Keanu Rhizome
by Jeff Karnicky

Robert DeNiro walks "like" a crab in a certain film sequence; but, he says, it is not a question of his imitating a crab; it is a question of making something that has to do with the crab enter into composition with the image, with the speed of the image.
—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Tree: Little Buddha

Lots of critics say that Keanu Reeves acts like a tree: wooden, inexpressive, stilted, no charisma.1 Arborescent, rigid, vapidly unchanging and rooted by lack of style. But they have the wrong part of the tree in mind. In his films, Reeves is not the roots that immobilize the tree, but that which makes the tree stammer, the enunciator of the leaves and branches. Loosely translated from Hawaiian, Keanu means "a cool breeze through the trees." Reeves' stilted style is not in imitation of the tree; it is the breeze that deterritorializes the arborescent schema of the tree, the breeze that produces rhizomatic offshoots in the branches, leaves and roots of the tree, the breeze that evokes a new connection between spectator and screen, a connection not of identification but of effect. Reeves' role as [End Page 135] Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha exemplifies the nomadic nature of a seemingly stationary and staid style.

Little Buddha weaves together two narratives. One thread follows a group of Tibetan monks to Seattle as they search for the reincarnation of their teacher, who they believe may have been reborn in a young American boy. The monks present the boy with a picture book that tells of Siddhartha's search for enlightenment, and it is this account which is dramatized in the second thread of the film. To emphasize the separateness of the two strands, the contemporary scenes are shot in cool blues and greens, while the story of Siddhartha is accentuated by brilliant reds, yellows and oranges. These two threads intertwine in the scene of Siddhartha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree as the young boy enters the frame of the dramatization and the space between the present and the past blurs. Mara, the evil one, having failed in the bodily temptation of Siddhartha, attempts to jolt him from the path of enlightenment. Mara raises a vicious storm of lightning and flames, a violent ocean crashes at the feet of Siddhartha, who remains meditating in the lotus position. An army of demons marches from the ocean and launches flaming arrows in Siddhartha's direction. He remains unmoving in the lotus position under the tree. The flaming arrows become flower petals and fall harmlessly to the ground. After three weeks of immobility under the bodhi tree, after three weeks of becoming-tree, Siddhartha literally achieves enlightenment, becomes Buddha. It is at this moment, as Deleuze and Guattari say, that "Buddha's tree itself becomes a rhizome" (20). The screen fills with the image of the tree's roots, trunk and branches spread around the Buddha. This shot emphasizes that Siddhartha is in no way acting like a tree; he becomes an assemblage with the bodhi tree; both change in nature, become a rhizome.

I do not mean here to equate Buddhism with what Deleuze and Guattari call rhizomatics, or to equate Keanu Reeves with the becoming-Buddha of Siddhartha. What this scene shows is that rhizomes can never be predicted, reproduced or reversed through an appeal to a preexistent structure. Buddha's enlightenment cannot be described through an appeal to a predetermined path; the path and the enlightenment are mutually constitutive, inseparable, a double capture. Tree becoming-Siddhartha; Siddhartha becoming-tree. A rhizome of enlightenment.

But rhizomatic connections need not lead to enlightenment. For in addition to producing a burst of pure light, the Siddhartha-bodhi tree connection enunciates a new proper name: Buddha. Deleuze says of the proper name that it "does not designate a person or a subject. It designates an effect, a zigzag, something which passes or happens between two as though under a potential difference" [End Page 136] (Deleuze and Parnet 6). In this sense Buddha is a proper name. Buddha does not signify the body of Siddhartha; Buddha is the effect of enlightenment, the assemblage that leads to enlightenment. In a similar way, Keanu Reeves does not designate a fixed entity that moves unchangingly from film to film; Keanu designates the becoming rhizome of the tree, the assemblage of the tree and the wind. Keanu designates a rhizome and not an actor; or perhaps more precisely, we can say that all actors build rhizomes. Whether it's the becoming-Bodhi tree of Siddhartha in Little Buddha or the becoming-Bodhi of Reeves' FBI agent Johnny Utah in Point Break, or the becoming-bus of Jack Traven in Speed, Reeves' style is that of the builder of assemblages. Saying that Reeves' style is good or bad in any of his movies completely misses this point; style becomes strictly a matter of producing rhizomatic connections, subtractions that prolong or shut down little machines that connect with other machines. It is not a question of a realistic representation of an absent referent. It is not saying that Reeves' Siddhartha has an unrealistic accent or unconvincing facial expressions. Reeves (or any actor for that matter) does not act like a character; the actor builds assemblages with the set, with other actors, with the camera, the director, the spectator. Acting, in this sense, does not designate the systematic acquisition of skills that allow one human to portray the looks, motivations, or psychology of another. Acting becomes the ability to forge a style of enunciation that frees a body from the systematic confines of the human. Deleuze could be speaking of Keanu Reeves when he says of style: "I should like to say what a style is. It belongs to people of whom you would normally say, 'They have no style.' This is not a signifying structure . . . It is an assemblage, an assemblage of enunciation" (Deleuze and Parnet 4). Acting is action, not imitation. Style cannot be accounted for and evaluated by an organized hierarchical system, whether it be a representational model that would situate one actor in comparison to another, or a semiotic model based on the strength of an actors' mimetic abilities, or a psychological model that judges the depth of character and the potential to identify with the humanity of a performance. Rather, style is a continual process of assembling new connections, always moving (even when sitting still), becoming something else. Acting as this continual movement flees the structural models of representation and identification that are intrinsic to judgment.

So what do these assemblages do besides reject representation and identification? What can a film critic do if not pass judgment? For one thing, speaking of countless and continual movements between assemblages provides a better account of my role as film spectator than any theory of identification or suture does. Watching Little Buddha, I cannot identify with the little boy, with the Tibetan [End Page 137] monks, with Siddhartha or with the bodhi tree. The movie provides no depth of character, nothing allows me to grasp, even momentarily, the subjectivity of any of the images flashing on my retina at preconscious speed. A critic says Little Buddha is "underwritten and underplayed" with "colorless" and "embarrassingly flat" performances from some of the actors (Morrison). Yet these flat performances are precisely what makes the film so appealing to me. I enjoy suffering from what Steven Shaviro calls a "similarity disorder," the inability to identify with characters because I cannot always differentiate who's who on the screen, or know what motivates a character. This non-identification forces me into the spaces between things, the middle ground between present and past, between blue-green and red-yellow, between Siddhartha and tree, between body and image where what matters—what counts as a body and as an enunciation—are only "degrees of stillness and motion, of action and passion, of clutter and emptiness, of light and dark" (Shaviro 255). Human bodies—and all the baggage that goes with them—are not the structural foundation of the cinema; rather, intensities of affect—fluctuations of light and sound—produce sensations that set the limits of where a body can go, what a body can do, what connections a body can make.

Wave: Point Break

"That's Bodhi. They call him Bodhisattva."

So says surfer Tyler to FBI agent Johnny Utah in Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 film Point Break. This Bodhi follows quite a different path than the historical Bodhisattva; he seeks the ultimate adrenaline rush, the perfect wave that will affirm, as Bodhi says, that "the human spirit is still alive." Like the historical Bodhisattva, PointBreak's Bodhi does not stray from his path, simultaneously funding his search and providing an adrenaline rush by heading the Ex-Presidents, a group of surfers who rob California banks in the summer to fund their winter travel through the surfing beaches of the southern hemisphere. Bigelow renders these scenes of intensity—night surfing, sky diving, bank robbing—beautifully in terms of the singular, momentary orgasmic thrill they present. But, like Bigelow's other films, Point Break does more than merely detail a rising scale of action for a testosterone-addled audience (although it does do this quite well). Point Break constantly reminds its audience that what is being experienced is not the thrill of the sexual union; instead we are in a masturbatory world of, what one character calls, "too much testosterone." Yet Point Break neither situates itself within (what we might call) the masculine space of the action movie, nor does it ironize the action genre. Point [End Page 138] Break revels in its scenes of violence and orgasmic abandon and does not stop for meditations about character motivation and modes of identification, gendered or otherwise. Subjectification is an effect of the ever changing movements of the waves and lines of surfing. As one character says, "surfing is the source; it can change your life." Surfing catches a line of subjectivity; "self" rides a relentlessly moving wave.

Like Point Break, Deleuze theorizes this fluid process of subjectification when he says that "surfing has taken over from all the old sports" (Deleuze 180). In "Postscript on Control Societies," Deleuze catches a Foucauldian wave and speaks of a movement from disciplinary societies to control societies. That is, both Foucault and Deleuze argue that typical early capitalist closed spaces of confinement and organization (the prison, the factory, the school) are in a process of dispersion (begun roughly around the end of World War II). New means of control become necessary when time-space cannot be incrementalized and regulated by "first of all the family, then school. . . then the barracks . . . then the factory" (177) and so on. Rather than employing the tools of confinement and discipline that produce subjects—the student, the factory worker, the prisoner—control societies work by producing codes, ever changing modulations and "endless postponements"—continuing and distance education, temporary and contract workers, home-confinement. Events replace the subject. Discipline-era sports centered on starts and finishes, points of contact and the creation of movement are becoming less popular as sports that one "catches in the middle," such as hang-gliding, windsurfing and surfing gain popularity. It's the difference between hitting a baseball and being thrown by the wind.

Bodhi thrives in the control society world of Point Break by surrendering to and embracing the rush of events that propel him; indeed, for Bodhi, catching a wave is the philosophy to live by. But another wave flows through Point Break at the same time: the wave of the law, of police control. From the moment Johnny Utah is buzzed through a series of doors on his first day at the FBI's bank robbery unit in Los Angeles, we can see the mechanisms of control societies at work. As they banter statistics back and forth, Utah's superior instructs him that crime fighting is all about the manipulation of information: "Do you know how we nail the bad guys, Utah? Do you know how we nail them? By crunching data. Good crime scene work, good lab work, and most importantly, good data based analysis." The process of organizing the flow of digital information, cracking and controlling the code, catching the wave of data, takes precedence over the location of the bank robbers' bodies. Capturing criminals means capturing code. Control and resistance [End Page 139]
are matters of direction and speed; both the cops and the criminals are surfers.
The opening sequence of Point Break anticipates the meeting of the cop and criminal lines. Shots of Utah training at a firing range are juxtaposed with shots of Bodhi surfing. Lest we fail to mark this connection, both actors' names literally collide and pass through one another. But the opening credits do not give away the whole game. The movement that brings Bodhi and Utah together is not a simple dialectic equation leading toward unity, not a matter of recognition and attraction between self and other, cop and criminal, lawfulness and transgression. Point Break is not simply the story of one line—the law—pursuing and capturing the other—the criminal. It's about what happens when the two lines cross, when two waves collide and go off in a new direction, what Deleuze and Guattari call "a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away" (25).

Point Break takes its time in reaching this transversal moment. For over an hour, the movie follows Johnny Utah along the FBI's line of capture. We see Utah and his partner working the case in a typically generic way: searching archives and records, talking through the details of the case, following false leads, working stake outs, going undercover. All of this culminates with Utah pursuing Bodhi in a brilliant chase scene through the streets of Los Angeles. Yet the chase results in neither a capture nor an escape. At the moment of suspense, the logic of capture fails Utah; he cannot fire his gun and bring in the criminal. From this moment on, Point Break does away with any remnants of the logic of disciplinary societies that may have been driving the plot. Realism and plausibility are forgotten as Utah's line of the law gets swept away in Bodhi's wave of pure adrenaline. Bodhi and his gang lead Utah through a frenzy of sky diving and bank robbery which he is powerless to resist. But this movement is not one of simple reckless abandon (although it is that). Bigelow's film conceptualizes action as a form of thought; Reeves' Johnny Utah embodies a philosophy of the event that replaces a static and unified concept of the subject. Point Break follows Deleuze's advice that "one might equally well speak of new kinds of events, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can't be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it's that moment that matters, it's the chance we must seize" (176).

But what happens when the waves crash, when the line breaks apart? Can annihilation be avoided? We've already seen how the event of Siddhartha's enlightenment led to something new; the final scene of Point Break details two other examples. After months of pursuit, Utah catches up to Bodhi on an Australian beach in the [End Page 140] midst of a storm of immense proportions. Just as Bodhi is about to paddle out in the rough seas in an attempt to catch the ultimate wave, Utah handcuffs their wrists together. For a moment it seems that the line of the law will triumph: the cop gets his man. But Utah reconsiders, and allows Bodhi to annihilate himself on the wave of adrenaline. And Utah then abandons the line of the law; he tosses his badge into the sea. This final gesture marks the return of style in the Deleuzian sense I spoke of earlier, style not as an appeal to transcendent qualities of good or bad, but style as the creation of a space of enunciation, style as continuation. Deleuze says, "style requires a lot of silence and work to make a whirlpool at some point, then flies out like the matches children follow along the water in a gutter" (Deleuze 134). By giving up both lines, Johnny Utah creates a fold, a whirlpool, a momentary stratification that the movie ends on, leaving Utah waiting to be swept up by the next line, the next wave. The avoidance of annihilation.

Speed: Speed

"Do not attempt to grow a brain."

Retired cop Harold Payne (Dennis Hopper)—planter of bombs on elevator, bus and subway—offers this advice to Los Angeles police officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) in Jan De Bont's 1993 film, Speed. Payne serves as the stereotypical mad bomber of the action film and the evening news: spending hour after hour locked in a small room, goal-oriented, working on a long term plan, erasing contingencies point by point, disciplining the future. He doesn't want to negotiate; he doesn't want Traven to think, to disrupt the completion of the plan. Payne's plan may be convoluted—he has planted a bomb on a bus; the bomb is armed when the bus passes fifty miles per hour, and will explode when the rate of travel goes below fifty mph, unless Payne receives 3.7 million dollars within three hours—but this hardly matters. Nor does motivation—revenge toward the police for forcing him into early retirement, pure greed, anger at Traven for foiling an earlier bomb attempt—matter. Payne seeks to define every act and confine every body that has bearing on his plan; he has created a system in which he can manipulate the components of his world at will through the threat of violence. Payne thinks he is God, a disciplinarian, a structuralist.

But Payne doesn't realize that his words of warning to Traven are the very undoing of his carefully constructed plot. Traven makes no attempt whatsoever to grow a brain; he doesn't locate subjectivity in the head. He makes no attempt to find the origins of Payne's [End Page 141] behavior, no attempts to cultivate a psychological profile of the criminal, no attempts to locate Payne's physical body. Instead, Speed employs style much like Little Buddha and Point Break do: to create moving blocks of subjectivity, catch things in the middle, get swept away in the direction of new assemblages of enunciation: Siddhartha's enunciation of Buddha's tree, Johnny Utah's waves of subjectivity. Style becomes overtly machinic in Speed; Traven connects with contemporary machines of transportation—the elevator, the bus, the subway—to enter new realms of subjectivity. Of course, the becoming-machinic of the human has a long history in film. But Speed is not in the realm of Metropolis or The Terminator films where machines forecast the worrisome future of technological ages. What makes Speed interesting is the purely everyday components of its machinic connections—catching an elevator, riding a bus, hopping a subway, becoming-public transportation.

Speed begins with a long tracking shot of an elevator shaft and never moves away from its preoccupation with machines. Action is shot from the perspective of a car's hood, the top of a bus, an elevator cable; humans are framed not in terms of their whole body but in fragmentary connections with machines: a foot on a gas pedal, a leg running up a staircase, a hand picking up a phone or turning a steering wheel. Even the bodies of machines are presented as fragments: an elevator's display of the floor number, a tire throwing off its tread, a speedometer in tight focus. All of these fragmentary shots serve as a catalog of machinic connections that delineate a body not by its static location in time and space (a point) but by what it does and where it is going (a line). Speed defines a body in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari do: "A body is . . . nothing but affects and local movements, differential speeds" (260). Bodies are speeds. The scene where Traven attempts to get on the bus while it is moving above fifty miles per hour perfectly illustrates this concept. We see a close up of the bus's speedometer as it passes fifty; the shot cuts to the underside of the bus and shows the activation of the bomb (a red light switches on). If the bus goes under fifty mph it will explode; the bus is its speed. The bus driver learns that there is a bomb on the bus and we see three reaction shots—his face, his foot lifting off the gas pedal and the speedometer—each as expressive as the other. The bus' speedometer cuts to the speedometer in Traven's car; we see Traven's face and then the building of a new assemblage—the car door is ripped off; Traven takes the phone; the passenger takes the wheel: a double capture between Traven and the bus. Annie, a passenger on the bus, asks Traven: "Are you out of your mind?" And he is. Traven is out of his mind and in a new machinic assemblage of enunciation. [End Page 142]

So what is being enunciated? The Keanu rhizome, the machinic actor who does not stand in for and represent an absent real, but who renders the real as a rhizome, a plane of lines and connections, effects and fragments. But before going too far in this direction, we must remember that we are still in the world of the Hollywood action movie. Speed literally ends on the streets of Hollywood, and renormalizes the human through the romantic embrace of Traven and Annie, which will surely be developed in Speed 2. Regardless, I don't want to end on the movies reterritorialization of the human that paves the way for the sequel; instead I want to focus on the penultimate scene of deterritorialization and what this might say about the experience of watching films.

The showdown between the law and the criminal is perhaps the most prevalent cliché in the big budget action movie. Speed is no exception; Payne and Traven meet on the roof of a moving subway car, and predictably the result is the death of Payne. But before dying, Payne reaffirms his position as the one with a system, the one with total control. As he pummels Traven's head, Payne says, "I'm the guy with a plan . . . I'm smarter than you." But Traven forces Payne's head upward into the path of a light attached to the subways tunnel's ceiling and Payne is decapitated. Payne may have a plan, but Traven knows what speed can do. Speed amputates discipline. Speed amputates structure. Speed amputates subjectivity. Speed deterritorializes the human brain. Attempt to grow a brain and someone will cut it off.
Payne does not follow his own advice but the cinematic spectator can: Do not attempt to grow a brain when watching a film. Don't worry about identifying with a character's psyche or thought processes; don't look for depth of character and motivation. Experience the effects of the cinema and look for a brain somewhere else besides your cranium. Speaking of the cinema, Deleuze says "the screen can work as a brain . . . there's a hidden image of thought that, as it unfolds, branches out, and mutates, inspires a need to keep on creating new concepts, not through any external determinism but through a becoming that carries the problems themselves along with it" (Deleuze 149). Attach your nerves to the neural network of images flashing on your eyes and affecting your body; tap into the brain of the screen. Build machinic connections. Don't grow a brain; enunciate a body. The Pennsylvania State University [End Page 143]

all copyrights for this essay belongs to Jeff Karnicky.


Little Buddha. Bernardo Bertolucci, director. Miramax 1993.
Point Break. Kathryn Bigelow, director. Twentieth Century Fox. 1991.
Speed. Jan DeBont, director. Twentieth Century Fox. 1993.
Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Trans., Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.
___. and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
___. and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.
Morrison, Bill. "Review of Little Buddha." News and Observer.
Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.


1. See for example: Collin, Julliette, Mark R. Leeper, reviews of Speed; John Walker, Steve Rhodes, James Berardinelli, reviews of Little Buddha; all at The Internet Movie Database,