You know the place, how it smells: stale beer, spilled well liquor with cheap mixers. Things are sticky. Decades of cigarette smoke have permeated the stained carpet and couches, the regulars, too. This is precisely what Bill and Turner Ross were after when they created the Roaring 20s, a locals joint way off the Vegas strip, the setting for their nonfiction film Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. From the opening credits to the always perfect juke box, the black and white films (including 1958’s A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic) playing on the tucked away TVs no one’s watching, the entire milieu of Bloody Nose is retro to the point of staleness. It’s cool, it’s been fun, but now it’s time to turn out the lights. Today is the last day in the life of the bar, set to shut its doors for good, the day after today, if the morning ever comes.
(Hint: it’s 2016. It’s that night. You remember.)
About mid-morning, we find Michael washed up at the bar, awakened with a pick-me-up in a shot glass so that he can get in a quick shave before the rest of the crowd of regulars arrives and the unofficial wake for the 20s, all that it represents, gets underway in earnest. A former actor, we learn, Michael claims to have retired into deliberately chosen failure. He’s the unofficial dean and den mother of the 20s, really a tender person it seems, administering occasional advice and tidying up the place around the edges, expressing not just attachment, but a homeowner’s care. Clearly educated (we see him tucking away a massive volume of Eugene O’Neill early on), and devastatingly sarcastic, Michael maintains a stoic dignity in the face of oblivion, his own as much as that of the bar’s community. No matter how much he or the other patrons reveal of themselves, we come to expect that there will always be deeper depths that we’ll never know—motivations, regrets, evasions, family lives that would torment if there wasn’t a drink in your hand and a friend, a neighbor on the next stool to distract you.
And yet, for all we don’t know, can’t know about the patrons (real bar flies playing themselves in this constructed situation), like good conversations, like your own night at the bar, the characters expand unpredictably. Their overlapping interactions provide glimpses of long relationships, boundary-crossing empathy, made possible by the shared surface goal of getting slowly, cheaply blotto together. Their chaotic, overlapping interactions meander through peaks and valleys of emotion, of hilarity and pathos, frivolity and depth, perpetually returning to existential questions of love and impermanence. Which is to say, that, when all of the pressures and expectations of life on the outside are stripped away, this motley group, with its vague mix of races and professions, is able to find some common ground as they speak with passion about community and the soul. This is a vision of American civic life in the 20-teens. Is it America as it is or as it might be? Is it a dream? A hallucination? Is it a democratic heaven—a blind drunk, rhetorical hell? Who’s missing from the picture and why? Is progress possible here? And what does it mean that the Ross Brothers are shutting the place down, making this boozy Brigadoon disappear?
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets presents a unique approach to documentary, more of an essay than straight nonfiction, the playing out of a provocative metaphor that the film wears relatively lightly until a few key visuals in its last quarter. But we’re never not quite aware of the real subject, and perhaps also of the film’s ambition to get us talking about its questions, to find a new joint, because we still need each other, after all, and we’re better together, less lonely. Or at least we might be.
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