Saturday, May 27, 2006

Juggling in an Eight-Foot Glass Cone

Fellow magic blogger Pagliacci linked to this lovely video of a juggler named Greg Kennedy juggling a boatload of balls inside an eight-foot glass cone. This reminds me of Michael Moshen's seminal work -- poetic, geometric, and very beautiful to contemplate.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Going Deep

Via BoingBoing, here's a hypnotic photo-in-photo-in-photo ad infinitum. Very trippy.

Click away!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dude, this carwash sucks!


This happened across the street. A lady demolished a fire hydrant and produced a fountain.

The door is open for a reason, by the way. The side window is smashed (the airbags deployed, but the woman and her kids got out fine). So when they got her out and closed the door, the car immediately began filling up with water. Thus, the open door for drainage.


Anybody wanna' buy a very very very clean used car?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

President Gore Addresses the Nation - UPDATED



Here's President Gore giving his State of the Union Address [Dead link. See update.] six years into his presidency.

Sigh.

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UPDATE: The video has been removed from YouTube "due to copyright infringement." In other words, NBC is too stupid to realize that the posting of a great video pulled from Saturday Night Live is the key to viral marketing and the major reason why SNL has become hip again (via sites like YouTube and the reposting of Lonely Island hits like "Lazy Sunday" -- which NBC also forced YouTube to remove -- and the hilarious "Natalie Portman Gangsta Rap").

Gore's self-sendup video is currently available on the Crooks and Liars site here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blaine and Me

In the comments to my last post, Anonymous says, I'd be right shocked if ever the words "I might have been mistaken" were ever to leave your keyboard.

Actually, I have no problem admitting when I'm wrong; in fact, I have a whole list of narrow beliefs I used to hold which have been replaced by broader, more nuanced views.

I was absolutely, unequivocally mistaken about Blaine for years
(there, I said it). In the past I always felt a tremendous ambivalence about him. On the one hand, I could see that he blew people away and fostered a love of magic in every layperson he encountered. On the other hand, I was brainwashed by the typical magician line that he's an average talent, he uses stooges and trick photography, he's just lucky, etc. I reconciled those two views with the standard response to cognitive dissonance: I ignored them.

I now recognize that like many other magicians I, too, was blinded by jealousy. I resented that he was better looking than me, more successful, dated the beautiful women I'd like to date, got the reactions I'd love to get. And I resented that he did standard material and became rich and successful with it. My reaction had nothing to do with Blaine, of course, and everything to do with me. Blaine, as I stated in my very first post on the subject, is a mirror in which inferior magicians see their own inadequacies.

When Blaine first broke out onto the national stage, I had been a serious close-up magician for over twenty years. I had worked in restaurants, done street magic, worked in one of the top magic shops in the country, performed at the Magic Castle a bunch of times -- in short, I was an experienced and talented magician, pretty consistently well-liked by my audiences. But I seldom got the kind of reaction Blaine got. I seldom had people wonder seriously if I was real. I performed occasionally for celebrities in L.A., but I never had them adopt me as one of their own and insist I accompany them to their cool hangouts. Blaine did all that -- and then got a TV show and blew away the world.

I'm ashamed to admit that while I never trash-talked Blaine to laypeople, I would often provide a typical magician response along the lines of, "He's pretty good. He does a lot of standard material that I've been doing for years, so it's funny to see him getting these TV shows..." In other words, damning with faint praise.

It's only in the last few years that I lifted the veil off my eyes and recognized Blaine for the genius he is. Once I had this shift in consciousness, Blaine's overwhelming contribution to the world of magic became clear. His influence on every magician who came along after him is incalculable; it's hardly a stretch to define Street Magic as year zero of the new magic renaissance.

I have no problem, by the way, with people who simply don't care for Blaine. But the magic boards are still, almost a decade later, filled with people referring to him as a no-talent hack and a fraud, which seems preposterously off base. I now see that the vitriol directed at Blaine has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the jealousy and extreme narrow-mindedness of the magic community at large. Blaine blows away laypeople more deeply than any magician in recent memory. He does this not by performing the most flawless Erdnase Shift, but rather through his extraordinary charisma and showmanship. For this he should be embraced as a teacher

Hatred and contempt directed at a performer who accomplishes magic for laypeople so well deserves to be examined. Too bad the magic community as a whole seems incapable of such introspection.

Burden to Ono to Blaine


In the comments to my recent MCJ on Blaine post, JB makes an important point about Blaine's willingness to sacrifice almost everything for his art. The magic boards are full of skeptics trying to convince themselves and others that the whole aquarium stunt was just a trick (maybe a seven-day 3D holographic projection while Blaine sat at home watching cable?), but it's quite obvious that he essentially did what he said he did. It also seemed pretty clear to me that his failure at the end was not planned, that he was geniunely moved by the love from the crowd (those tears were real), and that he really does undergo extraordinary mental, physical, and spiritual experiences while carrying out his performances. How could you spend 60 hours in a block of ice, 44 days fasting in a suspended glass box, or 7 days on public display underwater and NOT learn something?


Chris Burden

In a way, Blaine really belongs in the category of "conceptual artist," with an obvious influence being the artist Chris Burden. Burden is most famous for 1971's Shoot, in which he had a friend, yes, shoot him in the arm. Although it was ostensibly a commentary about Vietnam and our culture of violence, Burden's personal exploration of pain and death has resonances far beyond the merely political.

Fortunately, Blaine seems uninterested in physical mutilation as self-expression. Unlike, say, Criss Angel, Blaine never reveals the slightest trace of machismo, or even body centrism. He trains intensively to prepare for his stunt performances, but his goal is never to punish his body. It's no coincidence, of course, that he displays his body at every turn as a way to create aesthetic resonance in his work via the physical beauty of his body. Nevertheless, Blaine seems like the kind of guy who would willingly lose fifty pounds, or gain it, if it facilitated a performance.

Can you see Criss Angel deliberately losing fifty pounds off that sculpted body in order to survive a long, drawn-out performance? Angel is much more of a magician and stuntman than Blaine. Blaine is concerned mainly with head spaces and spiritual ideas...in short, with conceptual art.

Chris Burden's Five Day Locker Piece is a direct antecedent to Blaine:

Chris Burden
Five Day Locker Piece
University of California, Irvine:
April 26-30, 1971

I was locked in locker number 5 for five consecutive days and did not leave the locker during this time. The locker measured two feet high, two feet wide, and three feet deep. I stopped eating several days prior to entry. The locker directly above me contained five gallons of bottled water; the locker below me contained an empty five gallon bottle.




I don't know if Five Day Locker Piece is a work of conceptual art, performance art, or political theater, but there's something very beautiful about that description, about the symmetry of the bottles above and below, and about the way the whole work is constrained and contained. If Burden were performing that in my neck of the woods, I might be drawn to pay those lockers a visit, just to be in the presence of an ongoing work of Art.

That same energy pervades Blaine's work. For Drowned Alive, Blaine added a powerful visual component. The sight of this extraordinary guy magnified by the curve of the tank was tremendously evocative. I wish I could have been in New York when Blaine was in that aquarium. I would have loved to visit him.

Yet Blaine has distinguished himself by accomplishing something none of the conceptual artists of the past managed; he figured out how to become famous and beloved before he began his stunts. He became a celebrity by making friends with the world, by bringing joy and wonder into peoples' lives. As a result, Blaine brings a tremendous amount of goodwill to the table, not just from the intelligensia and the art-academy elites, but from "regular" people as well.


Yoko Ono

Long before she met John Lennon, Yoko Ono was a fairly well-known member of the Fluxus art movement, a "famous for fifteen people" conceptual artist in the elite art world. I recently watched a moving short film of Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, a 1965 performance in which Ono sat on the stage at Carnegie Hall and invited audience members to come up and cut off pieces of her clothing. The piece encompasses many themes -- about gender, violence, sensuality and sexuality, among others. Its context, the rarified art world of New York, ensured that it would be analyzed and dissected, that viewers would attempt to extract meaning from the work. That it would be taken seriously.

The fact that Cut Piece has a frivolous, occasionally playful quality does not detract from its essential seriousness as a work of art. The pre-Lennon Ono is not playing games, and she's not wasting her time (and a perfectly good dress) for nothing. She has something to say, and this is her way of communicating it.

As soon as Ono hooked up with Lennon, and her fame grew exponentially outside of the intelligensia, the criticism began. The experimental works on which she had earned her reputation (and totally captivated the most cerebral, difficult of the Beatles) were exposed to a larger audience unschooled in the language of conceptual and performance art. The mainstream turned against Ono with astonishing viciousness (the fact that she was widely -- and incorrectly -- perceived as having caused the breakup of the Beatles didn't help). She was attacked as a no-talent hack, a shameless self-promoter who simply rode the coattails of her superstar husband.


David Blaine

Interestingly, Blaine is in a similar situation; his fame has exposed his conceptual art to a society unprepared to take it seriously.

David Blaine is in a no-win situation with critics. The moment he branches off into truly unique and daring territory, he is maligned as a shameless self-promoter. It's as if now that Blaine is famous he is no longer allowed to do conceptual art. I don't know if the New York art world embraces Blaine, but they certainly should. Of course, if they are as driven by jealousy as the magic world they probably hate him, too.

Andy of MCJ nailed it in the post I cited at the beginning; the vitriol directed at Blaine tells us more about the haters than about the Artist. Chris Burden was widely ridiculed for Shoot, since it's easier to dismiss and ignore than to wonder why an intelligent person would have himself shot as an artistic statement. Yoko Ono's screeching and wailing performances are similarly reviled as "bad music," a stance which so obviously misses the point that it hardly deserves to be considered as serious criticism.

David Blaine's every move is centered around presenting a vision of humanity that is generous and expansive, and his work encompasses some of the deepest, most personal exploration imaginable, presented in the most public possible manner. And yet he is presumptively dismissed by a large swath of the chattering class, including many people who would embrace Blaine as a genius -- if only he were an penniless conceptual artist submerged in an aquarium in an uptown gallery.

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There is an astonishing moment in the Drowned Alive special, in which Blaine is interviewing Aaron Ralston, the 27 year-old hiker who cut off his own arm in order to free himself from a boulder that had him trapped. Ralston recounts how he began to lose all hope of rescue. He considered cutting off his own arm, but he only had a cheap, lightweight knife that would never make it through his bone.

Then Ralston discovered that he could get the boulder under which he was trapped to move. The young hiker knew that he would not be able to get it off his arm, but he realized that he could use the boulder to crush his bones, which would facilitate cutting off his arm.

As he pulled the boulder over his arm, Ralston relates, the pain was so excruciating that his very definition of pain had to be recalibrated. And yet, he claims that it was also the most liberating moment of his life. He literally felt reborn in that moment, and empowered. Ralston knew in that moment that he would save himself and live.

This is the key moment in the Drowned Alive special, since it describes the transmutation of exteme situations into profound spiritual epiphanies. David Blaine is a spiritual seeker, a man who seeks the light at the end of his carefully constructed tunnels. And he invites his audience to watch his every move, to participate with their love and encouragement.

David Blaine did it all on his own. He is a famous, rich conceptual artist and he definitely has something to say. He uses magic as one of his expressive tools, but he also uses endurance "stunts," which are really a form of performance art.

Blaine doesn't talk about meaning very much, except in the most general terms. He says he likes to push himself, to explore the limits of his abilities. But he never engages in deep philosophical or aesthetic discussions about his themes and purpose, which leads shallow naysayers to conclude that he has none.

Utter foolishness. Blaine is way too smart to punish himself for nothing.

He is also regularly dismissed as a con man, or a shameless publicity hound; he tortures himself with these stunts, the saying goes, and laughs all the way to the bank.

David Blaine doesn't need to do such things anymore. He doesn't need the money and he doesn't need the grief.

His fame is entirely earned. He has performed some of the most extreme conceptual art ever, and done so with grand showmanship, and a beautiful and inspiring sense of theater. Best of all (and most annoying to the Blaine bashers), Blaine never tries to ascribe any huge meaning to his performance pieces. He just does them and lets the world react.

That, my friends, is High Art.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Gnarls Barkley sings "Crazy" (live)


I hardly have a story here, except that I fell in love with Crazy the moment I first heard it. "Gnarls Barkley" consists of the vastly gifted rapper/R&B singer Cee-Lo and the equally formidable DJ Dangermouse, creator of the infamous Beatles/Jay Z mashup The Grey Album. Their Gnarls Barkley album St. Elsewhere just came out last month, although Crazy has been bouncing around for a while. Crazy has the historical distinction of becoming the first song in England to become a Number One hit based solely on digital sales.

This stupendous live version really shows off the soaring, angelic performance of Cee-Lo, anchored by the tight rythmic construction that Dangermouse brings to the table (and note how cool the Mouse looks behind the keyboards!).

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Evolution of Dance Updated!

I guess I'm a little late to the game, since I see on the YouTube page that the six-minute The Evolution of Dance has been viewed just shy of five million times. That should tell you all you need to know; the collaborative nature of Web 2.0 means that genuine crowd pleasers rise to the top, voted on by five million clicks from all over the world.

I'm sure it's all over the Web by now, but I'll post it anyway, since it's a blast -- and "Inspirational Comedian" Judson Laipply is definitely a talented guy.

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Update: September 9, 2006. This clip has now been viewed 32 million times. Think about that.

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Hat Tip, BTW, to MySpace buddy Wisteria for the heads up.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

MCJ on Blaine (from 2004)

Okay, I swear I'm not trying to be lazy here, posting the words of others. But some things are worth revisiting. Back in December, I wrote glowingly about the now-defunct "Magic Circle Jerk" blog (original post, and follow-up) and it's anonymous maestro Andy. Well, Andy sent me an email last night urging me to keep up the good fight with regards Blaine, and he included his very funny cut-through-the-bullshit post on Blaine from 2004. I had so much fun rereading it that I asked and received permission to post it here.

If anything, this post is even more relevant today than it was two+ years ago. The naysayers hatered of Blaine has deepened. Check the Cafe and the Genii Forum.

I still have no idea who Andy is, by the way. So don't ask.

When you're done reading this, I recommend you check out John LeBlanc's thoughtful Blaine posts on his excellent Escamoteurettes blog. It's nice to see I'm not alone...


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Thursday, January 22, 2004
Andy's Take On Tired Topics: David Blaine

I like David Blaine.

Shhhhh. Don't talk to me. I'm a nerd.

Oh, yeah, that's right, I like David Blaine. I enjoy his specials, I have his DVD, I've read his book. What does this say about me? I don't think it says a whole hell of a lot. Maybe that I enjoy watching magic. I like to watch people freak out. I don't know.

Freud says that in order to find out about a person, we shouldn't ask them what they like, we should ask them what they dislike.

Comedian/writer Ali Farahnakian had a great show here in NYC called "Word of Mouth" and he talked about how when people are in traffic slamming on their horn, what we hear is-- HONK HONK "Hey fuck you, buddy" HONK HONK "C'mon. Move it, Asshole!" But what they're really saying is--HONK HONK "Somebody please pay attention to me!" HONK HONK "Somebody love me!"

So I always wonder what people are really saying when they constantly bitch about Blaine. I mean, I love music, but I hate shitty groups like Matchbox 20. I think they're lame and kind of worthless. But every time someone mentions Matchbox 20 or I hear a song by them I don't get all bothered by it. I just realize people have different tastes and some people like shitty, weak, pseudo-rock and roll.

In this thread on The Magic Cafe, "Macgyver" neatly lists the reasons why people dislike Blaine (He pretends he's listing other people's reasons, but they're clearly also his). They're almost all completely ridiculous. Let's take a look:

1. Constant use of plants and stooges-- Actually, he doesn't constantly use plants and stooges. Just because you don't understand how he accomplished a trick, that doesn't mean it utilized a plant or a stooge.

2. Camera tricks. -- Oh, come on. He used a camera trick to enhance the Balducci (levitation) for television. But ultimately he was trying to dramatically represent what the spectators were actually reacting to. Let's say you could make yourself disappear but it could only be performed for a couple of people at a particular angle. You're making your TV special and you realize that if you just film your disappearance it will be obvious to the television audience what is happening. But you don't want to lose the disappearance because the reaction to it was so fantastic. So you do a camera trick for the disappearance and intersperse it with the spectators reactions to the real disappearance. Is that so awful? Maybe. I can understand if you're completely anti-camera tricks. But somehow I don't think the vitriol reserved for Blaine stems from his performance of the Balducci.

3. Doing tricks that are store bought and require little skill, such as ID/Svengali/coin bite, ect. -- I have a theory. I don't think people were mad because Blaine was doing tricks that they could do. I think people got mad because Blaine was doing tricks that they could do, but they don't. In other words, many people bought an Invisible Deck when they first got into magic, but eventually stopped doing it and got into more complicated, convoluted tricks. Then they see Blaine on TV doing tricks that they disregarded years ago, and in their heads they're thinking "Why the hell am I spending all this time trying to do an invisible pass?" And that's a good question, why are you spending all that time trying to perfect an invisible pass? But that might be a difficult question to answer, so instead I think you should probably just piss on Blaine for taking bites out of quarters.

And honestly, this should have been a happy day for magicians. Here is someone getting national exposure and doing tricks that we can duplicate. If you weren't able to turn that into a positive for yourself without denigrating Blaine, then I'm afraid your creativity is rather sterile.

4. Having no story or patter, he keeps saying "look, look, look. Watch this, Watch here, look here, look, look, look." -- You know what I hate? Fucking stories and patter. Seriously, that stuff is way overrated. I don't need someone who's all like, "The last time I was India, I purchased this mysterious box." If I were a regular spectator I'd think, "Show me the trick, but don't patronize me, asshole." I think the longer you're involved in magic the more you believe you need some kind of story to accompany a trick. When you've seen twisting the aces a million times you begin to think, "Hey, this might be better if I wrapped it in a story about Paul Revere's midnight ride." But most times, it's not. It's really not. I agree that a trick benefits from context, but I don't think that a story or intricate patter is required. In David Blaine's case, the whole context of his performance is that he is someone who comes to you with no prelude, performs something impossible for you, then he leaves. The character is meant to be mysterious. About the best idea for fucking up the character he's trying to create would be for him to come up and say, "Good evening, my name is David Blaine and I'm here to show you some wondrous magical-merriment! Now, not long ago I was in the attic of a haunted house when a leprechaun gave me this coin..."

5. The Stunts... which have nothing to do with magic, only to get him more TV coverage and specials. --Oh, my god. Someone in the entertainment industry who does things to get himself more tv coverage and specials? For shame, Mr. Blaine. For shame. And what's wrong with the stunts? I like the notion that he's pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. I think that's interesting. Maybe it's not technically magical, but here's the way I look at it: Seeing a guy standing on a pole for 3 days when he could conceivably fall and smash his head on the pavement seems much more impossible than having someone accurately predict which one of four cards I would think of (i.e. B'wave). But that shows what I know, because the same people who think the stunts are lame think B'wave is genius.

6. He calls strolling magic, "street magic", which it isn't. Street magic is an art and Blaine alienated MANY street magicians by referring to what he does as street magic. --Jesus Christ, now you're just being silly. Really, that's what you have a problem with? The fact that he calls magic that he is performing on the street, Street Magic? You're beginning to betray your real motivations.

7. He comes across looking for the screaming spectator, and trying to be cool (which he is). Not for entertaining those specific people, but to make himself appear special and weird out their sense of reality. --I don't even really understand what this means, but if you're saying that he looks for people to get good reactions from. Well, asshole, you're right. HE'S TAPING A FUCKING TV SHOW!

8. He created many Blaine-wannabe's which do nothing but expose magic and go around showing friends BAD magic. --True. But don't blame him because there are a lot of unimaginative people out there.

Now, I'm not saying everyone has to like David Blaine, but the reason a lot of people come off as jealous when they complain about him is that their complaints seem to shift with Blaine's interests.

-When he first started out people complained that he was doing simple tricks right off the shelf that they could do themselves.
-When he stopped doing simple tricks off the shelf the same people complained that he was now doing tricks that they couldn't. "Oh yeah, well if I had a gimmicked store window, I could reach in there too."
-When he does his stunts people say, "That's not magic." But at the same time they say, "He's not really doing it."

In other words, no matter what this guy does people piss on him. So that's why their indignance seems somewhat hollow.

My favorite thing is when Blaine was hanging in the box in England and all these people would get on the message boards and say, "Nobody here even cares about Blaine. It's a bore quite frankly. All the people I talk to about him think that he's an idiot and that his stunt is stupid." Whenever someone goes out of their way to tell you how little they care about something, you can be pretty certain they're full of shit. You may say you don't care about Blaine, and that you find the whole thing boring, but the fact that you're talking to your friends about him and going onto message boards to read and write posts about him reveals a different truth.

If you don't like Blaine, that's great. Don't watch his shows. Don't read about him. But as with the other topics this week, letting everyone know how much you don't like Blaine is probably a waste of some precious resources. You come off not looking like the more talented, cool, unimpressed, person you believe you do. You come off as a person saying, "Somebody please pay attention to me! Somebody love me!"
Posted by: Andy / 5:59 PM

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blaine - Drowned Alive

The anti-Blaine contingent is having a field day with his failure to hold his breath for nine minutes (he managed "only" 7 minutes, 10 seconds) after staying submerged on public display in a tank of water for a week. The simple fact is this was a beautiful and ballsy stunt, a great work of performance art that few others would ever even attempt. As Racherbaumer pointed out in the previous post (reprinted from back in 2000!), can you think of any other genuine superstar with the courage and guts to risk not only his reputation, but also his physical health, for something like this?

David Blaine is without serious question the most important magician since Houdini, and he is redefining the boundaries of magic, stunts, and performance art. Many magicians are aparently too jealous and small-minded to understand why he's so great. Last night's special featured some of the most cutting-edge magic ever performed on television, capped by an extraordinarily brave and grueling feat of endurance.

Best of all, Blaine is a man of the people, a magician who brings dignity and grace and wonder to some of the most reviled and feared people in our society. He even took a page from Johnny Cash and brought his magic into a maximum security prison. Throughout his work, Blaine always maintains a stance of humility and generosity towards all people.

The imagery from last night's stunt will stay with us for years. The dense web of symbolism permeating Blaine's work -- Birth, Death, Rebirth - will become more obvious as the years go by.

The naysayers don't know what they're talking about...

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.


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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.

However…

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.”

So…

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.

BY THE NUMBERS

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.

So…

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.

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

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Two Great French PSAs

Check out these two wonderful three-minute animated safe sex PSAs from France. They're directed by commercial and music video director Wilfred Brimo. The first, from 2005, is called Femme, and it's a young woman's life story and sexual history set to The Vibrators' 1976 classic Baby Baby. The second, the newly released Sugar Baby Love is the similar journey of a young gay man, set to The Rubettes' 1974 song of the same name.

Both shorts are raucous, sweet, sexy, and lushly romantic. A big shout out to Salon's Video Dog for the heads up. As they rightly point out, American safe sex PSAs tend toward the somber and anti-sexual, the "one mistake can kill you" message rather than a message like "sex can be a blast, it can be a bummer, it can accompany love -- just be safe about it."

It's just too bad they'll never find their way onto American TV screens.

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Bonus: Love Game

Love Game is Brimo's eBoy-style video for the Shakedown song. Brimo gets a lot of resonance out of pixel art, with its linear motion and "love" meter; it's a moving lifecycle of romance.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Copperfield Parody


Funny stuff.

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The hilarious caricature above, which is only loosely related to the link, is by the fabulously talented Mark Poutenis.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Achtung, Baby!

Confirmed, via my parents:

The University of Chicago Alumni of Washington are offering a Pentagon tour in August. Along with the usual information about security ("two forms of picture ID") is the following:

"English is the only language permitted inside the Pentagon. Please do not converse or otherwise communicate in any other language while on tour or you will be escorted out of the building."


Ay Caramba! This is un-American.





Where's Stephen Colbert when you need him?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Stephen Colbert: Courageous American Patriot


Just in case you missed it, here's Stephen Colbert's astonishing performance at the Annual White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Colbert is a national treasure. He got his big break on The Daily Show, but his spinoff, The Colbert Report (pretentiously pronounced The Colbear Repore) skewers the right-wing spin machine with the sharpest blades on television. Invited to speak at the Correspondents' Dinner (presumably for comic relief), Colbert teamed up with press corps doyenne Helen Thomas to deliver a shockingly ferocious ironic attack on not only the President (who had to sit there with his wife and take it), but also on the obsequious press corps sycophants trying to honor themselves for a job well done.

Here's a snip from Colbert's monologue, in which he addresses President Bush -- who as noted, was sitting right there: I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

Following the monologue, Colbert reveals that he tried out for the White House Press Secretary job recently vacated by Scott McClellan. He then rolls the tape of the audition, in which a Terminator-like Helen Thomas pursues him out to the parking lot trying to get an answer for why we actually invaded Iraq. Thomas seems to be having a ball aiming a big "fuck you" at an administration that has disrespected her so thoroughly.

The Daily Kos has a full transcript. CSPAN has played it in its entirety at least once, but the rest of the American media has virtually ignored it or played only small snippets. I recommend you check it out online if at all possible. The Crooks and Liars link at the top is only a portion of Colbert's talk. Here's the complete performance: Part One and Part Two.

It's easy to underestimate or ignore the courage it takes to stand in front of the President in a public forum and essentially accuse him of criminal incompetence. We live in creepy times, and this administration has shown itself more than capable of violent personal attacks against those who oppose it. Colbert himself looks pretty uncomfortable at the end, as the President and his wife sweep past him with tight-lipped half-grins.

But he never wavered when delivering the goods, he never broke irony with any sort of "just kidding" wink wink, nudge nudge expression. Colbert drew blood and took no prisoners. I doubt he'll be invited back next year.

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UPDATE: Thank Colbert yourself here.