Our Keanu: A public meditation
Keanu Reeves yodels into Hollywood's queasy canyon -- and the void yodels back.
by Chuck Stephens
Quivering man-child, rock-hard oaf -- he plods across the celluloid landscape, erect, a doe-eyed dingus with a mouthful of Valley marbles and a Shakespearean glint in his eye. Wavering in the summer heat, a shimmering serpent mesmerized by the clicking machine that translates dreams into projector beams, Keanu Reeves is to screen idoldom what ambivalence is to Buddhism: a middle way.
Pumped-up he-man (in the sleek Speed) and polymorphous cipherpunk (as the star of the upcoming Johnny Mnemonic), enlightened and excellent (as Little Buddha's Twizzler-tressed Siddhartha), hot-wired and hellbent in Hamlet (with which he's now headed for the Winnipeg stage), brisk Keanu -- part Chinese, part European, part five-letter Hawaiian word for "cool breeze rushing over the mountains" -- raises goose bumps, nippleflesh, hackles. "I wanted to fuck him so hard after seeing Speed," a colleague at another weekly confided with a pant.
Get in line. Some icons act on us, not for us. Keanu breathes, writhes, smiles, exudes: this is enough. Others just miss the point: "He's supposed to be this fully assimilated man in Speed," my colleague Susan Gerhard railed, "but he's the last guy I'd turn to in a crisis!" Those who croak about his "lack of talent" are not fit to Sex Wax the master's board.
When Entertainment Weekly recently needled him on the vicissitudes of celebrity -- reminding him that the price of fame now includes a theory-heavy course at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena titled "The Films of Keanu Reeves" -- young Reeves (now 29) looked within himself and replied: "I guess I'm not really involving my imagination to that of a circumstance or happening -- I'm just kind of acknowledging it as an existence." His EW inquisitor seemed baffled; the lunchroom at the Chateau Marmont echoed with the sound of one lobe flapping.
Genius or gibberish? Only Roland Barthes -- or the New Republic's Stanley Kaufmann, who's lately dubbed him "our Keanu" -- could decide. Reeves is our shared experiential dillemma, a public-service koan, a fragment of nonsense in which the lysergic bubble of meaning bursts and blooms. Share him, grok him, he's all there, always on, effervescing, glowing from within. He is the light -- though sometimes, in a fog (I Love You to Death, Permanent Record, the Bill and Teds), the light grows dim....
In Speed's succession of phallic gags -- little protopeople wriggling toward life, or extinction, inside skyscraper elevators, unfinished subways, and other hurtling sausages of public conveyance -- Master Reeves saves the world. In Little Buddha, Prince Siddhartha - Reeves, this time a bronzed and ropy Sabu of slack -- wants to know: "What is death?"
Well, let's look: You've been sucked off by two Draculas -- Bram Stoker's Dracula's Gary Oldman and My Own Private Idaho's Udo Kier (Andy Warhol's Dracula, way back when). You've robbed banks with a rubberized Mount Rushmore of ex-Presidents and tossed your FBI shield into the Australian surf (in Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break). When you bagged Ione Skye, in the dewy hours before dawn, your first (only?) on-screen orgasm was intercut with the strangulation of a teenage girl (River's Edge). A narcoleptic, latter-day James Dean (River Phoenix) has longed for your caresses; in your first Shakespearean turn, as Scott Favor, the Prince Hal of Seattle (Idaho again), you submitted -- for a night. And when Dennis Hopper advised you not to "grow a brain," you tore his head clean off.
"I didn't want to be cut," Reeves' mused to EW about his Gold's Gym-built, Speed-freak physique, "but I wanted to have somewhat of a beefy aspect to my chest and arms." In his epic eye-makeup sequences in Little Buddha, by comparison, Reeves "was so emaciated he looked like a beautiful woman," Dennis Hopper elsewhere, rightfully, observed. A karma-captivated Kate Moss daubed all-over with clay-toned pancake, Reeves' Siddhartha is a ringer for the young Joan Baez, or the young Jack Smith.
His passage through the stages of attainment would have made a mutant movie all its own: Keanu in meditation, sheltered by a giant rubber cobra, Keanu in a Manson fright wig, snuzzling up to a water buffalo, Keanu as the Buddha, beatific in his Aunt Bea 'do. On his way to enlightenment, Keanu disappears into the quavering illuminations of some cosmic labia.
"Young, dumb, and full of cum." Nope, it's not a memo from the desk of David Geffen, or a jotting from Sophia Coppola's diary -- though both have been widely rumored to have blown cool breezes over KR's meaty mountains. It's a bit of hunky hyperbole from director Kathryn Bigelow's outstanding surf-and-turf spectacular, Point Break -- the flash point for Reeves' gum-chomping action-flick career, and booty for Speed director Jan De Bont's auteur debut (he stole the gum, Gus Van Sant kept the cum). Johnny Utah, an undercover Fed, goes cowabunga when he encounters the bodhisattva (Patrick Swayze), a Zen master who's also undercover -- as a Reagan-masked bank robber.
"He's not threatening to men because he's not that bulky," De Bont (in EW again) summarized a bit anxiously, "and he looks great to women." (Bigelow, the better director, should know.) But then how did Sandra Bullock, off to a good start in both Speed and Demolition Man, manage to drop a few rungs in the taste-ratings when she ducked Keanu-questions in a recent Village Voice interview (she called him the "Little Keester" in EW) and speculated instead on David Letterman's wand size. Forget your Freud, honey? Check Dave's compensatory cigars -- and don't forget Freud himself, holding a corn dog in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
But back to the bulk: the virtual wags on the Well have been buzzing for weeks over Keanu's beef, an electronic circle jerk that reached something of a climax when contributor "jordan" posted the following: "Whoa. I just read a story in the San Mateo Times which strongly suggested that Mr. Reeves had surgical muscle implants for this movie. Does anyone know anything about this?"
" 'Surgical muscle implants' -- sounds like the name of a garage band," zinged Holly GoDensely, the ironic nom-de-hyper-plume of the Well's wise "marybeth" who'd already admired Keanu's "stunning physique" and dubbed Speed the "sexiest movie about public transportation I ever saw."
Nice one, Holly, but the garage band in question is one Dog Star, the bass-playing Keanu's folk thrash three-piece that rocked the Stone sometime last year. They stole their name, insiders know, from another, better Dog Star and then threatened to sue (Keanu, what's up with that?). Now retitled Charles Brown Superstar, the "original" Dog Star donated their bass guitar to Professor Stephen Prina, who teaches that "Films of Keanu" course in Pasadena: "They felt I should have it," he told me in a quizzical, now-I've-seen-it-all tone.
Yeah, OK, but how is Keanu's band? "Noisy, slammin'," opined Chronicle's music maven, Michael Snyder. "I left after three minutes."
"Generic, very generic: three-chord garage," chimed local music programmer Melinda Simon, who heard a Dog Star demo tape, missed the show, but went on to share with me this vision of Keanu from the dark pillow of her dreamlife: "OK, so the dream was this: I'm at a party, and I see that Keanu's there too, but it's really crowded and I want to leave. Keanu tells me he's coming with me. We go back to my house, and I've really gotta pee, so I'm sort of racing to the bathroom, and Keanu's following me. I pull off my underwear and toss them in the bathroom sink. Keanu comes in and starts to poke at them with his finger."
"I never did get to tell the dream, because when we went to the radio station to meet him, there were all these froufrou mall girls there with hair up to the ceiling and we bugged out. But I wrote it on a note and gave it to him. I'm sure his buddies in the band got a kick out of it -- but I never really got to talk to him." Simon's wry sorrow starts seeping through the phone. "I wanted to take him out for burritos."
In Johnny Mnemonic, the title character carries secrets in his head to which he has no direct access. A repository of other people's dreams, dilemmas, and cosmic solutions, his knowledge of the ways of the world is essentially limited to his tactile experience: in the Gibson short story, his most vivid memory is of stashing a pump gun in a duffel bag with his tube socks.
In the film, directed by Robert Longo (whose best works, a series of black-and- whited- suited men twisting and falling in intdeterminate space -- a visual motif lifted from Fassbinder's the American Soldier), the space for Johnny's memories could easily be expanded. Tube socks, pump guns, the smell of burning weinies in our wide-eyed wonderboy's psychic backyard.
It'll be our Keanu up there -- our buff Buddha -- and we'll all be watching. Even if he doesn't sniff his finger, a few of us will dream of sniffing it for him.