Just the Hits
The true magic of In Spades is David Blaine’s talent for manipulating audience anticipation
David Blaine knows how to turn waiting around into mounting excitement.
In the Resorts World Theatre before his show In Spades begins, the crowd is buzzing. In the cup holder of each seat is a white envelope with his insignia on it — a lower case d and b next to each other forming an upside-down spade — above the words “DO NOT OPEN.” Speculation is rife as to what could be inside. Audience members around me hold the envelope up to the light, weigh it in their hands, shake it next to their ears. The prevailing theory is that it’s a pack of cards, but then others point out that this could be misdirection. To what end, nobody knows.
A large cohort of men sits down in the row behind me. “Yo, everybody loves David Blaine,” one of them says to his friends, apropos of nothing. “We got two Black guys, two white guys, a Mexican guy and a … Englishman.” A woman sitting in front of me, who tells me she’s from Utah, has a Harry Potter tattoo on her forearm. A man with a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on his hat shuffles past me to find his seat. A few rows away, a man and his two children wear matching hoodies from a Colorado union local. The guy to my right, who tells me he’s from New Jersey, tips a bottle of pills into his mouth like he’s taking a sip of tea.
When the lights dim, cheers erupt, and someone tries to get a “David” chant going, to limited success. Everybody loves David Blaine. Indeed, he has performed for everyone from Kanye West to Harrison Ford, Barack Obama to George Bush.
Blaine begins the show with a short monologue about how, when he first saw the Resorts World Theatre, he fell in love with it at first sight because he knew he could perform all the magic he loved in it. To prove this, his first act is to climb a hundred-foot tall scaffolding tower, below which is a huge rectangle of neatly stacked cardboard boxes. On the way up, he pauses to indemnify the crew and audience in the event of his death, and then reaches a tiny platform about six stories up.
“Almost twenty years ago,” he says, “I did a stunt called ‘Vertigo,’ where I stood on a pillar over New York City. “One of the most amazing parts of the stunt was the view of New York City. But the most amazing part was the connection that I had with everyone that came to visit me.”
His patter comes across a little wooden, but he’s standing on a tiny platform high above a pile of boxes, so we’re on the edges of our seats. He then turns and takes a few steps down the scaffolding. Someone screams, “No!” But it’s a fakeout, and he starts climbing even higher. The crowd loses it. “Let’s go!” someone shouts multiple times. He reaches another, higher, platform.
“From eight stories, these boxes basically look like a deck of cards,” he says, and takes a pack of cards from his pocket, holding them up against the boxes below.
“I probably shouldn’t have these here right now,” he says, spraying out the cards, which sashay into the abyss below. It’s again a little hammy to suggest he accidentally left a pack of cards in his pocket, but it’s still spectacular. The time the cards take to fall shows just how far up he is and proves that there are no ropes or nets between him and the ground.
“I would say this is a good time to stand up and probably take your cellphones out, and you might wanna record it in slow motion, ’cause this first thing will take about one second.”
We all take out our phones, he starts a ten-second countdown, and then he steps out into space.
This jump is exactly how he ended his 2002 “Vertigo” performance. As the show progresses, I recognize almost everything else he does from prior performances, too. When he said he could perform all the magic he really loved in the Resorts World Theatre, he meant it — he’s playing the hits.
For the devout fan, this might leave something to be desired. In the intermission, the woman to my left tells me she got her and her boyfriend these tickets for his birthday because he loves Blaine. When I ask the boyfriend what he thinks, he tells me somewhat sheepishly, not wanting to appear ungrateful for the gift, that he’s kind of already seen a lot of this stuff on Blaine’s YouTube Channel.
Common wisdom states magicians should never perform a trick twice lest they give away the secret, but this isn’t strictly true. Magicians will repeat a trick, but change how it’s done each time. As Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde said in their book Sleights of Mind, this technique reduces “all of the possible explanations of an effect down to none, until only impossible (magical) explanations remain.”
Blaine is often doing the opposite. By repeating feats across multiple performances, he’s effectively reducing all the possible explanations down to one: He really does them. He really does jump into a pile of boxes from eight stories up. Or (spoiler), he really can store a frog in his stomach and regurgitate it at will.
Indeed, a fair amount of In Spades isn’t really magic. In a single effect, he combines card tricks and other classical magic illusions with the techniques of the circus performer — regurgitation, body mutilation, chewing up glass. These may have gone largely forgotten by the broader public and thus appear improbable, but they’re certainly within the realm of human possibility.
By merging these stunts with illusions, though, he’s doing something interesting with magic. Usually, magicians try to convince you, as Macknik and Martinez-Conde put it, that the only explanation is the impossible. By including real stunts, for which the only explanation is the possible, Blaine suggests that the illusions, too, might be possible, and not tricks. If he can hold his breath for 17 minutes, he might really be able to pull your card out of his mouth after you sew it shut. Blaine wants to shift the boundary of magic to something real, to something about the possibilities of the human will.
This philosophical innovation might not be landing with the crowd, though.
“I mean it’s impressive and shit, but it’s not, like, magic,” one of the guys behind me says to another during one act, sounding deflated.
After the intermission, the curtains draw back to reveal a giant fishbowl in which Blaine will hold his breath. As Blaine gulps lungfuls of pure oxygen from a tank, a video explains how difficult this stunt is, how Houdini’s record was three and a half minutes, and that Blaine beat that as a child.
There are many interesting points of contact between Houdini and Blaine, and not just the ones that Blaine wants to point out. Magicians have told me that Blaine, like Houdini, is perhaps more of a world-class publicist than a world-class magician — neither has (or had) particularly exceptional illusions.
Both men built careers more on holding attention for unusually long spans than on mastering complicated sleights of hand. Both know (or knew) how to garner headlines year after year, and both can (or could) keep an audience’s attention for hours while remaining essentially motionless. Blaine has been buried alive for a week, encased in a block of ice for 63 hours, and sealed in a plexiglass box with no food for 44 days.
And Houdini often spent more than 45 minutes behind a curtain freeing himself from shackles, handcuffs, and boxes, with little to entertain the crowd but raw suspense and a pit orchestra. As movies grew in popularity, signaling the death knell of vaudeville, he had to work harder and harder to keep things exciting.
One technique Houdini developed for his milk-can escape, in which he was locked inside a large water-filled milk can and had to free himself behind a curtain, was to encourage the audience to hold their breaths as soon as he submerged himself. Blaine does this here, too, asking us all to keep our hands raised for as long as we could hold our breath. One by one we gasp and lower our hands. By this time another video starts playing.
I’m in no doubt that he can hold his breath for a very long time; previously he’s done it for more than 17 minutes, briefly holding the world record. Like the jump into the pile of boxes, this act, too, is a reference to his earlier work. More impressive to me is how he makes floating serenely in a fish bowl seem so exciting. Videos play, people come on stage, they drop an alligator in there with him. He holds his breath for a very, very long time.
At the end, he asks us to open the envelopes, and leads us through a set of steps involving the contents. Suddenly we all realize the same magic trick has happened to us, in our own hands, and the crowd loses it one last time.
“These THC pills are kicking in, man, I don’t know what’s going on,” says the guy from New Jersey next to me, clutching his head, his expression equal parts amazement and genuine fear. The finale, it seems, was worth the wait. Φ