David Blaine performs the stunt 'Ascension' on September 2, 2020 in Page, Arizona. (David Becker/Getty Images for YouTube Originals)
An awful lot of people don’t like David Blaine. I get it. He’s smug and pretentious and overacts feeling tired after “levitating.” He is, as Chris Rock once hilariously noted, “a trickless magician.” He’s the kind of person who South Park can make fun of without anyone ever complaining about it.
And this morning, Blaine flew over the Arizona desert strapped to a bunch of helium balloons. (If you believe one tweet, he also farted on the live stream, but that’s a side note.) Once he’d reached 24,900 feet, he released himself and landed safely with a parachute.
That’s right. While the world below grapples with a pandemic, a tornado of racial injustice and an upcoming general election, David Blaine and that slow-motion face of his goes on a frickin’ balloon ride. People hate this, right? Some people definitely hate this.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to hate it too. I do. But I can’t. Because if it was someone (anyone?) else doing this trick, it would be so much easier to feel enthusiastic about it. Dolly Parton, the old man from Up, Banksy dressed as the little girl from his stencils—it really doesn’t matter who you replace him with. We all know that this balloon ride would be ten times more whimsical if David Blaine wasn’t the one doing it.
I can only imagine that Blaine’s Really Stupid Balloon Stunt (the official title is Ascension) was born out of our fight-or-flight mechanisms that have all worked overtime since shelter in place began. But while the central nervous systems of normal people have spent months bleakly reminding ourselves that there is no escape from coronavirus and to just stay inside, David Blaine’s brain decided that literal flight was a perfectly viable option.
The stunt itself might seem frivolous and stupid, but honestly, you have to admire this kind of gumption. After all, today’s balloon ride was a perfect encapsulation of what a lot of us would love to be doing right about now: peacefully floating away from everything.
This is not the first time David Blaine has done a stunt that’s both terribly and perfectly timed. In 2003, he suspended himself over the banks of London’s River Thames, inside a Perspex box, for 44 days. The fact that his suspension was directly opposite Traitors’ Gate—the entrance to the Tower of London once used by arriving prisoners awaiting their doom—turned out to be fitting.
I lived and worked in London during David Blaine’s Really Stupid Box Stunt (the official title was Above the Below) and, let me tell you, his tenure turned into a breathtaking moment of American martyrdom. Many Brits weren’t just bored by the box concept, they were actively irritated by it. This was exacerbated by the fact that Blaine had arrived in London at a time when resentments towards America were at an all-time high.
Just months before, the biggest protests in British history—in opposition to the imminent Iraq war—had taken place, to no avail. For a public that had successfully unseated Margaret Thatcher by taking to the streets in 1990, the country’s decision to hurtle into Iraq was both shocking and frustrating for a great portion of its population. It was also widely seen as a consequence of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s desire to impress George W. Bush and America itself.
Blaine arrived right in the middle of the rancor. Here he was: an American stuck in central London that the British people could take all of their frustrations out on. Though Blaine was visited by thousands of fans and supporters, he also contended with enough attacks to keep the tabloids amused for his entire stay. Drummers assembled to keep Blaine awake at night. People held barbecues underneath him. One man tried to cut off his water supply while shouting “Go back to America! We don’t want you here!” Another flew a burger around the outside of the box on a remote control helicopter. People threw sausages, eggs and paintballs at him. At one point, golfers even took to the neighboring Tower Bridge to pelt the Perspex box with balls.
Was it the British public’s proudest moment? Probably not. But, having witnessed Blaine in the box firsthand, I’d say it definitely went some way to easing international tensions. As fits of vengeance go, it was fairly harmless.
In the years since, Blaine has done stupid stunts that have assisted medical science. (Yale monitored his physiological response to spending seven days submerged in water during his 2006 Drowned Alive stunt.) And he has repeatedly turned public failure into something approaching triumph. (During Revolution, he took 52 hours to escape from a rotating gyroscope, having predicted it would take 16. Two years later he failed to break the record for holding his breath underwater—but managed it later that year, assisted by some pre-dunk oxygen.)
Best of all, in 2012, for Electrified, he spent 72 hours wearing a conducting suit and having “one million volts” directed at him via the medium of—I’m not making this up—Andrew WK and Reggie Watts playing keyboards. It was incredibly goofy, not at all dangerous, and it made me laugh a lot.
Behold, one of the dumbest things you’ll ever see:
It’s been eight years since Blaine gave us this nonsense—or any large-scale event for that matter. When he returned today, he was refreshingly upbeat; excited and smiling. He flipped the dark persona we most associate with him on its head, and gave us something joyful to the point of childlike.
Just as Above the Below seemed too frivolous in 2003, Ascension seems incredibly silly in 2020. But maybe that’s the point. Much of being a magician is the ability to pull people’s focus away from the more serious task at hand. This morning, David Blaine tricked us into looking at a much-needed bright spot on an otherwise gloomy horizon. And for once, it was even more fun than making fun of him.
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