Magician has the British thinking outside the box

Stunt: Encased above London for 44 days with no food, he has prompted pranks, jeers and even a critique of society.

October 19, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - For more than a month, the American street magician and illusionist David Blaine has dangled about 60 feet in the air inside a clear plastic box not much bigger than a deep bathtub, looking down at crowds gathered to peer up at him near the banks of the River Thames.

He pledged to survive only on water, and he has done nothing in the way of magic: no great escape, no disappearing act, no prestos to make a monkey appear in the box with him.

But as he prepares to end his 44-day feat by leaving the box today, Blaine has, without trying, gotten a lot of British people wondering. Mostly they are wondering why so many people have given him such a hard time and what their behavior might say, if anything, about what has become of British society.

Some of the reaction has been far more clever than Blaine's stunt, which is remarkable only for what he does not do: eat or exercise his muscles. One man sent a radio-controlled mini-helicopter toward the box with a hamburger and fries lashed beneath. A flashmob was organized over the Internet last week to gather below him, bow, raise a piece of food and quickly disperse. A woman streaked, wearing only strategically placed bacon.

Other reaction, though, has been not only nasty but dangerous. One man was arrested and fined for trying to cut off Blaine's water supply. People have struck the box with eggs and paintballs. One group was chased off the Tower Bridge, which they were using as tee to whack golf balls at him. (They missed.)

"This is Ugly Britain Unzipped, displaying all the bravado and charm of a drunken ruffian in Ibiza," opined Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in a column for The Independent. "Or maybe it is art, this savage interplay between a passive man in a cage and his tormentors, a truthful embodiment of a frazzled, uncouth and nasty nation which increasingly bewilders and infuriates European neighbors, Third World nations and now, after what we have done to Blaine, probably the United States."

The abuse is not going to cause a rift in U.S.-British relations, not with the French to pick on. But even Paul McCartney, perhaps starving for attention, got into a scuffle after showing up under Blaine's box to ridicule him.

"We find it a bit funny that Americans are kind of stunned by the behavior here, but if you've lived in Britain, you understand it," said Marcus Rees-Roberts, a 28-year-old from London who was making his second visit to take a gander at Blaine. "When Brits see someone trying to rise to the top in anything, their first reaction is to try to shoot them down. I think there's a great contradiction there but the world is full of contradictions."

The contradictions, at first blush, are apparent because this is, after all, where the show Pop Idol - father of American Idol - was born, propelling unknown and marginally talented singers to stardom and where even Big Brother losers have become celebrities.

But as Rees-Roberts' friend Liam D'arcy pointed out, looking at Blaine in his box, the British tabloids outed last year's Pop Idol winner as gay, presumable because it would sell newspapers. The tabloids also scrutinized Big Brother contestants, with unflattering photos of them with a beer too many or snogging with a stranger on a beach. (One contestant, shown kissing two men on two different nights after she left the house, found herself in the newspaper with the tell-tale photos running side by side with the headline, "Whore!" plastered above her face.)

"You see, we have to build them up first so we can tear them down," D'arcy said. "If we didn't idolize the Pop Idols or make stars of the Big Brothers, we'd have to keep focusing on the [soccer] stars, and there aren't enough of them to go around."

Neither Rees-Roberts nor D'arcy came to ridicule Blaine but showed up because they had read that he was beginning to lose his mind and was crouching on all fours barking like a dog. That was in Britain's Sun tabloid, notoriously loose with the truth, so whether that was accurate was anybody's guess.

(The same newspaper carried the news, "David Blaine has lost his sex drive after a month in his perspex box without eating, experts said." The Independent got hold of Blair's urine and had it tested to see if he was somehow ingesting nutrients. The sample seemed to clear Blaine of cheating.)

Whether Blaine had been barking didn't seem to be of much concern for the people who gathered to see him last week - people who apparently had a low threshold for entertainment. Though watching an immobile man in a box is not as entertaining as the magic he worked on streets of New York - seeming to bring dead flies back to life, seeming to levitate - a television station here paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to video him and run a special on his efforts.

Which is a bigger mystery than how the magician has appeared to levitate on street corners in front of gasping crowds. Watching Blaine's current stunt is like going to the zoo to see the star ape, only to find him sleeping.

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