LONDON – David Blaine (search) -- 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-cum-vigil in a dangling plastic case -- hungrier, hairier and, he says, wiser, than when he went in.
Blaine, 30, who has previously 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. Over the last 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 foot by 7 foot 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's box. Another was fined for trying to damage the water supply to the box, which allegedly 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 By the final week, taunts had largely been replaced by encouraging shouts and handwritten signs stuck along the fence around "Camp David," Blaine's riverside enclosure.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 new bushy beard and matted hair, rewarded them with weak waves and beatific smiles.
Thousands are expected to show up on Sunday to watch Blaine's exit, which will be broadcast on television and streamed to paying subscribers on the Internet.
Blaine's Web site says he may have to spend a month in hospital recovering from the ordeal. By Day 38, the site said, the magician was "occasionally incoherent and has been exhibiting signs of delusion," smelled strongly of sulfur and was longing to take a bath.
A former street magician, Blaine now specializes in feats of endurance. Before entering the box, he said he hoped the test would help him find his "truths."
Many onlookers seem to agree there's something spiritual about the event. Many of the signs dotted around the site had a metaphysical cast. "The butterfly will emerge from its cocoon," said one. "Physically thin -- spiritually fat," declared another.
Paranormalist Uri Geller, a friend and mentor to Blaine, said the American is "a shaman. He has the quality of Rasputin, of Mesmer.
"He believes it is important to suffer," added Geller. "He thinks that is a very real and true human emotion."
Retired carpenter Terry Hutt said he spent every day at the site after watching Blaine enter the box on a live television special.
"You hear the bad bits, but there's more good bits," said Hutt, 68, clad in Union Jack shorts, T-shirt and hat. "People become friends, they share their sandwiches. And we get lots of entertainment. We had Michael Jackson's (search) double the other day.
"This morning a woman brought a dead pigeon in a box. I think she hoped he could bring it back to life."