So a couple weeks ago, one afternoon when neither of us had anything better to do, my friend Bastard Keith and I were Facebook chatting about whatever, and after a brief discussion of Johnny Mnemonic (which BK had just recently beheld), the following (unedited) conversation took place:
Me: ....and at the center of it all, the inimitable keanu
Bastard Keith: He really is a law unto himself.
Sometimes utterly right as the center of a film, sometimes almost glaringly not.
Me: never unmemorable, though
Bastard Keith: NEVER
Me: which is odd considering everyone always talks about how blank he is
and i think sells him short
Bastard Keith: I think he's kind of a monolithic presence.
Me: but he IS a presence
Bastard Keith: That's my point.
Me: unlike people like sam worthington
whose name i had to take a second to remember while typing
Bastard Keith: Worthington is almost astonishingly unmemorable.
everything about him, down to his last name being too long, is anti-memorable
you always remember keanu
Bastard Keith: There's an essay in that.
Me: even this shitty serial-killer movie [name of ex-girlfriend redacted] made me watch once, there's this indelible moment where keanu's dancing around like a jagoff
Bastard Keith: Doesn't it feel like he's always been with us?
Me: THE ETERNAL KEANU: AN ACTOR WITH NEITHER BEGINNING NOR END
Bastard Keith: He's a room you enter and never leave, perhaps without realizing it.
Me: he is the cinematic image of one hand clapping
Bastard Keith: He is Om.
Me: heh there we go, i'll call the essay om shanti keanu
Bastard Keith: NICE
Me: this actually has to be done
Bastard Keith: I struggle to think of an actor with a career as indestructible.
Me: oh yeah
Bastard Keith: ANY other actor, ANNNNNNNNNNY other actor who'd given some of those performances would be on the outs.
And yet his iconic roles are so perfect, so RIGHT.
Me: but keanu, he bombs in something and then a quiet few months later there's a thing in the trades about keanu being in talks for something new that sounds kinda cool
and frequently is
Bastard Keith: I have this image of, like, studio heads talking in a conference room and Keanu just sort of walking and sitting down quietly and they all slowly realize he's there.
Me: actually on further reflection the fact that when he goes down, he goes down SO HARD is actually kind of admirable
yes! meetings with keanu must be the GREATEST FUCKING THING EVER
Bastard Keith: And they ask what's up, and he just sort of calmly talks about what he'll be doing next.
And they're like, “So...so that's....we're making that?”
Bastard Keith: And he's like, “Yes, this is what I saw happening.”
Me: “i was riding my motorcycle along the pacific coast highway, and the film came to me in an instant”
Bastard Keith: No threat, just this ineffable sense of zen inevitabllity.
Me: yeah, in a totally even, slightly ethereal tone of voice
Bastard Keith: And the studio heads are just so beguiled by him.
So the movies get made.
Like, can you say no to the tide?
To the phases of the moon?
Me: nor to the wind
Bastard Keith: Basically, I'm saying he's the closest thing to a shaman that modern film has to offer.
Me: oh absolutely
I'm loving this conversation, by the way.
Me: and it makes hugo weaving's speech about inevitability to him in the matrix an extremely meta moment
i am too
Bastard Keith: OH GOD YES.
Me: i'm writing this essay
And for the last couple weeks when I've had a spare moment I've been trying to gather my thoughts about the essay I repeatedly said I was going to write. For the most part, I've been failing miserably. Keanu “the reification of one hand clapping” Reeves is one hard motherfucker to pin down. He's had an amazingly durable career, and long, too. Make sure you're sitting down before you read this next bit: the year after next Keanu is going to be fifty fucking years old. Isn't that kind of fucked up? But, more to the point, isn't that kind of fucked up because you don't think of Keanu as being any age at all? One of the reasons I excerpted that chat with Bastard Keith is that Herr Bastard raises the excellent point that “Doesn't it feel like he's always been with us?” I know it feels that way to me. Bill & Ted dropped when I was 9 or 10, and Keanu was very much a fact of life in it. He's continued to be that way ever since, showing up in a variety of pictures of variable quality. In each, though, at its center, was Keanu.
I get a little defensive when the topic of acting comes up for discussion, until the other party's credentials come up for discussion, because I spent a lot of years studying acting in a variety of different disciplines, with almost a decade as a working theater artist. Which, yeah, whatever, I don't want a gold star or a fuckin lifetime achievement Obie or anything, but even the most cursory glance at these pages or at my other critical writing will show you that I think the deep thoughts about stuff. Acting is one of the handful of subjects on which I can discourse with confidence, erudition, and insight, joining movies (obviously), basketball, and the ways and means of bringing a woman to orgasm. Having spent all those years trying to figure acting out, it thus pains me how people who've never done it and barely even know what it is hold forth about acting as experts. (For a longer and more eloquent kvetch on this same topic, Uta Hagen's Respect For Acting is a surprisingly fun read.) I bring this up because it's largely these armchair experts who will, with ruthless brevity, dismiss Keanu's acting as “shitty.” Most often because his performances aren't naturalistic. Sometimes because, yes, he actually isn't very good. But this misses the larger truth of Keanu, his Om, if you will. He is as he is. To try and mold him into something he isn't is folly. Also, it means something that Bertolucci cast him as the Buddha. Sure, that was no Last Tango In Paris and it sure wasn't The Conformist but Bertolucci's not some schmuck off the street, and he could have had any number of actors, but he chose Keanu.
Just as filmmakers and writers can be stylists, not conforming strictly to a rote transcription of the world “as it is” to give some illusory sense of “real” life, actors can be too. In fact, most movie stars give off a sense of being larger than life, of being above such mortal concerns as reality. John Wayne did John Wayne. Bogart did Bogart. Clint did (and may at some point again do) Clint. This may even be the very thing that does make them great, that they are stylists. I don't know whether Keanu qualifies under this category, because it's not entirely certain he's doing it on purpose. This sounds like I'm saying he's some kind of holy fool, but that's not it. It's basically like we were saying in the chat: he's a force of nature, like wind, or the sea. He is as he is.
And, even though I know he won't, it feels as though he ever shall be. The genuine joy I've felt watching him act is more like the joy of a summer breeze or the ocean gently brushing my bare feet on a beach than it is watching an actor. The inflection in his voice on “whoa.” (Specificially the “whoa” after watching Morpheus jump in The Matrix, though at least one of his Ted “whoa”s qualify as well.) The triumph of “Yeah? Well I'm taller” is every triumph. The genuine awe of confronting the mysteries of the universe contained in “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” It's part of the great beauty of the work of Keanu Reeves that this piece is at once kind of kidding, a little ridiculous, and absolutely sincere at the same time. At a certain point, pondering the mysteries of the universe is pointless, because the universe is us and we are it. That's the great thing about Keanu. He is. His apparent comfort in simply being radiates off the screen. Sometimes it means he isn't very good in the given movie (and a lot of times the given movie's a piece of shit, too) but for those moments of absolute perfection when everything clicks together, he's one of the finest mediums there is.