Everything disgraced in America eventually comes back into favour. Witness disco, argyle sweaters, John Travolta, conspicuous consumption, George Bush. These days, after being shunned by a skeptical culture hooked up to a medicinal drip of irony, even magic is headed back. More: It's flirting with hip.
For that you can largely thank David Blaine.
Haven't heard of Blaine? Maybe you just weren't listening, because he has been making noise for a few years now. This week, he was back in the headlines, announcing plans to encase himself in a block of ice for three days, ending in a live TV special on Wednesday, at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Blaine has performed for U.S. President Bill Clinton at the White House, hangs with supermodels such as Tyra Banks and Bridget Hall, and spent a year as the boyfriend of singer Fiona Apple. Last year, a breathless crew from Entertainment Tonight covered a stunt that saw him buried alive for week. So where were you when all this was happening? You heard the word "magician," and turned the channel.
Who could blame you? For too long, magic has been the province of flamboyant, shimmying Vegas showmen or fancypants with New Jersey hair backed by ditzy showgirls. Within that context, Blaine is the anti-magician, a man whose low-key delivery and minimalist approach strips magic to its essentials, and allows adults to remember the sheer joy of childlike astonishment.
You can hear the screams of disbelief from people on the street when Blaine bites a diamond off a woman's ring and makes it reappear out of his left eye during the new TV special, or revives an apparently dead pigeon he finds in a park. In one segment, he reduces the New York Knicks basketball team to freaked-out children by making a specific playing card appear inside a basketball.
Blaine burst onto the scene in May, 1997, with a television special hosted by his friend, Leonardo DiCaprio. In a kick at the David Copperfields and Siegfried & Roys of the world, the opening narration of Street Magic declared Blaine to be "a man without smoke and mirrors, ushering in a new era of magic." If anyone is going to pull magic out of the fire of kitsch and rejuvenate it for a new age, Blaine does seem to stand the best chance of all.
The product of a Russian-Jewish mother and Puerto-Rican father, Blaine stares at magic's overwhelmingly white face and answers it with a multi-ethnic alternative that resembles the America of the early 21st century. Growing up on the streets of Brooklyn blessed Blaine with invaluable street cred. He is a television star who rarely watches television. And at only 27 years, he instinctively understands and seamlessly incorporates irony into his performance style.
"Magic has become like some sort of silly entertainment, but it used to be a much more respected art form," says Blaine, sitting in a production suite on Park Avenue South. He's wearing Doc Martens, thin octagonal glasses, dark shirt and unbelted black pants that slip an inch to reveal a muscular build and a wink of his Calvin's.
His voice sounds a little like Jack Nicholson's, or maybe Christian Slater doing Nicholson in the film Pump Up the Volume.
He's overseeing the editing of the first half of Wednesday's television special, Frozen in Time. The second half of the show will be live as he emerges from his 58-hour sojourn in an ice cube.
"Eighty years ago when Houdini was here, he brought magic to the streets, to the people, and he would be accessible to everybody. He was a man of the people, but he still was this amazing guy they all looked up to. Now we don't have any of that. When we think of magicians, we think of $50-million a year. There's no art or integrity."
Though Blaine doesn't mention him, $50-million (U.S) is what Copperfield earned last year. "The only David Copperfield I refer to is a book by Dickens," says a dismissive Blaine.
Blaine honed his skills on the streets, and that's where he has stayed. In his first special, he was photographed in darkened doorways and abandoned lots, a steady presence in America's chaotic urban jungles. He made a trio of girls quiver with wonder on the boardwalk of Atlantic City and reduced two others in New York to freaked-out tears. The Dallas Cowboys shrieked with awe when Blaine stopped by their clubhouse for a few card tricks. Beefy, grease-stained, New York City subway workers acted possessed when he read their minds. Gang members in south central Los Angeles scattered with fear at his card tricks, as if fleeing a knife fight. Blaine is a latter-day Don Quixote, wandering the world to prove we all have the capacity for astonishment.