Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Keanu's acting mad skillz

(First posted on IMDb under a thread about Keanu's acting.)

Sometimes I think his performances look better on hindsight, but not while watching them. And then there's how for just about every single film he does, there are both people declaring it his best work ever and other people declaring it his worst ever, both among fans and critics alike. I've always found that disparity to be utterly fascinating, especially since I end up part of it as well - there are some Keanu films that other people like a lot that I got bored watching and didn't think he was that great in (most notably Point Break; seriously what's so wonderful about it?), and other films which I liked that others declared crap.

Maybe it's a matter of different people considering different kinds of acting to be good. I usually look out for naturalness in the role and character portrayal, regardless of how emotional (or not) a performance may be, because there are a lot of people in this world who are naturally deadpan or wooden and so I don't think such a performance should be necessarily considered bad. As long as I'm convinced that the character could be a real person, that there's that consistency there where the real Keanu becomes near or totally invisible, then I would consider it a good performance.

I think it's interesting that my very first impression of Keanu way before I became a fan was that he was 'default', like a template of a person, one who was similarly no one and yet had the potential to be anyone - a blank canvas. I think I was about 11 then and The Matrix was the only one of his films that I had watched, and that sense of defaultness came across kind of strongly to the extent that I could almost visualise him in just about any role; you just had to add stuff on to create a character. The basic form was already there.

I guess that has both positive and negative aspects to it, but since becoming a fan about four years after that I have come across other critics who have said very similar things about Keanu and his acting style - for example as someone "who has a face audiences can project a lot of stuff into." (Colleen Murphy, "Keanu's Excellent Adventure" by Lyle Slack - MacLean's (Ca), January 23, 1995)

I have a theory that, when it comes to a performance, Keanu completely erases his own personality before taking on the character's - such that if the character is not particularly strong, the lack of depth shows through beneath it. Whereas with other actors, they tend to mould their own personality to fit the character, or take on the character's personality on top of their own, so that if the character is not particularly strong, the actor's own personality will still shine through and provide that extra depth and meaning to the performance. The downside of this is that there will always be that part of them that goes with the role and cannot be separated from it.

So when people talk about how they always see Keanu rather than the character, it's not really true - to date I don't think there has been a single role where Keanu's character came across as anything at all like him (as seen in real life interviews). What they're seeing instead is that blank space that lurks beyond the surface of the character, the void where Keanu used to be. It's not him. He's not there.

But when the character is strong and complete and three-dimensional enough, it can fill that void and result in what looks like a great performance.

That's one of my theories, anyway.

Another has to do with how Keanu is a perfectionist, and as such I would like to volunteer the possibility that his "bad" performances are not really bad; they are just too perfect to the extent of seeming fake. Bear with me.

I did a university term paper on how humanity and perfection are incompatible, because human characteristics like, say, emotions and spontaneity have a tendency to go against "perfect" qualities like cold rationality and order, such that the closer something is to perfect, the less human it is.

A robot or a computer would be a good example. They work on pure logic; everything makes sense in there, everything is neat, and ordered, and there is no chaos (unless you're running on Windows Vista which sucks). If you get a computer to compete against a human in something like maths, or a chess game (with exceptions), chances are that the computer will far surpass the human's performance. Yet when it comes to producing realistic emotions, the computer would never be able to get anywhere near the performance level of the human. It is something that requires a lack of perfection.

So back to Keanu the self-identified perfectionist. People have commented on how his earlier performances were much more open and natural, but how he started to close up as he got older - and as he started wanting to take his craft seriously and be good at it, doing takes over and over again until they were just right.

But I don't think there can ever be an objective level of "just right" when it comes to something as subjective as portraying human emotions in acting, although I think it is that imaginary objective level that Keanu usually aims towards. Resulting in carefully measured emotions, painstakingly calculated nuances of personality, no wrong moves, no stray gesture, no out-of-place expression, no slips of unasked-for feeling, everything perfect and flawless. Like a computer. Perhaps inhuman, robotic, wooden, but perfect.

It's probably important how some of Keanu's best performances were the ones he said he had "fun" doing - Bill & Teds, The Gift - rather than the ones he spent days or months of research and training over. Look at the amount of work he put into the Matrix sequels as compared to the first part of the trilogy - and then see how much more inferior his resulting performance was when juxtaposed against the first Matrix. It seems like when he feels less pressure to perform, his acting becomes freer and more natural, less tense. There are also more technical flaws, but the result is a more human delivery.

Many of his film co-stars have mentioned how Keanu would do multiple takes when he's dissatisfied with his acting, and from there you get his film performances, constantly slammed by critics. But then there's his stage turn as Hamlet - something which Keanu was very nervous over partly because he only had one take and no chance to redo it if he messed up - which got him some of the best reviews of his entire career. I'm pretty sure there's a link there somewhere.

Ironically, if true, this means that in order for Keanu to become a better actor, his performances need to be more imperfect.

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