By Ezra Haber Glenn
This innovative “documentary” is a major accomplishment: it merits a much broader viewing than it is likely to attract (this one has “sleeper” and “cult classic” written all over it).
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directed by Bill and Turner Ross. Winner of the “True Vision Award” at the True/False Film Festival, the film was included as an Official Selection at Sundance. It is available for home-viewing via iTunes, Google Play, and other streaming services; go here for links and more information.
Closing time is approaching at The Roaring ’20s, a dive bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and the regulars have settled into a comfortable, booze-lubed groove, each as befits their individual disposition and current state of inebriation: some stoic, most maudlin; some feisty, most friendly. But as the perfunctory handmade signs and pathetic balloons-and-streamers decoration indicates, this is no regular closing time: it’s the big one, the capital-C capital-T Closing Time. The bar is closing for good, and the drunk-ass denizens have assembled in proper fashion for one last hurrah.
Luckily for us, a documentary crew is present to film the scene, presumably to preserve an archival record, a last testament from the final day of this beloved institution. (We can sometimes even glimpse the cameramen, caught in one of the bar’s many mirrors — it’s a pretty small place, after all, and one imagines that the filmmakers had pretty limited options in terms of setup.) From a “hair-of-the-dog” wake-up to the drunken wee-hours of the night, Bill and Turner Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets captures all of these precious and prosaic moments, distilled down to a well-balanced 90 minutes of film.
The tone is what critics love to call “elegiac,” but one senses that using such language in “The ’20s” (as the bar is known to locals) might earn you the titular bloody nose, so we’ll just say it feels like the bar is hosting an Irish wake for itself. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tonight we die” could well be the subtitle for the film — or perhaps an updated and more accurate NSFW version, given the multiple paths to “merry” taken over the course of the night: “Eat, drink, smoke some weed, drink some more, fool around a lot and fondle a little, fall down a few times, pick a fight, drink some more and make up and hug it out, for tomorrow we finally accept the fact that we’ve all died a long time ago…”
And so we spend these last dwindling hours getting to know the barflies and hangers-on: an aging vet wondering what happened to the country he fought to defend; a young hustler looking for something stable, maybe willing to be “a great step-dad” to someone’s kid; an enigmatic Australian; a long-suffering barmaid struggling to make the customers keep their shit together for one last night; and perhaps, most poignant and pathetic of all, a washed-up actor, proud only of the fact that he failed before he became an alcoholic. Each is given center-stage for some portion of the night, but more interesting is when we see them come together and interact in twos and threes, strange lifeboat-mates paddling — at times thrashing — in the dark, struggling to make sense of the fact that after tonight, their home at The Roaring ’20s will cease to exist.
But here’s where we break the frame and introduce the spoiler that will hopefully be obvious to most viewers: the joke’s on us, The Roaring ’20s never really did exist. Or, perhaps, it existed for just this one perfect night.
The actual bar used for filming is located in New Orleans, not Las Vegas; and these characters are all actors. That said, it’s not pure fiction either: the cast was recruited from bars just like this, and most of the interactions are genuine and unscripted. Existing somewhere between mocumentary, Italian neorealism, and cinéma vérité, it’s a genre that can perhaps be described as cinema véridique; we’re watching “truthfulness,” but not necessary truth per se.
Even the alcohol is real: like directors filming a combat scene with live ammo, the Ross brothers stocked the bar with actual liquor for the main 18-hour long shoot, the better to convey a truly authentic dive bar experience. (The film may be the first-ever in a new “stumblecore” genre, a risky fusion of indie-mumblecore and on-camera drunkenness.)
The result is a major accomplishment, and it merits a much broader viewing than it is likely to attract (this one has “sleeper” and “cult classic” written all over it). That’s not because it is perfect (it’s not) or because of the overall sweetness of its message (something sappy and true about the importance of community, warts and all; maybe the theme song from Cheers). This is an impressively innovative film that showcases new and exciting ways to push the medium.
Whereas other “fake documentaries” (Waiting for Guffman, The Office, Documentary Now!) employ the framing with a wink-and-a-nod for comedic effect, here the goal is to genuinely bring this place and these characters to life — to inhabit them, to put them in relation, and to see what plays out — even if for just one night. Of course, the interactions are often quite funny, but via a more subdued, Chekhovian sort of comedy. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets wisely avoids obvious punchlines, pat setups, or other forms of cheap laughs.
In a similar vein, for the most part the Ross brothers steer clear of nearly any structure or plot at all, beyond the location, the premise, and the clock ticking down the last hours of the bar. There are a few regrettable exceptions — small bones thrown to those craving a clue or a touch of drama: What’s in the brown paper bag behind the bar? What are the kids in the alley plotting? Fortunately, these half-hearted McGuffins fizzle as the night wears on. “Focus on the people – you don’t need to invent drama,” is the directorial mantra.
Instead, the action is driven forward as a series of dramatic experiments, in the spirit of Emile Zola’s theories on naturalism in literature and theater: create realistic characters, place them in “real” situations, and see what happens. Art as reality, theater as psychological and sociological investigation. (Zola would have certainly approved of the setting as well, which resembles an updated version of the Parisian drinking dens of L’Assommoir. The filmmakers credit the Bowery bar from Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh as their inspiration. In one scene there’s a glimpse of the cover of the dramatist’s collected works.) It takes time, and a watchful eye, but there is much to extract from what plays out: the ways a fight can escalate or settle back down; how to patiently and empathically coax a drunk out the door and home for the night; the many flavors of hope and resignation that linger in that last bit of cigarette ash.
Ultimately, the entire film is an exercise in probing the line between truth and realism in art — and finding the art and beauty in everyday life — a line the directors have great fun skirting. In selecting the down-and-out edges of Las Vegas as the ostensible location, Bill Ross explains, “You’re in the desert, you’re in this fake city, but you’re in the realest part of the fake city.” This same spirit — discovering what is real in what is fake, and holding on to it, however small and fleeting — provides the connective tissue in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. And that is all the “plot” one needs to turn viewers into very satisfied bar-flies.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches courses on “Understanding Urban Complexity” and a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in the the New York Observer, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, the Journal of Statistical Software, Experience Magazine, Arts Fuse, and Next City, and he is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine. Follow him on UrbanFilm.