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  • Keanu Rhizome
  • Jeff Karnicky (bio)

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, AThousand 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...

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