A few weeks back I went down to Lincoln Center to watch David Blaine hold his breath. Actually, I went to watch a crowd of other people watch David Blaine hold his breath. I imagine, in fact, that this was why most people went. It was, after all, that kind of affair — the sort of show that demanded a mob.
By this, I mean that there was nothing particularly compelling about the event in and of itself. No one showed up just to see David Blaine float about in his plastic bubble. People went because they assumed that everyone else would be there, too, and crowds, much like Catholics, or Lynyrd Skynyrd band members, have a decided tendency towards self-propagation. Certain performers would delight were they playing to an audience of one or one million. Blaine, however, isn’t among them.
Put a bit more concretely — were, say, Prince to play a live set in my kitchen one evening while I made dinner, I’m fairly certain that I’d be wildly entertained. Sure, I might miss the scale, the energy, the cheering throngs — all the good things that go with forking over your concert dollar — but still, at the end of the day, I’d have Prince throwing down in my kitchen. If, on the other hand, Blaine were to show up at my door one day, lock himself in my bathroom, and declare that he wasn’t coming out until sometime next fall, I’d be a bit less enthused. There is, perhaps, some small, sad scrap of entertainment to be derived from watching a man lie in a coffin for days on end or fast from a glass box suspended above the Thames, but by and large, it’s all pretty meager fare. Blaine’s great trick is to offer an illusion of spectacle just convincing enough to manufacture the hubbub that makes it real. To be honest, it’s not a half-bad gag, but you need a properly complicit public in order to pull it off.
No doubt aware of this, we all came out to do our part. The crowd was pushing 1,000 when I arrived around six o’clock. Blackface Jesus was there in his customary garb, holding up a sign advertising Gawker.com. On the sidewalk out front a woman was handing out brochures concerning a more traditional issue of the messiah — beige triptychs pointing out the fact that while Blaine might be pretending to cheat death, Christ, in fact, had done it for real. At the center of it all was the man himself — drifting just as advertised in his grand waterlogged ball. Attached to an impressive array of tubes and hoses, he looked a bit like some strange deep-sea creature, dark, rubbery appendages flapping about on the current. He sat in his tank with a pained look on his face — that now-familiar expression of patient suffering he’s managed to perfect over the years. Vaguely beatific, arguably moronic, it’s the sort of grimace that an El Greco saint might make were he to strike his finger while hammering a nail. Every so often, he waved.
At one point an assistant opened the tank to let Blaine toss a moccasin or some such piece of clothing out to the crowd. Every half-hour or so, a trio of men in black T-shirts would descend on the sphere, spraying it with glass cleaner and wiping it down with rags so as to keep the show’s star in impeccably transparent view of his, if not fawning, then at least marginally invested public. Back behind the medical tents a few crew members played around with a modified Segway. Otherwise, there wasn’t a whole lot going on.
Not that this complete lack of action in any way, of course, deterred people from taking pictures of it all. Looking around one might have fairly surmised that the camera phone had been created solely for the purpose of capturing that single glorious moment. All about, people leaned in over the crowd, phones in hand, arms stretched forward like penitents at a revival tent. Audience equals event, and an event, however lame, calls for pictures. You never know, after all, when you might later want proof that you were, in fact, there.
Less easily explained, though, was the matter of the screen. Some two hundred feet from Blaine and his bubble there was a large screen showing a video feed of, well, Blaine and his bubble. Later that evening, it would show the telecast being sent out over the country from the spot. At that moment, however, it was essentially just a video of something that was happening live a couple hundred feet away. And yet, people had crowded around it, too, preferring, for whatever reason, the mediated experience.
This is not so strange. People, after all, love TV. What was odd, though, was the fact that in addition to watching the screen, they were snapping pictures of it, as well. And not just taking pictures of it, but videotaping it, too.
Now, however misguided a person might consider the enterprise, you can still understand on some basic level the impulse to take pictures of a soggy little man stuck in a plastic ball. The impulse, on the other hand, to take pictures and video of a giant screen showing said soggy little man — particularly when said soggy man is, himself, floating live only a few hundred feet away — well, that’s the stuff of a doctoral thesis, or, at the very least, a short chapter of second-rate Baudrillard. I refuse to even begin to understand it, just on general principle. I’m afraid that if I tried, I might quite possibly blow my own mind.
Instead, I’d like to mention, at least in passing, the one overriding emotion of the evening — contempt. The contempt of a crowd for an event which it long ago decided was bullshit, but which it still, for some strange reason, had chosen to be a part of. This sensibility was noticeable throughout the night, but it became particularly pronounced once the television cameras came on. And no one embodied it quite so well as the exquisitely profane young man standing next to me — a figure whom I will, in honor of the film Swingers and Larry Bird-loving rappers everywhere, hereby refer to as House of Pain.
House of Pain’s great trick, aside from jeering the announcer every time he came on over the PA, was to jump up and down above the crowd with one hand clutching a Gatorade bottle and the other pointing an outstretched middle finger at the camera. Periodically, he would take down the finger and take up his cell phone, engaging some unseen compatriot with conversation along the lines of:
“Yo, you see me on TV? Yo, you see the bottle going up and down? You see the bottle? That’s me, son! That’s me!”
Then he would put the phone back down and return to flipping off the camera.
“Don’t fuck it up, Dave,” he would yell. “I didn’t come out here for nothing.”
This, of course, was not true. Nothing, in fact, was almost exactly what we’d come out for. There was a general sense that the fix was in, that we’d all been lured to Midtown — knowingly, but still — so that some band of television producers could put on their show. And while we might offer up some half-assed cheering when prompted, we certainly weren’t going to approach the business with the wide-eyed wonder apparently expected of us.
Which is why when Blaine didn’t pull it off, when he began to tremble and choke before being hauled out of his tank just after the seven-minute mark, it provided the night with its one note of true emotion. The whole business was an absurd, overproduced, vaguely fraudulent bunch of hype, but for a moment it was still authentic enough an enterprise for failure to be a possibility. For the first time all night, the crowd’s cheering carried with it some small measure of sincerity.
“He didn’t do it. He didn’t do it,” a man said, almost in disbelief.
“Wow, I feel bad for him,” said a girl just behind me.
“I thought he was gonna do it,” said another man. “I really thought he was gonna do it.”
“I was here for two hours freezing my balls off,” yelled House of Pain. “Put him back in the fucking tank!”