How many times have you watched a film and been like, “Oh my god, that character is ME!” We’ve all had moments when a character or storyline hits so close to home it’s almost uncanny. Artist Riley Harmon explores these notions of connection and transposition we often experience with pop culture in his ongoing Passengers series.
Harmon skillfully edits himself into car scenes from various well-known Hollywood films—like his rendition of a scene from Pineapple Express (above). The videos are imbued with a palpable awkwardness—you can almost feel your palms start to sweat as you watch them—as Harmon usually alters the soundtrack, strips the scene’s dialogue, and appears silent himself, making for the longest awkward pause of your life.
We caught up with Harmon over email to talk about how he altered the scenes so seamlessly, why the works are so affective, and the project’s continued evolution.
The Creators Project: Did a certain film or scene spur the idea for the Passenders project?
Riley Harmon: Laurel Canyon (2002). I was watching a hot scene from it on YouTube—the one where Natasha McElhone and Christian Bale seduce one another. I bookmarked it and forgot about it. A few months later, I had an experience in a vehicle and this switch flipped in my head that played back that scene. So I revisited it and saw it in a new way, all deconstructed, and that I could composite myself into it. Chris Marker's short film La Jetee begins: "This is the story of a man marked by an image. The scene, whose meaning he would not grasp until much later." I figure these film images make marks on me, so why don't I mark on them as well?
Passengers (Laurel Canyon) by Riley Harmon
How do you go about selecting each car scene to manipulate? Is it more about the film, or more about finding the perfect situation?
Largely, these are self-portraits, proxies scenes for uncanny experiences I've had in vehicles. Michel Houllebecq writes in the novel Platform, "We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than we do a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more." So, you know when a friend says, "It's like when blank does blank in blank movie?" It's like that.
I have such a large database of visuals in mind from consuming so much media, that when the right personal or social story syncs up with one of those film scenes already in mind, I choose it. And usually (not always) it's a gut thing, not really conscious. Then it turns into this perverse mutant monster that is not the film, and not the experience I had—something neither here nor there. The whole process sometimes feels a bit like Wile E. Coyote chasing after Road Runner, but there's something to be learned from Looney Tunes, I think.
How do you go about replacing actors with yourself in the movie scenes?
I wrote some custom software while completing my MFA that assists me in lining up the camera with correct angles for shooting the scenes. We shoot against chroma-key with a very particular camera. I also do a lot of rotoscoping by hand, mixing with stock footage backdrops, and erasing the original actor—combined with a few weeks worth of magic and luck. However, the process has all evolved with the series, and is a case-by-case scenario. When I started, it was really just a technical test (and it was really bad in the beginning, which yielded a different type of viewing response—a kind of charmed failure). The style and techniques I use are mutating.
Who was your favorite actor to “work with”?
This question makes me think about the movie Bowfinger.
Were there any movie scenes that you tried to use, but couldn’t pull off for one reason or the other?
I have done some non-vehicle scenes. But ultimately, I have stayed with the rule that the series would involve a car. I derailed an episode of the reality TV show Work of Art, creating new characters and compositing them in using the same techniques. Although, the backgrounds of the show interchanged so well with general stock art school environments that I could mix in shots that weren't actually in the show and move the camera around.
Do you alter the scenes in any additional ways… like adding or taking away sound or dialogue?
In almost all of the scenes, the ambient environment sound is totally reconstructed to cover up the blips from cutting out the dialogue. I've added diegetic looping radio music to some, so that it is easier to get lost in the time space of the scene. In the shorter version of Deathproof I put out there, the music on the radio purposefully shifts into a more non-diegetic musical interlude state, since I was breaking the fourth wall anyways.
Passengers (Deathproof) by Riley Harmon
Why did you choose not to speak when you could have written yourself a script to further change the direction of the scene?
I didn't know what to say (or maybe I didn't have anything to say). I was just exchanging glances and letting the Kuleshov Effect take over—spectator and spectacle merging. It could be considered akin to mumble-core, except I'd call it 'nothing-core.' However, after exhausting the silence a bit, I've decided to move away from that and work with other actors and a friend who is a writer.
Why did you take yourself out of the scene in the latest video, Passengers (Ghost Protocol)? Will you continue the Passenger series in this direction?
When this started, I created a basic rule set for myself. Extract a piece of a car scene, remove the dialogue, remove one of the actors, and composite myself into the scene. Since then, it has been evolving or mutating naturally, as it should. Now, It doesn’t matter anymore if it’s me or a proxy. The more I can collapse the original context, the better, I think. The purpose is to go on a detour, so why not detour myself and my own rules as well? Some of these new ones have intentionally bad visual effects, break the fourth wall, and are didactic—whatever I can do really to create Verfremdungseffekt.
Passengers (Ghost Protocol)
Written with Gab Cody. Riding with Julia Warner, K.T., et al.
Anything else we should know about you or the series?
I rarely go a day where I don’t wear my grandfather’s old Highway Patrol ball cap. If you were to find yourself driving in the Southwest, and depending on what vantage point you had when you looked out your window, you might see several thousand individual mesas that form one singular smooth horizon. "The straight path, the highway leading to the future, disappears; what remains is an imploded mulch of pasts and presents."