David Blaine: Drowned Alive? Part II

19:00 EDT MONDAY MAY 1, 2006 – NEW YORK CITY

By midmorning a crowd of  a hundred or so spectators had gathered on Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza, peering at the crystalline sphere.

Lincoln Center is arguably the epicenter of high culture on planet Earth, and today New Yorkers awoke to find this unearthly artifact gazing impassively back at them as they bustled down Columbus Avenue and along Broadway. They looked a lot like the cavemen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The sphere is a fine postmodern monolith. No sharp corners, and its translucence offers up charming distortions of everything seen through it. It’s like nothing so much as a giant eyeball, giving you back your world but fish-eyed and upside down. The press was  herded into the media corral, tagged with green bracelets and cordoned off from lesser humans.  This had to be real news, by New York standards: there were more spectators than reporters.

The various crew departments were in full ordered chaos, each in its domain. Network and talent PR flacks a-flacking, sparkies sparking, sound men testing one, two three. The Performance Freediving trio ( Kirk Krack, Martin Stepanek and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank) are decked out in tastefully-logo’d team apparel, and are very much enjoying the very cool walkie-talkies laid on by the production people.


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

But Mandy can’t get Kirk to respond. I’ve arrived late and don’t have my press credentials. Kirk can help, but where is he ? Mandy and I chat over an iron barricade. I ask about what I thought was David Blaine’s plan to emerge from the sphere every six hours for nutrition and sanitary requirements. No, Mandy explained, he’s decided not to leave the sphere at all for the entire six days. I’m startled. But how will he go? I ask delicately. The water is filtered, she explains, so he just goes. Awkard, how to press on?  I remember we’re in New York City, where one can aks anything, even questions that are impolite to ask. I aks, but what about number two ? There is no number two, comes the deadpan reply. He’s been fasting for six days. Taking laxatives. No number two.

Those who dismiss David Blaine as a mere showman may wish to reconsider as the intensity of the man’s preparations, and what he will endure in the sphere become clear. There’s plainly no question here of any sort of AIDA-compatible world record in an apnea discipline, but it would be hard to make the case that Blaine’s performance doesn’t constitute some kind of world record.


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

Later, Blaine appears as if by magic behind a microphone, facing the media wolfpack without even the basic precautions of barrier and bodyguards. The A-list journalists are about as mature as I am, and get right away to the heart of the matter: how’s he going to make pee-pee and ka-ka ?  Blaine is the perfect straight man, not a trace of levity as he details the state of his gut and discloses he’s had himself catheterized as well. No peeing in this pool.

He’s lost fifty pounds since January in the course of preparing for this event, he says. Blaine is a very fit-looking young man, with well-defined and highly toned musculature. He lost the weight, he explains, to reduce as much as possible his tissues’ requirement for oxygen.

His preparations have included going through scuba certification and several stints learning freediving from the PFI team. Blaine’s resolve is impressive. He traveled from his New York City home base to wherever Kirk & Co. could squeeze in some quality time with him. His final pool training session with the PFI Team was just last night, during which he was inspired.

When I’d first taken  my place in the front row of the media corral, squatting on cold pavement  under the phalanx of TV camera lenses, I’d asked a very authentic-looking stills photographer why she was there. “Why am I here ?” she mused. She had useful objects – pens, sunglasses,  tape, markers, pouches and so forth -velcroed all over her, a loud statement of her practicality and experience. “I guess some guy’s going to go into that ball with the water.” Persistent interrogation drew out the name of the New York daily newspaper she worked for, David Blaine’s name, and the suggestion that Blaine is “probably famous, maybe in Europe”.


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

David Blaine now had the press eating out of his hand. He revealed that last night’s pool epiphany had resulted in a change to the stunt plan. That’s what he called it: a stunt. At the end of six days, he announced, he’d be pulled out of the sphere. He’d then be handcuffed and otherwise bound with chains weighing 150 lbs., and tossed back into the sphere sans breathing apparatus. He would then hold his breath for about nine minutes while freeing himself from the iron restraints. “If I fail”, he intoned, “I will drown and the world will see something pretty insane.”

Whoo-hoo! The journalists liked this a lot. They whooped and cheered as Blaine melted away from the microphone and headed for his cloth Bucky Fuller hut to complete his preparations. The spectators now numbered several hundreds, and packed the mezzanine balconies of nearby New York State Theatre and Avery Fisher Hall, waving and calling out to Blaine as he handshook and autographed his way to privacy.

The newspaper photographer had never heard of freediving, but when I pointed to Kirk Krack and asked if she could identify him, she could. “Oh, yes, I know him”. Really ? I was surprised. Well, no, I don’t know him, she corrected herself. He’s the Guy in the White Shirt. He was over here before. He’s with the Blaine people.

Indeed he is. While the media herd waited for David Blaine a press relations man in a suit had introduced Kirk as Blaine’s trainer and invited questions. The media instantly and collectively lost interest (he’s not a Somebody)and went back to gossiping about media and the all-important Making Arrangements for Later.


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

Everybody except Fox News Channel’s entertainment correspondent Lisa Bernhard, who stepped up and asked a perfectly sensible question about Blaine’s training regimen, with follow-ups going to the history and current state of the freediving art. Kirk delivered detailed, succinct mini-lectures in response to each, and then Lisa hit him with the sucker punch: if David Blaine really holds his breath for nine minutes, will that be considered a world record ?

This, remember, from an entertainment correspondent. The Fox News Channel is aptly named.

Kirk, however, was not unprepared. Doubtless mindful of the freediving world’s skepticism he countered with a suggestion that any such performance would certainly constitute a “benchmark” for human capabilities. How likely is it, Ms. Bernhard pressed on, that Blaine would actually succeed in this? Kirk was candid. After all David Blaine will have been through by then, he said, the chances are “low”. Kirk outlined some of the failure scenarios in full, accurate and clinical detail. By this time several other media people were listening in and a little press conference-within-a-press conference ensued until Kirk was called away. His walkie – talkie had been chirping for several minutes.

New York City is a phenomenon whose scale and complexity are difficult to grasp, even for people ( like me) who’ve spent decades there. Driving into Manhattan for the Blaine event, I’d become persuaded by the shrill and breathless news stories on local radio that the city was shut down and in utter chaos. Nationwide work stoppages and street demonstrations on behalf of immigrants’ rights. Huge story.

It may well have been happening, but New York is big enough to accommodate any number of huge stories all at once. It all looked quite normal to me. The Blaine event kickoff was itself a Pretty Big Story, according to the consensus in the media corral. Psstt – have you heard ? Michael Jackson is coming to see David in the sphere !  – followed by just the sort of lewd retort you yourself just thought of.

A crisp, feminine British voice called down to me from above, someone in the ranks of the Standing, and therefore a person of some consequence. She’d dropped a slip of paper and asked that I pass it up to her. Naturally, I scanned it while it was in my grasp. It was an email copy of a press release, something to do with New York’s Seventh Avenue – the rag trade, low fashion. The owner, the standing journalist, was on her cell phone with her copy desk, phoning in the news. She wrapped up her fashion dispatch and segued into the Blaine kickoff story. A few minutes into it ( “…the world will see something pretty insane…that’s i-n-s-a-n-e…”) she stopped, and crossly explained that the fashion story was over, she was now dictating a different story, the David Blaine Drowned Alive story, dammit.

Drowned Alive. That’s likely to raise hackles in the freediving community, which is in its postmodern stage of cultural evolution. David Blaine’s choice of a semi-reflective, semi-refractive sphere was genius. In the old days, freedivers were proud to be seen as daredevils, death-defying challengers of the deep. At some point (perhaps when somebody discerned a scuba-like commercial opportunity) it became politically incorrect to mention drowning except in the context of That Thing We Can Avoid By Proper Training, and religious observance of the buddy system.

It worked. The ranks of the sport swelled through the late 1990’s and growth has gone parabolic. Now, freedivers joke about being taken for daredevils, but secretly fancy themselves…daredevils, and meanwhile the sport is getting safer all the time. Who wouldn’t like being thought of as courageous ? Made of sterner stuff than the average person ?  Trouble is, the public is starting to buy into the proposition that freediving is really as safe as knitting, and so the glam index is trending down.

We all know what happened to scuba diving: a theme of adventure films 30 years ago, spinster Aunt Lily’s weekend hobby today. Lest this happen to us, too, we ought to thank David Blaine for saying this thing which is really true in spite of all the pretending to pretend that it’s really true. Drowned Alive !  Yes, it’s postmodern. It means less than it seems to – after all, somebody who’s already dead can’t very well drown .

David Blaine’s entry into the sphere was slightly anticlimactic. He peeled off his black t-shirt – to the crowd’s squeals of delight – and exchanged his fashionable black leather boots for (presumably weighted) neoprene jobs. He conferred briefly with Kirk, Martin and Mandy, then mounted the ladder. “Get Lincoln Center to turn up the fountain !” shouted one of the camermen.  A PR flack murmured into a walkie-talkie, and the geysers behind the sphere spurted higher. Much better shot. “Get him to pause ! Pause, David, pause !” cried the lensmen. David Blaine paused, smiled for the cameras, then dropped into the sphere. Whirrr ! Click ! Click !


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

 

An elderly woman on the common peoples’ side of the barricade turned to her companion. “Herb” she sneered. “We’ve been living here for fifty years. This is nothing. We’re not going to stay around to watch this whole thing. Let’s go.” Herb nodded dutifully and the two padded away.

The PR flacks began to nudge the media toward a metal ramp wrapped around the sphere. We were let onto the ramp in groups of five, hustled around to the back where Kirk Krack anxiously defended the rubber hose feeding David Blaine’s regulator, allowed to shoot some film, and hustled on back down.

David Blaine had gone into the water wearing his tres New York black trousers. The crowd hadn’t liked that much, and had chanted demands he remove them. Had they forgotten the bit about the catheter, or had the press simply not passed this informational item along to the general public ?  He preened and postured inside the sphere, grandly distorted by the optics. He breathed occasionally from the second stage of a garden variety regulator.


Copyright 2006 Paul Kotik/DeeperBlue.net

Six days in there. Think about it. I wonder what the world looks like to him from inside that lens. He has a mask with him, and put it on for a few seconds every now and then, reason unclear. This is incredible. The kind of endurance required to pull this off is beyond the reach of my imagination. What can I say ?

Better him than me, I suppose.

There’s More!

Read more coverage of the David Blaine event from Paul in our David Blaine: Drowned Alive? Special Feature Series and check out the Photo Gallery and Audio Interviews!