Monday, May 08, 2006

Racherbaumer on Blaine (from 2000)

I discovered the post below on the Genii Forum last night. It's by Jon Racherbaumer, one of magic's leading creators and theorists. Although I found it on a thread from 2003, Racherbaumer says there that he wrote it in 2000, right after the "Frozen in Time" special in which Blaine was encased in a block of ice on Times Square for 61 hours.

I'm humbled by how much deeper this post is than my own Blaine manifesto. I think Racherbaumer understood earlier than most just how profoundly Blaine was affecting people. He also expresses beautifully how Blaine's style and vision are original and modern. I am posting it here in full (with my occasional background comments italicized, and a few explanatory links), with his kind permission.


BLAINE GOT GAME? (from 2000)
by Jon Racherbaumer

“One who can only find his way by moonlight…”
- Oscar Wilde, commenting on the nature of a dreamer.

What more can be said about David Blaine that hasn’t been said before, ad nauseum? And of course press releases seldom reveal anything truly personal or revealing. From my obscured vantage point, I have little to add to what I wrote about David Blaine twice (in MAGIC magazine). My third, breezily brief excursus, by the way, will be in the January (2001) issue of MAGIC. My focus each time was about his approach, not his supposedly inherent skills as a sleight-of-hand artist.

I hate to keep hammering on the same points, but few magicians seem to get it. Blaine is primarily a creature created for and by television. From the cocoon of his New York street-performing period, he initially emerged as a hybrid television phenomenon, working as no one had done before and was savvy enough to know that performance is about the audience. He, until “Frozen in Time,” usually focused on spectators and human existence itself. What was filmed or televised occurred in the hot-damn here-and-now with all its glorious contingencies and grit. In fact, in many ways he prefigured so-called “reality television” and shows such as “Survivor” and “Big Brother.” However, Blaine transformed this “primal, see-it-right-now world” through post-production artifice. And whether anybody likes it not, television is an incredibly powerful and undeniably ubiquitous mass-cultural media form. It is a “window to the world” for most people —the one they depend on for transmissions of “reality”—live and direct, apparently unmediated, and relatively uncontrolled. And Blaine, using a magician’s prerogative to create illusions, has created a representative “world” where the street (usually grungy, “mean” ones) is his stage. The players are spectators who happen to be there when filming took place. Then Blaine plays a mischievous interloper in their reality...[snip]

Given this mise en scene, his most savvy ability, like the tricksters of myth, is to create and work with contingency. His sudden presence in the spectator’s environment seems random, almost accidental…He’s a mere, monosyllabic figure in their path, between situations, on the way to somewhere else…(God knows where?) He interrupts them and exploits this opportunity to demonstrate something novel, if not astonishing, with something as commonplace as a deck of cards. In short, he plays with their boundaries of expectancy and normality, momentarily trapping them only to set them free, making their minds discombobulated and perhaps transformed. At first he looks much like them, but then becomes something else. He’s “there” and “not there.” He moves on. He moves in and out of “frames,” in and out of “places,” a transient Lone Stranger dressed in black.

This may sound as hyperbolic as most of his press releases, but if you carefully study his first two television specials, you will see what I mean.

Wow, that was quite an analysis! I think Racherbaumer latched onto something important here, recognizing that Blaine is not really playing the role of "Street Magician," but of a wandering, nomadic "Mysterious Stranger" -- which later became the title of his book. It's an important distinction. A street magician makes his living doing magic on the streets for tips. A friend of mine who used to do quite well with this lamented that it's "one step up from begging." Blaine, on the other hand, performs miracles for people, brings them joy and amazement, and asks nothing in return.

In my first article in MAGIC, I wrote:

“David Blaine is a man of contrasts, coming out of nowhere. He is open and closed, forthcoming and mysterious; and has taken a path less traveled to big-time Prime Time…and in terms of conventional career-tracks—the kind magicians follow and expect—he is strictly an anomaly.”

Time has passed and most magicians still think that Blaine is an anomaly. Others make harsher assessments, calling him "a fluke, a no-talent, an overrated and overpaid opportunist of modest talents.”

I disagree.

Blaine’s talents are raw and not easily defined. Casual observers see vanilla performances. He seems (as Jerry Sadowitz mocks) like he should be named David Bland. And admittedly there is an inscrutable placidity about his appearance—which is a cross between Chancey Gardner (in the film, “Being There”) and the Man Without a Name (Clint Eastwood) from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. His body language is “cool” and a calculated, confident, interior intelligence leaks out like time-lapse photography. He mumbles, “Let’s try something…maybe...ah…” and then there are all those sudden “spikes” of drama. His muted voice (like a junkie coming down) is monotone, sounding a bit like Steven Wright, the comic. This adds to his ambiguous, Rorschach-type persona.

But regardless of what anybody says pro or con, Blaine is on a roll.


For him to stay on a roll, he must return to his roots. He must express his persona in different, more forceful ways. Another “Street Magic” special would slow his momentum. Déjà vu doesn’t cut it, although “one-shot wonders” often get three or four shots in television. Right now there is talk about a feature film. De Niro is interested and (the screenwriter of “Fight Club”) has apparently signed on. If this happens, it won’t be easy. The tricky part will be finding ways to successfully expand Blaine’s trickster-character so that it is a sustained, interesting, and compellingly dramatic presence for 106 minutes in a feature film. So far Blaine’s work is episodic, always captured in the hot-damn here-and-now with all its glorious contingencies and grit. In a feature film, he must do more than use a magician’s prerogative to create illusions. He must also be part of a character-driven, representative “world” above and beyond “the street.” He must interact with other characters (actors) rather than unsuspecting, ordinary street-people. But anything is possible.

Again, this was written six years ago, right after "Frozen in Time" but before Blaine had done the "Vertigo" (standing on a platform) stunt or the fast in the box over the Thames.

Now that the ice has melted, what remains to be remembered? Like other episodes of neo-television, very little reverberates beyond the day-to-day coverage. With hundreds of network and cable channels sending out signals, images, simulations, and “stories” 24-7, who remembers what happened yesterday? The public, for the most part, no longer talks about “Frozen in Time.”

But the always restless natives of magicdom were still abuzz. If Nethead gossip is any indication, many magicians thought that Blaine’s last show was a stinker, light on the magic, heavy on hype. (Hype-o-thermia, as one wag put it.) Their gossip doesn’t matter. ABC, the media, and loyal Blainiacs felt differently. The media rocked. Every newspaper except the Christian Science Monitor covered the Ice Skit, flushing out unlikely commentators from every quarter. Even a writer from the ultra-hip, liberal-chic Village Voice was moved to comment, calling Blaine’s stunt “X-treme Performance Art.” He wrote:

“Blaine is reviving an old vaudeville tradition: the death-defying act. His last piece, in which he lay six feet under in a Plexiglas coffin for a week, was supposedly a stunt Houdini wanted to do. Blaine's girlfriend told the Daily News that next ‘he may try to take a bullet.’ Of course, performance artist Chris Burden did that in 1971, as the death-defying urge moved into the art world.”

Notice the verbal difference? “Taking a bullet” is not the same as catching one.

To me, “Frozen in Time” had an unsatisfactory, disjunctive rhythm. Jumping back-and-forth from the melting ice to the trick-episodes broke the spells of both “scenes.” The frenetic energy of the actual site, except for Lynn Swan’s breathless, pre-game patter, was undifferentiated and undramatic. Compared to the X-treme coverage of the X-treme event, Blaine was almost catatonic before he was encased in the ice. When he laconically drawled that he was entering a frosty, see-through crypt to “challenge every human fear,” nobody thought he was climbing K2 or weathering “The Perfect Storm.” Yet if you listened to the clamorous coverage, you heard over and over the same litany of fearsome possibilities: muscle spasms, frostbite, blood clots, exhaustion, and hallucinations. And if that wasn’t enough, you had a deadpan-faced Blaine adding: “If I fall asleep and my face presses into the ice, they'll have to cut my face off.”

Nobody laughed…
….at least not right away.

Nevertheless, you must admit that when Blaine finally emerged from the ice, it was pretty tense. Even Bill Kalush (Blaine's close friend and collaborator) looked worried. Blaine slumped like he had survived a catastrophe he couldn’t remember. Unable to lucidly talk, he looked bewildered—as if he had indeed died yet was still conscious. If he was faking, De Niro take note; the guy can act.

Regardless, let’s give the guy some credit. He withstood a self-inflicted, brain-numbing, and body-punishing ordeal. Try imagining any celebrity-magicians putting themselves to a similar test. Blaine actually did something potentially dangerous. In the cosmic scheme of things, his endurance test is as silly as escaping from a straightjacket while hanging upside-down. But it was more believable than Penn Gillette catching a bullet between his teeth and his payday was bigger.

As mentioned earlier, the televised representation of the actual “test” site flattened out and diminished everything. Eyewitnesses had a different experience. Matt Fields, who visited the site, wrote:

“This time he's smack-dab in the middle of the ‘Crossroads of the World,’ New York's Times Square, in the street level atrium/lobby of the ABC "Good Morning America" studios at 44th Street and Broadway…If you've never seen this area at this time of year, it's only a little less busy than it is on New Year's Eve when they drop the ball. Thousands and thousands of people need to walk by Blaine just to get down the street. For a bit of a closer gawk you can wait on line and see David in his ice, obviously showing the strains of being enclosed and on his feet for two days, but smiling and waving to the crowds…the impact on the spectators is amazing. They wave, yell out things (‘Hey! Want me to get you a hot chocolate?’) and they talk about him, mentioning his name (not just ‘that magician’).”

Thomas Gaudette, another eyewitness, wrote:

“I visited the icy prison on the first day (Monday) and can confirm that it not only was a great publicity stunt, but that laymen were freaking out. I listened to their comments. He accomplished his mission. The New Yorkers I witnessed were very impressed.”

I initially thought that the Ice Stunt was not going to be an integral part of it; that Blaine would “break out” during the last five minutes, triumphantly liberated from the ice with ice-chipping fanfare, spotlights, and a cheering rabble. As it turned out, the third show focused on Blaine and the endurance stunt, not the trick-episodes. This, to me, was a blunder. The first two television specials focused on the audience. Viewers saw a filmed “representation” of what actually happened in the streets and saw dramatic, human responses. This is what made him celebrated in the first place: in-your-face tricks, in mean streets, with ordinary people. Shifting focus away from the “magic” to the Times Square hubbub was a disappointing strategy from an artistic standpoint. From a ratings-boosting standpoint, it was brilliant.

Blaine first endurance stunt (“Buried Alive”) was not a significant part of the subsequent television show. It was a “prequel,” a back-story, a publicity-generating device. Its staging area was in the world, but off-camera, and the media coverage was huge. It was also a bit like a soap opera with no beginning, middle, and end; it was episodic and continuous. It was, as Umberto Eco calls such things, neo-television. That is, it is remarkable and newsworthy for being televised; for being on television as a televised phenomenon. Its coverage is another event to be covered. Over and over fed on itself. There were stories about the stories and coverage of coverage. “Live” endurance stunts, like the publicity feats of Houdini, have such saturated reality that it is best experienced through “a kind of filter of preconceptions and expectations fabricated in advance by a culture swamped in images.”


The episodic trick-part of the third installment of the Blaine Game was marginal. How many do you remember? There was the trick where he borrowed a woman’s ring, accidentally dropped it down a grate, and then rediscovered it inside a small liquor bottle found several feet away. He upped the ante and instead of resuscitating a dead fly, he brought a dead bird back to life in Central Park. He borrowed somebody’s baseball hat and produced a live snake from it—a sure way to evoke screams. Still upping the ante and thumbing his nose at Too-Perfect Theorists, he asked a scruffy guy to think of his girl friend. Then Blaine used a cigarette lighter to burn a hole in his tee shirt, which he then presses against his fleshy midsection to “frame” a tattoo of the guy’s girl friend’s face! That’s the sum-and-substance of the “magic show.” Otherwise there were some brief travelogue shots of Blaine walking alone in an arid, desolate place and through an immense field of what looked like sunflowers, looking nomadic, mysterious, and…perhaps, lost! What was conspicuously missing (as I stated in an early assessment) was Blaine “tapping into the primal roots of magic by breaking through people’s personal spaces, by penetrating the defensive threshold of what ordinary folks are willing to believe and unprepared to contemplate.” That was the trickster everybody loves to watch and that is probably the magician others magicians tuned in to see. Compare this “magic show” with the last special. For the record, here is a quantitative breakdown by the numbers of that second special:

I think this is hilarious. Racherbaumer breaks down the whole special, as if the whole can be derived from the sum of the parts. This seems, to me, a very subtle slap to all the naysayer magicians who dismiss Blaine as a no-talent simpleton.


Actual running time (without commercials): 44 minutes and 50 seconds
Number of individual performances or scenes: 45
Cited Locations: New York City (Times Square), Atlantic City, New Jersey, Dallas, Texas, Compton, California, San Francisco (Haight-Asbury), Mojave Desert.
Number of on-site spectators, added together: 106
Number of females: 35
Number of males: 71
Number of stray dogs: 2
Number of different tricks performed: 26
Number of tricks repeated: 8
List of repeated tricks and the number of times they were performed: Impromptu Levitation (7), Biting and Restoring Half-Dollar (3), Wrist-Watch Steal (3), Meir Yedid’s Arm-Twister (2), The Raven Coin Vanish (2), Ambitious Card (2), Fechter Transposition Trick (2), Think Of A Card (2), and Double-Card Change In Spectator’s Hand (2).
Number of card tricks: 17
Number of coin tricks: 4
Number of other kinds of tricks: 5
Number of gaffs used: 6
Number of dealer tricks performed: 7
Specifics: Devano Deck, Invisible Deck, Folding Coin, Cigarette-Through-Half-dollar, Super Neck-Cracker Gimmick, the Raven, Arm-Twister (mss.)
Number of flourishes: 6
Specifics: Coin Roll, Fingertip Fan, One-Hand Fan-Close, Hot-Shot Cut and Card Spin (Daryl), Card Toss, Instant Replay (Paul Harris).
Easiest trick: Biting and Restoring a Half-Dollar
Most technically difficult trick: Daryl’s “Snow-Shoe Sandwich”
Most impressive card trick: Hummer’s Selection-Against-and-Behind-Window
Most impressive coin trick: Cigarette Through Half-Dollar
Most impressive trick in the entire show: One-Man Impromptu Levitation
Second most impressive trick: Think-Of-A-Card Divination
Best geek trick: Yedid’s Arm-Twister
Type of decks used: Bicycle - Tally-Ho (Diamond-Circle Back)
Number of times a blue deck was used: 4
Number of times a red deck was used: 14
Most recognizable lay person: (tie) Deion Sanders and Emmit Smith of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
Weirdest name of lay person: Fruit Loops
Number of basic card sleights used: 11
Specifics: Tilt, Bluff Pass, Double Lift, Top Change, Jog-Fan Control, Classic Force, Riffle (Mental) Force, Snap Change, Flip Change, Coin Switch, Mercury Card Fold
Technical Advisers: Michael Weber, Paul Harris, Harvey Cohen, Ray Cuomo
Most frequently uttered expletive: “Wow!”
Number of rejections: 2

Notable utterances by lay persons:
“I don’t care if he makes a million or starves to death…It’s mind-boggling!”
“You is stupid!” (to another lay person)
“You don’t have any tools?”
“I think he is not natural.”
“This man is not right!”
“I’m kinda broke. Can you make money?”
“Are you a guru of some kind? I just moved from Los Angles. Am I going to have success?”
(Deion Sanders) “I’m going. I gotta go home and take a nap!”
(David Blaine) “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get off?” (prior to levitating)]

This next section is a scream. Racherbaumer is directly addressing the vast multitude of magicians who see a trick and decide they want to do it exactly as seen -- in other words, copycats without a shred of original creativity -- by simply telling them where to find the tricks Blaine did.

Ready Reference Guide to Select Tricks That May Catch Your Fancy:
(1) “Impromptu Levitation” (Ed Balducci) - Pallbearers Review (July-1974), p. 755. Although it is credited to Balducci, the originator is unknown, but it was shown to him by one of the original Harmonicats: Erwin Levine. Finn Jon is also a great exponent of this impressive levitation.
(2) Wrist Watch Steal: Stars of Magic - Francis Caryle
“Snow-Shoe Sandwich and Hot-Shot Cut” by Daryl - For Your Entertainment Pleasure!
(4) “Convincing Tilt” by Daryl - The Last Hierophant (June-1980), p. 39.
(5) “The Snap Change” - Marlo’s Magazine #2 (1977), p. 158. This is based on the “Visible Color Change” by Joseph Cottone. Popularized by Marlo and J.C. Wagner.
(6) Marc DeSouza’s Color Change, The Trapdoor (originally invented by Oscar Muniz)

In the end and despite its comparative lack of magic, “Frozen in Time” his show helped ABC win the Sweeps. It finished 20th and almost 16 million people watched the show. Only “Law & Order” outdrew the “ice man.” I’m also told that the only “news story” of 2000 that exceeded the amount of saturated and extensive international coverage given Blaine was the Columbine Shootings; and that, my friends, is an impressive factoid.

But what does it mean?

Maybe it's simply this?

Blaine understands what Houdini understood and what Uri Geller understands. It's not what you actually do, but what they think you do and have done. The rest then ferments in the massive, global spin-machine until it becomes potentially mythic.


Blaine’s First and Second Acts have come and gone. He is now able to use real money and his celebrity-capital to parlay his next dream-scheme. You can expect him to do something different, something outrageous. He is a risk-taker who puts everything that he is (whatever that may be) on the line. He goes for broke and that’s what I like about him. California journalist, Marnelle Jameson calls Blaine “The Houdini of the Hoi Polloi” and quotes him:

“For me it's more about the people than the effect,” says Blaine, who calls his brand of magic “intimate,” because he usually works one-on-one. “My favorite part is when I connect. If there's no connection, there's no magic.”

The media, meanwhile, stands by. Investors keep investing. The money keeps rolling in…and David, finding his way by moonlight, keeps looking for those connections that produce the magic that feeds his dreams, vexes his critics, and delights his fans. Blaine’s got game.

His mother would have been proud.


Thanks, Jon, for the great and prescient essay. I look forward to seeing what you write about "Drowned Alive," tonight's two-hour special.


Anonymous said...

Blaine, one of the only magicians who really truly understands what it means to be a magician, and can take that understanding and wrap it with an interesting presentation that connects mankind and resonates so deeply.

Check out his journal entries.

PeaceLove said...

Blaine is the highest sort of genius, the type whose gift is so advanced as to be invisible to the many of the very people who should pay the most attention.

Blaine is working on a level few magicians every even attempt.