Yesterday afternoon, New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science held its convocation at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Just outside, David Blaine was in the waning hours of spending far too much time underwater. Thus, at the pre-convocation reception, the graduating students, purple-robed and mortarboarded, had a chance to look down from a balcony and savor, at this peak of their academic achievement, an elaborate freak show. Blaine, wearing a diver’s helmet, stood in a sphere that Stuart Scott, host of last night’s David Blaine: Drowned Alive (ABC) called an “8-foot human aquarium.” As hundreds of people queued up to get their photos snapped next to him (as if he were a pope or a panda), I felt sorry for the graduates for having their special day marred by this nonsense. Then I tuned into the show, saw footage of a woman in her wedding dress posing next to the orb, and realized that, for some of them up there, it must have been an honor.
Some years ago, after rising to fame as a hip street magician, Blaine put prestidigitation on the back burner to become a performance artist whose art consists of putting himself in unpleasant situations for stupidly long stretches of time. (One might have guessed from his choicest tattoos—a large Crucifixion scene on his back, Primo Levi’s concentration-camp number on one arm—that the illusionist was destined for greater things.) He has done time underground, within a block of ice, on top of a tall pole, and in a transparent box suspended over London. This latest endeavor involved setting a world record by spending a week in the aquarium and then, live on TV, removing his breathing apparatus and, while escaping from chains, holding his breath for nine minutes—another record.
It was one of several notable lapses, omissions, and squandered opportunities: We learned what Blaine consumed in the tank—sports drinks mixed with water, 10 to 12 times a day—but not how he eliminated it. The network gave us many shots of the throng assembled to send Blaine its “unconditional love” (Scott’s phrase), but it did not interview the woman who had lovingly fashioned a piece of Drowned Alive bric-a-brac—a snow globe containing the globe containing Blaine. It offered one segment, a “cautionary tale,” about the drowning death of a hot young marine biologist, but no advice on how viewers might rid themselves of the slimy feeling it left them with.
On the other hand, over the course of its long buildup to its lung letdown—Blaine came up for air a couple minutes too soon—the network did a fine job of getting tension out of an “event” that largely consisted of watching a narcissist under glass. The many self-aggrandizing taped bits that found Blaine chilling with lifers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, getting trained by alleged Navy SEALs, and talking shop with Evel Knievel helped a lot. So did the suspense-building interviews with an entourage including divers, a personal trainer, water-filtration specialists, a neurovascular surgeon from Yale, and a coach named Kirk Krack. (Again, it was never revealed whether Krack had in fact lifted his name from DC Comics.) And the anticlimax wasn’t a failure of Geraldo-discovers-Al-Capone’s-litter proportions: Blaine—who looked stunned and hammy upon emerging from the tank—surpassed his own record to remain America’s neediest media whore. That’s a stunt best left to professionals, kids. Do not try it at home.