” and “clever editing” were tossed around. (To my mind they are one and the same.) My response to all of that was and still is, “And?”
David Blaine: Street Magic was a one hour television production; each segment built up the next. It was not meant to be a commercial for a live show you could later purchase tickets to and attend. The crescendo to the special was the levitation at the end. This followed the tenets of a magician’s world as he builds an act to its climax. That the levitation was not the same form of the first version is perfectly in keeping with the way we do things when building an act. It is also in keeping with the format of the entertainment at hand: a television special.
Still, the arguments were and are that Blaine could not do that levitation in person the way it was shown on television.
And my response was and is, “And?”
Gary Ouellet felt strongly about hammering home the idea that viewers at home would see magic without camera tricks. For years the phrase “the camera will not cut away…” was peppered throughout TVLand magic specials. Not so with for David Blaine’s.
Does it matter? I suppose it does depending upon your viewpoint of what the specials are supposed to be. From my pont of view, they are — first and foremost — television entertainment.
I think part of the underlying complaint — a good deal of the real reason for a good deal of the animosity — comes down to this:
As a result of many, many years and many, many television specials, The Magic of David Copperfield set the standards of expectations when it came to magic specials on television. It was that set of established expectations that opened the door for David Blaine to get in front of executives at ABC Television raw footage of a form of magic not seen on television before. (Whether or not Blaine ever actually performed this way prior to him taping himself in Time Square is another issue.)
But there was another type of expectation having been set. After a Copperfield special, magicians could, for the most part, walk into their favorite magic shop (or search the mail order catalogs) and purchase props and instructions that would allow them to mimic much of what was seen on television.
To put it simply and bluntly, for many magicians across the fruited plain, David Copperfield was The Great Magic Demonstrator to the masses; his performances were not only the standard by which the average magic guy in the street would be judged if called upon to do something, but also the magic menu from which magicians all over ordered tricks in a frenzy of buying that would make Santa blush in shame.
So, when David Copperfield did the linking rubber bands, magicians all over the place searched for this nugget, found it in Tarbell 7, and then proceeded to drive themselves absolutely crazy trying to duplicate it by following to a “t” the instructions therein. (Eventually the workable version was found.)
Timothy Wenk was doing okay business with a remarkable little trick of his whereby a pencil penetrated a dollar bill in the most convincing way I know I had ever seen (or heard, for that matter.) But it wasn’t until David Copperfield performed it on national television that floodgates opened when the trick, called Misled, returned to the market. How many were sold? I don’t have the exact number, but the phrases “a boatload” and “a hellacious amount” are not inappropriate descriptions. (It remains one of those very special tricks in my kit bag done rarely, not so much because I don’t like doing it, but because I am deathly afraid that the next time I use the gimmick might be the last. Those of you with the original version know why.)
And so it went for years and years. Copperfield performed tricks, magicians went out and mimicked them. It was a pretty good system for magic retailers. Despite the obvious problem in all of this — a problem about which TA Waters wrote on numerous occasions — almost everyone was happy.
Enter David Blaine and the levitation at the end of the show. On May 20, 1997 — the day after the television special — if called upon to duplicate it live as it was presented on television, magicians simply could not do it. They couldn’t do it then, they can’t do it now. (To be fair, David Blaine couldn’t either.) It was — and still is — a bitter pill to swallow.
In more than way, David Blaine was not David Copperfield. And, in more than one way, that was just not in keeping with expectations.
Then there were the other tricks — tricks many would eventually lump together using the phrase “slum magic.” They were magic tricks that were already safely tucked in drawers, or hidden away in the pages of books we all call classics. And, as Mark Twain noted, “A classic is something that everybody praises and nobody has read.”
I enjoyed watching Blaine take a prop nearly every magician on the planet has in a drawer somewhere and perform his riff on a Gene Gordon trick described in great detail in Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic. (And, for those keeping track, that was published in 1952.) David Blaine even heeded the suggestion:
“A little acting (or mugging, as it is known in the profession) will add greatly to the effect.”
If there ever was a performer who so clearly demonstrated the differences between the words “effect,” “trick,” and “method” I think it would be David Blaine.
The day after Blaine’s first television special I ran into one of my clients who also knew I did magic. His first words after “hello”?
“Did you see that David Blaine guy on TV last night? What did you think?”
I answered, “Yes. What did you think?”
He staired at me for a moment and said — almost in a hushed tone — “He’s the real deal.”
I asked, “Real deal?”
“Yes,” he said, “What he did was real.”
And that’s from a very successful, very intelligent person. That’s the effect David Blaine’s performance had on normal people.
Things didn’t change substantially for the succeeding Blaine specials on television. Cries of slum magic tricks or clever editing or David Bland etc. At the same time, those tricks that could be identified — slum or not — were advertised and purchased with wild abandon. All the while the normal people loved him and talked about him.
Jim Sisti and I discussed this very subject today. We agree with the notion that David Blaine is becoming (if he hasn’t already become) the new Houdini. That is high — and justified — praise.
His stunts are denigrated by many magicians for their lack of magical value. This is an amusing complaint to me; the stunts are designed to do precisely what they are accomplishing: generate interest and discussion.
Can you think of anyone else in the history of magic who may have used publicity stunts to make a name for himself?
In the end — for me — David Blaine is about the effect more than the tricks or the methods. I am far more interested in the effect he has on normal people because that will impact the lives of most anyone who publicly proclaims himself a magician. The tricks — literal, verbal, cinematic — are of less interest to me, as are their methods. It’s the effect on audiences that matter.
Back to the fellow who approached me the day after Blaine’s first magic special. Want to take a wild guess which trick “concerned” him the most? “Hey, do you know how he did that thing where he bit off a piece of a quarter and spit it back on?”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
As I fiddled with one of our quarters I always used to keep with me (along with Scotch & Soda) a strange sense of propriety/insanity overcame me and instead of saying, “What, you mean this?” — I said, “No, I can’t say.”
Those were some of the hardest words I ever said. (And that includes the phrase, “I was wrong.” And I’m genetically disposed to avoiding that phrase like the plague.)
Could I have done it? Oh yes, right then and there, without any fumbling. Did I want to do it? Lord, yes. But in the end, what would I have accomplished, aside from gaining a bit of personal satisfaction? In the end, nothing productive. I had an anti-Grinch moment. Sue me.
And if I had it to do all over again, I’d say the same words again. And, I suspect, tomorrow night David Blaine will give me several more reasons to reinforce the notion that I made the right choice.
David Blaine elevates the world of magic to the level of magic. And given the number of “magicians” running around doing who knows how many magic tricks for who knows how many people, I’m ashamed to say that’s an awfully rare thing these days. But that’s our (the royal “our”) fault, isn’t it?
You’d think someone who makes magic special, someone who raises the world of magic in the collective conciousness of an otherwise cynical, uninterested world, would be…oh, I don’t know…roundly thanked and applauded maybe?
Who knows, maybe the day after the David Blaine: Drowned Alive special things will change. But I’m not holding my breath.