On a Road to Nowhere

Matt Bissonnette’s new film explores the nature of drifting through music and nostalgia.

Across the Atlantic there’s a strong tradition of road trip films, the bulk of the action based in or around the car and the endless dusty highway ahead. With its sprawling spaces, plethora of drivers and disproportionately large cars (just compare a random selection of cars used in Brussels with another random selection from Philadelphia) these works are an inherently American genre. Matt Bissonnette’s latest feature film, Passenger Side follows in this long tradition, charting the epic journey of two estranged brothers across Los Angeles and its surrounding environs.

Bissonnette, whose previous films include Looking for Leonard (2002) and Who Loves the Sun (2006), has created a work based around his characters’ floundering 30s. It is a niche of deadbeats, struggling hard to find meaning in their fractured existence, but essentially drifting about town and in and out of the lives of others. He describes his narrative as, “quite loose, and that got me away from worrying about ‘the story’, which seems to preoccupy a lot of movies these days; I believe Mike Figgis said that stories are killing dreams in movies, and that the best films are like dreams, and he might have a point.” Taking place over a single day, Passenger Side charts the 37th birthday of Michael Brown, on the morning of which he is persuaded by his younger brother, Tobey, to drive him to a job interview and several errands around the city. Ostensibly unaware of the significance of the day, Tobey is a recovering drug addict who constantly riles his older brother with his laconic attitude to life. As the two brothers drive around Los Angeles it becomes clear to Michael that Tobey is not attending interviews and picking up dry cleaning, but is on the hunt for something of which he would not approve. As we later learn that Tobey is tracking down his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend, Michael’s judgement takes a back seat as his endlessly impulsive brother persuades him that he has to help him in his search for the love of his life. Journeying through LA, the two characters take centre stage and the film revolves around their weird and wonderful musings on life, love and the meaning of it all. In its narrative structure, Passenger Side engages in a long tradition of existentialist discoveries of self and the American mid-life crisis. Travelling far and wide, but with little or no interaction with their surroundings, Michael and Tobey are self-contained and self-referential, failing even to recognise the desires and thought processes of their own siblings. It is only on the film’s conclusion, when Tobey’s ex-girlfriend is finally traced, that we learn the true meaning of Michael’s intermittent answerphone messages throughout the film, and gain the full recognition of what he has to lose in Tobey’s gain.

Bissonnette explains that the concept of the film was to mirror a Ulysses-style narrative, echoing Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness in the immediacy of the two brothers’ environment and substituting Leopold Bloom’s epic journey around Dublin for the brothers’ foray through Los Angeles. “When writing the script, I based it on what I could remember of Ulysses, the Irish and Greek versions, outsiders travelling in a sort of foreign land, experiencing life, sex, drugs, religion, whiskey, Cyclops and other stuff.” In its wandering format, and with the essential role of the outsider, Ulysses can become a clear point of reference. But that work was pioneering for its form; the ultimate modern novel, Ulysses questioned the very nature of literature, and experimented with a myriad of forms and narrative devices, whereas Passenger Side consistently uses the well-loved device of road movie with a sunny, alternative and evocative soundtrack. Because of this, Los Angeles occasionally becomes the focal point of the film – it is almost a destructive love letter to the city – ribald, nostalgic and contemptuous in equal measure. As a Canadian living in the city, Bissonnette recognised its qualities in bewildering the outsider, similar to Bloom’s interactions through the streets of Dublin. Furthermore Bissonnette argues: “Los Angeles seems like a pretty decent representative of contemporary America, and where she might be headed [and it] was planned around the automobile, so if you were going to make a film planned around a car, it seemed like a pretty good bet.” The city lays itself bare with all its weird and wonderful characters, presenting opportunity after opportunity for the brothers to stumble across, rejoice in and inevitably move on, unchanged by the experience.

Only LA, with the use of a car, could give such a proviso of oddballs, and Tobey’s earlier life as drug addict and social vagrant seems to make him gravitate naturally towards such people. As his brother disappears into a derelict car park, Michael is confronted with a desperate, possibly high, transvestite prostitute, who welcomes herself into the car, chatting familiarly with Michael, before shedding her clothes and masturbating her penis, repeatedly asking the perturbed spectator to watch, and charging him $40 at the end for the uncompleted climax of her own pleasure. On another occasion, Tobey and Michael visit the set of an amateur porn film, with each of its participants duly uninterested in the shenanigans on camera. Also picking up a horrendously intoxicated and obnoxious party girl, and two illegal workers, one of whom has just cut off his finger, the City of Angels becomes the city of others’ demons, with its seedy, exploitative and drug-riddled edges plunged for new material again and again. What’s interesting for such a range of extraordinary events, however, is how little they are actually exposed or explored. According to Bissonnette: “That comes back to my Ulysses shtick, and I understand both versions as concerning the protagonist’s experience of the land they are travelling in, as opposed to an examination of the land in question … so the folks they run into do get a bit short shifted.”

If the city was never intended as Passenger Side’s focal point, it is a great supporting act in evoking the sepia-tinged nostalgia of California dreaming. Throughout the film there’s an instamatic, retro feel to its cinematography. “I wanted the movie to have a somewhat trippy, dreamy feel, a bit of an Alice In Wonderland vibe if you will, and the lazy, hazy days of summer photography worked for that as well.” Its misty tinge is coupled with vintage cinematic motifs such as green screen technology to create the impression of a moving landscape. Of course, in today’s world of digital technology this method has become so well-known for its fictional, cinematic qualities that it no longer takes on the appearance of reality and instead creates a kind of third realm of self-consciously, post-modern devices. Bissonnette explains the economic precautions of such a technique: “I’m a big Hitchcock fan, and originally I was hoping to use rear projection, but it’s just too expensive and complicated to mess with these days.” Essentially the technique only adds to the film’s quality and atmosphere, much to the chagrin of its leads Adam Scott and Joel Bissonnette, requiring them to sit in the car for 12-hour stretches with hot lights shining. This imaginative approach to filmmaking extends right across the work, even to the very core of production. For example, Passenger Side is Bissonnette’s first film shot on video, which “allowed us to move very quickly, and keep the production loose.” Initially sceptical (Bissonnette describes video film as “like sour milk”), the medium works with the nonchalant, scatter-brained feel of the film: “It was fun to get back to gun and run. The way a movie is made has a lot to do with what that movie becomes.”

Coupled with this nostalgic, retrospective cinematography, Passenger Side is carried to an extent by its soundtrack. Taking songs from Leonard Cohen, Mac McCaughan and Ben Lee, the score is undeniably alternative. It summarises the manner in which Michael is stranded in the past, perpetually denying his old age and philosophising endlessly over nothing in particular, Bissonnette argues: “Since Adam’s character Michael is a bit of a Luddite, I wanted the music to have a certain ‘mired in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s vibe; conversely, there are worse musical periods to be mired in, like, for instance, now.” Passenger Side was to an extent led by the music: “I had one or two songs in mind for specific sequences, but mostly I just knew I wanted to use a certain tune, or band, and that bit eventually found the right place to live in the film … it was all a bit of a Potpourri. That said, the big idea was to find the exact songs that would have been on the cassette that was lying on the floor in the car.” It is a device that has been used in countless films before it – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trainspotting, The Graduate and The Virgin Suicides came to be defined by their soundtracks. Alongside these, every Tarantino film has re-established this idea, so Passenger Side is in good company, but Bissonnette is careful to avoid overkill: “In general, I’m against loads of rock songs in movies, particularly when they are dropped like ‘cool’ sprinkles on a ‘crappy’ cupcake.”

Aside from the music, Passenger Side is essentially character driven, with the dichotomy of Michael and Tobey’s approaches and attitudes to life creating the tension that drives the narrative. An intellectual observer and writer throughout his life, Michael seems to envy his brother’s spontaneous chaotic existence in spite of the pain it has brought to him and his family. “What we are trying for are very natural, grounded performances that can blow past any ‘cliché’ problems the character might have, because there aren’t any new characters or stories, just fresh ways of attacking them.” The narrative takes on a more personal element when it is acknowledged that Tobey is played by Bissonnette’s brother Joel, and Adam Scott who plays Michael, has been a close friend for some years. For Bissonnettte, this contributed to an easy-running of the characterisation because he could already imagine how each actor would approach his character: “One of the real benefits of working with people you know is that you can take their character, or parts of it at least, and put them into a made-up narrative. I know Adam and Joel pretty well, and I think I can tune a script to their key. When we work, there is very little direction, which I chalk up to the fit being correct, and so few alterations are needed.” In keeping with this discreet naturalistic characterisation, Tobey’s drug addition is only touched upon, it’s almost the elephant in the room that defines the tension between the two brothers, until, of course, the film’s conclusion, when the real tension is revealed. This provides Michael and Tobey ample opportunity for brotherly jibes, each slightly more vicious than the last as they clearly grind each other’s nerves throughout the day’s events. But this slightly dry, macabre humour is as much a part of Bissonnette as of his work – on the role of comedy and humour in the film he states: “Both are totally hilarious, though I think comedy is a bit funnier, but that’s just me playing favourites.”

In spite of the drug addiction, the brotherly squabbles and the selection of social vagrants on its fringes, Passenger Side is a light-hearted, laid back exploration on the car and its tape deck – defining how the music and the surroundings can sustain a film of constant conversation and banter. Although both characters have interesting stories, and crosses to bear, each reveals very little through the running time. Like every passing eccentric in the film, it is just a snapshot into their existence, in the long tradition of road movies.

Passenger Side was showing in cinemas across the UK from 1 April 2011. www.passengersidemovie.com.

Ruby Beesley