' ' Cinema Romantico: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Monday, August 17, 2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

It’s morning in a bar. Or, who knows, perhaps it’s the afternoon by now. Either way it isn’t five o’clock, at least not here, and a guy is bellied up to the counter and drunk. This would already be a problem. But then the bartender gets a phone call. It’s from the drunk guy’s place of employment; he’s supposed to be at work. So the bartender and Mike, who cleans the bar up in exchange for a spot at the counter all a day and a couch in the corner, shepherd the drunk guy to the door and into a cab. Did this guy make it to work? How would he have worked? Or did he just go home and sleep it off? And did he lose his job? Who knows? Once the drunk guy steps from the bar into the blinding sunlight, he disappears.

The Ross Brothers’ (Bill & Turner) “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is a documentary/fiction hybrid about the last 24 hours in operation of a Las Vegas bar, The Roaring 20s. It’s a name neatly summarizing the film’s encroaching sensation: life’s a party and then it all goes to hell. Snippets of a local news traffic report on the TV and a patron bringing in donuts, before proceeding to drink so many pints I lost count, communicate that “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” begins in the morning. Time stamps appear on the screen sporadically, but the setting still feels airless, windowless, timeless. The immersive sound design, especially as the night wears on, palpably captures the essence of holding down a bar stool, the noise omnipresent but often unintelligible, the camera seeming to focus on one conversation even as you overhear another. And when the camera focuses on a non-talking patron, like the Vet frequently stationed at the end of the bar who continually appears on edge, it frames that person in an even lonelier light.

The interiors of Roaring 20s are juxtaposed with exterior shots casting Sin City in an eerie red, rendering it as an almost desolate Martian landscape, making those twinkly Christmas lights of the Roaring 20s that much more inviting. This is a place to take refuge. And its regulars do, their easy, familiar interactions, the sense of routines and recurring conversations, evoking a full-fledged sense of community, men and women, white and black, young and old, a daytime bartender who strums guitar, a nighttime bartender who takes no guff. The question looming, then, is that what happens to this community after the bar closes shop.

The Ross Brothers, though, are content just to let that query loom rather than searching for answers or having the characters pontificate about where they might go or where they might end up. We never even learn precisely why the bar is closing. The customers evince denial by watching Jeopardy, playing music on the jukebox, dancing, telling stories, arguing, pronouncing, and drinking so, so much. There are occasional moments toward the end of the night when the dialogue strains more earnest and melancholy, though it’s difficult to tell, as in any bar situation, whether that is merely the alcohol talking. As Mike tells a young dude in a Katy Perry tour t-shirt to stop coming to the bar, the young dude’s grinning face betrays that he’s hardly listening.

None of this real, of course, which is why it’s a hybrid, shot to look like a documentary (the cameraman is glimpsed on occasion) but pure fiction, made on a Louisiana soundstage. This is not a “Blair Witch”-like ruse; The Ross Brothers made this clear pre-release. And the small subplot involving the teenage son of the night bartender and his friends hanging around, trying to sneak a few beers, sort of gives away the game anyway, its presentation conspicuously artificial in comparison to the rest. The subplot also feels like an attempt to head off criticism of exploitation, signaling the perils of drinking, since the movie feeds these mostly non-actors alcohol and then allows them to improvise, capturing their drunken soliloquies for posterity. That “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” ultimately avoids the exploitation charge is because it is not about drunks but about the larger situation, the one drifting, mostly unmentioned but still ominously, just off screen.

Timeliness is a fraught term for critical appraisals, even more so now, given how everything, art or otherwise, feels framed through the prism of our strange, awful present. Too often timeliness is mere coincidence. But the Brothers Ross were specifically making a film at the end of one era and the dawn of another, even if they did not quite know it then, referred to in both the brief reference to You-Know-Who and a fleeting graphic on the TV about Election Night. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” did not see this - our strange, awful present - coming but as it ushers its patrons out the door, one by one, one last time, it nevertheless consciously sent them into the scary unknown. 

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