Magician nears end of vigil

— David Blaine -- shaman to some, charlatan to others, showman above all -- is getting ready to leave his box.

The American magician is approaching Sunday's end to a 44-day fast-come-vigil in a dangling plastic case -- hungrier, hairier and, he says, wiser than when he entered.

The 30-year-old, who previously has been buried alive and encased in a block of ice, says the feat is both the hardest and "the most beautiful" thing he's done.

It has undeniably captured the imagination of Britons. In the past six weeks, onlookers have reacted with a pungent mix of support and ridicule, while commentators puzzled over whether the stunt offered tasteless spectacle or spiritual insight.

Brian Keenan, who was held hostage in Lebanon for 4 1/2 years, wrote in The Guardian newspaper that people were "drawn to this half-naked man hoisted in the heavens. We eat our hamburgers and ice cream in part wonder, part homage, part adoration."

The same paper's theater critic, Michael Billington, judged that "this strange public confinement ... acquires something of the unresolved ambiguity of art." But in The Independent, columnist Terence Blacker condemned the "creepy" Blaine as part of a disturbing trend toward entertainment that "tweaked the public's sadistic impulse."

Blaine certainly brought out a streak of malice in some. In the days after his 7-by-7-by-3-foot plexiglass box was hoisted 40 feet above the River Thames' south bank on Sept. 5, the illusionist endured the sound of drums and foghorns, the smell of sizzling burgers and the sight of hecklers' bare breasts and buttocks.

One man was arrested for firing paint-filled balloons at Blaine. Another was fined for trying to damage the water supply to the box, which reportedly contains only a quilt, a pillow, a journal, a change of clothes and a photo of the magician's mother.

But as time went by, ridicule turned to grudging respect. By the final week, taunts had largely been replaced by encouraging shouts and handwritten signs stuck along the fence around "Camp David," Blaine's riverside enclosure.

Hundreds of people -- teenagers, tourists, families with young children -- gathered daily beneath the box near Tower Bridge. A lethargic Blaine, sporting a bushy beard and matted hair, rewarded them with weak waves and smiles.

Thousands are expected to show up Sunday to watch Blaine's exit, which will be broadcast on television and streamed to paying subscribers on the Internet.

Paranormalist Uri Geller, a friend and mentor to Blaine, called the American "a shaman. He has the quality of Rasputin, of Mesmer.

"He believes it is important to suffer. He thinks that is a very real and true human emotion."

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