Keanu, an introduction.
When I told Dave I wanted to write a retrospective on the cinema of Keanu Reeves, I said, "this is the article I was born to write." And, indeed, I was so convinced this was the case that I hesitated to begin actually writing it, because, if you make a mess of the article you were born to write, it kind of leaves you looking at a non-sequitur of a literary existence for the rest of your life.
I have tried to convince myself that if I get it wrong, it will not matter so much- I can spend the rest of my life rewriting this article, polishing it, moving phrases from here to there, changing the cadence of certain sentences, striking out whole stale paragraphs and replacing them with fresh insights, adjusting the font, and so forth, until it is perfect. Then I can bag out W-D for allowing the earlier, putative version ("the grub") to see the light of day, instead of waiting for this, the beautiful, the sublime ("the butterfly"). But look, life is short, and I was keen to share my thoughts about Keanu Reeves with the world at this exciting midpoint of his career. Then I came up against the problem. Before summarising the problem, and setting forth my proposed solution to it, I will pause here to relate two stories about my life and its relationship to the work of Keanu Reeves. One is literally true in every detail. The other is true in a poetical sense. I will leave it to my readers to decide which is which.
Story One. In 1997 I went down to Melbourne on a weekend when there were three good games of Australian Football being played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. On my first night down there I was staying with my friend, David, who lived in a suburb called Hartwell- quite a way out on one of the suburban train lines. On Friday night after watching Geelong play North Melbourne, I caught a late train from Richmond Station to Hartwell Station, and when the train pulled in at the station, I tried to open the door. Unfortunately, it would not budge. I pushed and pushed, but not until the train had started to pull away from the station did I eventually manage to get it open. So, what was I going to do? As I stood there, with the wind in my hair, frowning, there was, I swear to God, only one thought running through my head, and that thought was: What would Keanu Reeves do in this situation? Of course, the chunky Hawaiian uses stunt doubles in situations like this but I didn't have time to contemplate on that; instead, pausing only to yell the words, "COOL" and "DUDE," I jumped off the train. Hartwell station flew up to meet me a lot quicker than I expected. I landed awkwardly on my knee, then found myself flat out prone, and with my glasses knocked maybe three feet in front of me. When I put them on, I noticed that thick fingers of blood were travelling down the lenses, and I realised that my skid along the platform had reduced the palms of my hands to the approximate consistency of hamburger. One leg of my trousers had been ripped off and I was bleeding badly there as well. David, my host, had gone out to see a band, so when I got to his house, I tried to navigate around it without knowing where the light switches were. When I did find the lights, the place looked like the principal photography for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had just been completed. Although I had not done any serious long-term damage, I had effectively amputated my hands for the next few weeks, and bear the scars still.
Story Two. I am Keanu Reeves's twin brother. We are not identical twins. He is more Hawaiian looking than I am. I am possibly a little better looking than he is, although people sometimes do not notice this until after I take off my glasses. Nevertheless the resemblance between us is striking. I grew up not knowing I had a twin. On my 21st birthday, I was led into the library of the von Hangman mansion, and my guardian, a grave, indeed, grim-looking man (whose solemnity was always somewhat at odds with the risible hairpiece he wore) was sitting behind the desk, with most of his face in shadow. In his deep, raspy rattling voice, he told me I had a twin brother. I am not at liberty to pass on all the circumstances that he outlined to me that stormy afternoon about how I can be raised in tropical Brisbane, while Keanu spent his early life in the United States, in Canada, and even for a time in Tasmania. Whether a similar fraternal revelation was made to Keanu on his 21st birthday, or at any other time, I cannot say. This, of course, was before Keanu was the famous actor he would later become. All I could think of to say was, "Keanu is an usual name." "It means 'Cool Breeze over the Mountain'," growled my guardian, and as I nodded my head, as if that was important information to know, "Now listen, you punk kid," he rasped, pausing to light a cigar, and in the light flaring out from his zippo, from behind the smoke he puffed out, I could see he was scowling, "don't try to get into contact with him, don't travel to see him, don't write him, don't telephone him. I have told you the reasons you can not be together. If you ignore me, you will reap a bitter, bitter harvest." He puffed deeply on the cigar, and the tip burned fiercely. He got to his feet, reached for his cane, and limped out of the room. He paused at the door for a moment. "In the top drawer of the desk," he said, "is a gun, your passport, and a million dollars in cash. You won't see me again." And from that day to this, I never have.
I am not some obsessed fan. All right, it is true there is a clause in the publishing deal for my autobiography, that prohibits the sale of movie rights unless Keanu Reeves play the Von Hangman character. But I don't write to the guy in crackpot doggerel rhyming couplets ("I dug all those movies you made with Patrick Swayze. Some folk thought they were shit but I thought they were crazy"). I don't ask him to page me so we can discuss various gems from the Phil Collins songbook. I don't talk about him 24/7. In fact, I don't even think about him much more than, what, 3/7 or maybe even 3/6. I have never put it to him that we should be together. When I saw Dogstar play the Sydney Metro in 1998 I occasionally took my focus off the not-overly-complex bass lines he was laying down to glance at the other musicians. Apart from a single invitation to have him come and watch me play netball (just a very healthy, good natured, generous, normal, heterosexual gesture), I have never attempted to make contact with the chap.
So, I am not a stalker, but my heart does reach out for this guy. Here is a quote from Keanu Reeves:
"What would happen if you melted? You know, you never really hear this talked about much, but spontaneous combustion? It exists!...[people] burn from within...sometimes they'll be in a wooden chair and the chair won't burn, but there'll be nothing left of the person. Except sometimes his teeth. Or the heart. No one speaks about this, but it's for real."
When he says something like that, I feel for him. You could say that I am wasting my compassion, because, after all, I am probably feeling more embarrassment on his behalf than it has occurred to him to feel for himself. But look at Keanu's statement on the hidden scandal of spontaneous self-immolation just a little bit more closely, a little bit more generously, and you see a man who, while undoubtedly not a leading intellectual along the lines of Professor Steven Hawking or Andrea Zuckerman, is worried about the welfare of those less fortunate than himself. He is expressing his pain that 1). There is all this spontaneous self-combustion occurring and 2). It is not even being reported. Keanu is troubled. He feels the pain of the victims. Look also at his expression of childlike wonder at the oddity of nature:
"… they'll be in a wooden chair and the chair won't burn."
And the eye for detail that makes a great storyteller:
"Sometimes his teeth. Or the heart."
Compassion is never wasted. Not Keanu's, for the poor souls who melt like icecubes on a hot day, leaving nothing behind them on the wooden chairs on which they were sitting except a set of choppers, or, failing that, a heart. Nor is my compassion wasted, for Keanu himself, looking into the reporter's eye and asking him or her, earnestly:
"What would happen if you melted?"
I read that and I can't help but think of The Smiths' song where Morrissey sings:
"It's so easy to laugh it's so easy to hate,
It takes strength to be gentle and kind."
The man is not even concerned about bursting into flame unexpectedly himself. He is worried some poor reporter from US Magazine he has probably never met before might do so. That is human greatness. He probably gave her an asbestos cardigan at the conclusion of the interview. To my knowledge, Keanu has not yet gone the extra distance, and instituted something along the lines of a Live Aid benefit for victims of spontaneous meltdown. This may be something that lies in his future. Great as it would be to see Dogstar rip into a kickass version of the Bruce Springsteen classic, "Fire" or even Madonna's "Burning Up," I hope for both our sakes it won't come to that.
Now that I actually have started to write it, I have come to realise that this can only be an introductory article. To begin with, I feel like an imposter setting myself up as an expert on the cinema of Keanu Reeves, when my research tells me that he has made 32 films. Out of these, I have seen a lousy 25, or 78.125%. Doing these statistics, I experienced a feeling of dismal failure. Since seeing "Point Break" I have been involved in what I like to call the Keanu Reeves Project (KRP), which is, simply, that I have set myself to see every Keanu Reeves movie, as and when it comes out on the big screen. There have been failures- not of my making. "The Last Time I Committed Suicide" was not given cinematic release in Australia. However, when I found a copy of the video for sale, a frozen rush of bliss raced through my body and I watched it that very night. I thought I had seen almost every other Keanu movie since "Point Break" on the big screen until I started researching this article and learned that there was movie a couple of years back called "Me & Will" which is also yet to be released in Australia. I haven't counted "Hardball," which will almost certainly arrive, sooner or later, although it hasn't yet. Looking at the American distribution dates of The Oeuvre (or perhaps I should call it The Keanoeuvre) I couldn't help but note they bore no resemblance to the order in which they appeared on these shores, so I haven't totally given up on "Me & Will." The only other notable gap on my list is "Freaked," a star vehicle for Alex Winter, who plays Bill in the "Bill and Ted" movies, which, again, was not given cinematic release in Australia, but which is available on video. (The first subordinate clause in that last sentence, "a star vehicle for Alex Winter," is, I think, priceless. This is the article I was born to write). I have rented the video of "Freaked" more than once but after looking at the cover and seeing that Keanu appears in a cameo as "Ortiz the Dog Boy" I have not been able to bring myself to place the video cassette into the machine except once, and on that occasion I just couldn't bring myself to press play. (And yet, for all I know, his portrayal of Ortiz the Dog Boy might just be the role of his life).
So, there is a twofold problem.
1. An embarrassment. Until now I have never felt the need to catch up on Keanu's earliest work. This has had surprisingly little impact on my functioning as a member of normal human society- but when it comes to presenting W-D readers with a definitive retrospective on the cinema of Keanu Reeves, it clearly just isn't good enough.
2. An embarrassment of riches. There is also the fact that what I have seen is more than enough to be getting on with. By the time I have written up the plotlines for twenty-five movies, even before I have put in any jokes or insights, I would have an unworkably large article on my hands.
Anyway, here is what I propose to do. I have sifted the movies of Keanu Reeves into categories, and I will write a series of articles on them. The first will be a full-length appreciation of (easily) my favourite movie from the 1990s, "Point Break." Then I will write three more articles (although I have not yet decided on the order) on good, indifferent and bad Keanu Reeves films (and I promise to fit in an appreciation of his appearance in the Paula Abdul video for her song about Steve Sander's father, "Rush"). These are the articles I was born to write. And, look, being a compassionate person, I have just decided to make the first article, the "Point Break" article, into a benefit piece for victims of melting. In the meantime, I am going to do what is humanly possible to backfill the gaps in my knowledge by seeing the unseen films. As things stand at the moment, here is the way I see it:
THE BEST FILM OF THE 1990s
"River's Edge", "Speed"
"Dangerous Liaisons", "Parenthood", "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure", "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey", "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter", "Much Ado About Nothing", "The Matrix."
"My Own Private Idaho", "A Walk in the Clouds", "The Last Time I Committed Suicide", "The Devils Advocate", "Sweet November".
NOT SO GOOD:
"Little Buddha", "Chain Reaction", "The Replacements", "The Watcher", "The Gift".
"I Love You to Death", "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues", "Johnny Mnemonic"
"Bram Stoker's Dracula", "Feeling Minnesota".
"Flying", "Youngblood","The Prince of Pennsylvania", "Permanent Record", "The Night Before", "Freaked", "Me & Will".
A ridiculous amount of thought has gone into preparing the list above. I would guess the controversial selections will be "The Matrix" (ought it not to be in the stratosphere?), "My Own Private Idaho" (which some people will think should be higher, and others lower) and "Sweet November" (How did that cross the Mendoza line?). … But you can be assured that I have not come to judgement lightly on any of these issues, and the thinking that has led the ordering of the list will all be revealed.
In the meantime, in the very process of compiling the list, I came up with an hypothesis about what makes for a good Keanu movie. To begin with, I should state an axiom. As an actor, Keanu Reeves is a plank of wood. I take it that this is a self-evident truth, a proposition so evident at first sight that no process of reasoning or demonstration could make it plainer, a principle universally received. If he were to make a film about spontaneous self-combustion, Keanu Reeves would not necessarily have the dramatic range to play "the victim", but he could play "the chair," no problems at all. I can see him now, chatting with Leonard Maltin about it. "Keanu, why did you agree to play a piece of furniture in this movie?" "Leonard, I believe very strongly in the project. As for the casting, it was the part I was born to play."
Having told it like it is, however, I think it is only fair to bring in the note of compassion. When I say Keanu Reeves is a plank of wood, I mean by that little more than that is that he is not an expressive actor. There are and have always been other male leading actors around, some of them a lot more highly regarded than Keanu Reeves, who have also been planks of wood. I am thinking of actors like Andy Garcia, Jason Priestley, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Yul Brenner, Elvis Presley and most stars of daytime soap opera. There are actors on that list who, notwithstanding the fact that they are planks of wood, are distinguished screen actors. (There is another class of male actors who also use the less-is-more principle in their screen performances, generally to create an air of menace. I think of actors like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson as being more like gnarled knots of tree root than planks of wood, but the principle is the same). To be an effective plank of wood, it is crucial to have screen presence. Keanu has it. Gawky and expressionless as he is, he somehow commands attention. Hey, he is not an iceblock stick. The man is a righteous plank of wood.
Planks of wood are the actors whom nobody could accuse of over-acting. At the climax of a Hollywood potboiler, you can imagine a close-up of Harrison Ford about to be thrown into a volcano. Harrison Ford would roll his eyes, in as expression which would simultaneously express bemusement and concern. That's his thing. You would not necessarily accuse Harrison Ford of over-acting in that scene. A close-up of Keanu's eyes would reveal that he was feeling … nothing at all. That is his thing. He is a plank of wood. Near the end of a Hollywood romantic comedy you can imagine John Cusack getting disappointed because the girl of his dreams has decided, after all, that she will marry a surfer and move to Ireland. As much as Cusack's character might be attempting to keep reproach out of his expression, there may be a trace of a hangdog look about the way Cusack will play that scene. That is his thing. You would not necessarily accuse John Cusack of overacting in that scene. Imagine the same scene as played by Keanu Reeves, and his expression would reveal … nothing at all. That is his thing. He is a plank of wood. He does not smile like Tom Cruise. Not his thing. Less is more. He doesn't pull his ear like Humphrey Bogart. Too overstated. You can not imagine Keanu making a good fist of the "I could have been a contender" speech in "On the Waterfront" Equally, I can't imagine Marlon Brando jumping on a bus like Keanu did in "Speed" if for no other reason than that all that extra weight would probably have slowed the bus down to below the required velocity and it would have exploded, bringing the movie to an unhappy conclusion after only about twenty minutes. Keanu played "Hamlet" on the Toronto stage, but when it comes to treading the boards, let's face it, this is a case where the difference between the boards being trod, and the person treading them, was minimal. He has played a fair amount of Shakespeare: "Hamlet", The "Hal" character in "My Own Private Idaho", Don Whathisname in "Much Ado About Nothing," but the Shakespearian role he was born to play is a bit part in "Macbeth". He could play Birnham Wood coming to Dunsinae to perfection. One of the joys of the cinema of Keanu Reeves is to watch him walk: leading from the shoulder, top heavy, like an animated plank of wood. He doesn't change his walk from part to part, like Alec Guiness used to do, but it is beautiful to watch anyway.
All of which brings me to my hypothesis about Keanu's best roles. The antithesis of the plank-of-wood style actor is the over-the-top-scenery-chewing-ham, and my theory is that all other things being equal, the best Keanu movies are predicated on the tension between Keanu (the plank of wood) and an over-the-top-scenery-chewing ham (or more than one of these). It works! Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey are the over-the-top- scenery-chewing-hams in "Point Break," Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover are the over-the-top-scenery-chewing-hams in "River's Edge," and Dennis Hopper (again!) is the over-the-top-scenery-chewing-ham in "Speed". In "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," which is my personal favourite of the movies that are less than masterpieces but are worthwhile films nonetheless, the over-the-top-scenery-chewing-ham is Peter Falk. In each case, these actors deliver career best performances, working off Keanu's comparative lack of expressive acting. He has the screen presence not to be overpowered by these performances. The exception that proves the rule is Gary Oldman's ridiculous performance in "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Let me say one thing about this movie. When Keanu's character was killed, I was so pleased because I figured that meant I could leave the cinema now, my duty to the KRP done. Then I realised with a sickening feeling that he wasn't dead, he was undead, and I had another hour and a half of that goddamn movie to watch. So when I say I have suffered to write this article, the one I was born to write, you better believe me.
I will conclude this introduction to the cinema of Keanu Reeves with another quotation from the man who portrayed a nuclear physicist in "Chain Reaction"
"I'm a meathead man. You've got smart people, and you've got dumb people. I just happen to be dumb."
Keanu! That doesn't mean you are not special. You are special to me! I love you just the way you are. We should be together. Did I say that? Damn!
Please give generously to People Who Melt. Imagine the suffering of people who burn from within, leaving nothing behind but their teeth or heart. "No one speaks about this, but it's for real."- Keanu Reeves. It is time to expose the cover-up. Open your heart to the forgotten people. The People Who Melt. YOU CAN HELP. The forthcoming appreciation of "Point Break" on this site will be a benefit piece for the victims of this hidden scourge. We can make a difference. Read this article and show you care for People Who Melt.