Project onto blanks

Keanu Reeves – good films, bad actor?

I read an interesting article recently on Keanu Reeves acting style. Apparently in the world of acting, his style is to present himself as a blank canvas, upon which viewers can project themselves. It helps explain why I love so many of his movies (Matrix, Point Break, John Wick, Bill & Ted), but struggle to understand why, as he doesn’t appear to be a very good actor.

This style of acting certainly makes sense in the context of watching a film, we gain particular pleasure from being able to imagine ourselves as a participant in the drama. Similarly, I have also read that men watching sport are essentially fantasizing that they are actually playing themselves.

Keanu’s aim is not to overwhelm, his voice and facial expressions are muted, the personality left somewhat undefined and given this lack of concrete character, we can overwrite with our own feelings. Although I’m less of a fan, it helps explain why Tom Cruise is such a successful leading man.

This concept does not just apply to sports and movies, it occurs to me to this has wider applications:

 

Extension to business

An area where I find I’m mindful of this issue is when I conduct an interview at work.

If I run an informal, unstructured interview then often my impression of a candidate will relate closely to my mood. If I am highly positive and energetic, then we are likely to have an energetic conversation and I will come out thinking this person has those qualities. I tend to think well of people and so am in danger of projecting the qualities I like onto them.

Over time, I have built a more structured interview and hiring process, with a prepared common list of questions and involving independent interviewers. This helps to highlight a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in a more objective manner.

 

Extension to politics

The effect in politics is also interesting, perhaps increasingly so.

The marketing of politicians has evolved over the decades. It used to be that politicians had a set of views, often described in speeches and laid out in a manifesto.  Later it seems clear that to win an election you do not need to have coherent views and that the overall spin and marketing is what matters.  Now, it appears that elections have moved to another level.  Politicians are even more electable if their views are actively incoherent.  A politician is no longer required to be a well-rounded person with specific policies and characteristics which can be evaluated – it is more important to be an avatar for the emotions of their support base.

The outstanding recent example of this is of course Trump. But it also helps explain the behaviour of the leading Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson. A lack of coherent viewpoints is not a flaw, it is the essence of their appeal. They are liked because of their incoherence, not in spite of it.  By making rambling, nonsensical speeches without the need to engage with any aspect of reality, they create a perfect blank upon which the emotions of their supporters can be projected. You do not need to look for the inconsistencies and incompatibilities within their support base, they are sure to exist. What’s more important is the common emotional need they all share, and wish to express.

This also means that whatever you think of Trump or Boris personally, they are not the real problem.
Without them, another avatar would be found to take their place. Boris will only remain the darling of the Telegraph as long as he continues talking gobbledygook in a manner they find amusing.  He knows that if he gave a serious speech acknowledging the trade-offs involved in Brexit, they would find another to take his place, so he happily makes speeches which he must know are full of lies and nonsense. It is very possible that Trump does not understand any of this or that he is not in control of his movement, or even his own identity. His candidate lost the recent Alabama primary to a candidate promoted as backed by the @realDonaldTrump. Steve Bannon told a rally “a vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J Trump”, while Trump himself was campaigning for Sen. Strange!

The movement existed before Trump and is merely using him as its current symbol. They are in a symbiotic relationship of mutual support, and have created a powerful and dangerous, political force.

One thought on “Project onto blanks

  1. I found useful the analysis of George W Bush’s speeches in Thank you for Arguing.

    The point is that, while incoherent, what Trump (and Bush previously) say makes use of important symbols and reference words or phrases that resonate with their audience. Because there is no competing meaning or complexity, these signals actually are more powerful. The style is not an invitation or demand to engage intellectually, but rather an opportunity to suspend critical judgement and luxuriate as the speaker generates waves of emotions. Also, those waves are an important ingredient, cycling through positives (joy, hope, triumph, pride, confidence) and negatives (fear, anger, sadness, frustration).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s