DAVID BLAINE: DECADE OF MAGIC – DVD review

Since his breakthrough special “Street Magic” in 1996, Illusionist and self-proclaimed “endurance artist” David Blaine has become a cottage industry of extreme, high-risk stunts. “Decade of Magic” collects three of his TV specials and a set of special features into one two-disc package.

“Vertigo” details his 34 hours spent atop a 100-foot pillar in Mew York’s Bryant Park.“Drowned Alive” focuses on his attempt at breaking the world record for holding one’s breath underwater after spending 7 days and night submerged in a sphere of water. The centerpiece of “What Is Magic?” is his version of the famous bullet-catch stunt, where a .22 rifle is fired into a steel cup held in Blaine’s mouth.

The problems of magic and illusion on television should be obvious—the viewer is captive to whatever the camera decides to show you, and editing and post-production fuel disbelief. There is also the problem of a legacy of overblown TV “events” that remind me of George Orwell’s description of advertising–“the banging of a stick on a swill bucket.” I’m looking at you, David Copperfield.

Throughout the three specials, Blaine both shrewdly subverts that legacy and boldly takes it to a new level of hype. Despite his monotone voice and decidedly low-key personality, he and the specials are at their best when it’s just him and a small crowd, doing card tricks in non-traditional locations. “What Is Magic” takes him to places as varied as the backwoods of West Virginia, and New Orleans’ Katrina-battered 9th Ward. Most of these manipulation illusions are creative and surprising, and to see the glow of amused bafflement on the faces of his audiences, especially the children, is truly engaging, No matter what their age or station in life, people still want to be shown what they can’t explain.

But these segments are treated predominantly as filler between footage of the large-scale spectacles. Your interest in these WTF stunts will depend on where you put Blaine on the interpretive continuum between self-aggrandizing shyster in goth eye-liner or daring explorer of the human condition.  There is lots of padding in these specials, and lots of quasi-profound treatment of the dangers and worth of Blaine’s actions.

Video:
The TV specials and the underwater footage look good in the DVD transfer, though the varied sources for the extras disc are not as consistent. No options for video set-up are included.

Audio:
Audio track is solid and consistent throughout the specials. The location footage sound is understandably more unpredictable. No options for audio set-up are included.

Extras:
The entire second disc of the set is special features, and has a lower hype factor. The disc includes:
–footage of his 44 days in a glass box suspended by the Thames River, living on nothing but water. Like in the first disc specials, there are some interesting reaction shots of the audience, which varied from full-on support to surprisingly virulent anger to everything in between
–highlights from his record-breaking underwater breath-holding on the Oprah Winfrey show
–his appearance on the TEDMED show, where he discusses the technical preparations for the breath-holding record. I found this to be the most interesting segment in the whole set, especially for Blaine’s deadpan honesty and self-deprecating sense of humor, something almost wholly absent from the TV specials
–footage of Blaine swimming with sharks as part of his heart-rate traiining for the breath-holding stunts. Beautifully shot underwater, and kind of goofy, especially the bit with the cigar.
–a short, joyful segment of Blaine doing card tricks for a crowd of young boys in Soweto.

Parting thoughts:
A mixed bag in terms of quality and effectiveness, “David Blaine: Decade of Magic” is really, in disc one, a set for the already-initiated fan of Blaine’s particular brand of headline-friendly stunts. The second disc of extras gives you a better feel for Blaine the man, and strips away some of the pretentious hype of the TV specials.

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