Something weird happens at the beginning of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, but it’s so subtle, so smoothly incorporated that it’s nearly imperceptible. Following the opening credits (displayed in a throwback fashion in cards at the front of the film), we find our way into The Roaring ’20s, a dive bar outside of Vegas that’s heading into its last day in business. The film, co-directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, is set up as a documentary that follows the bartenders and regulars through a marathon final day, from 11am into the afternoon, evening, late night and eventually early the next morning. And from the moment we meet the day shift’s bartender and the couple of regulars already posted up at the bar before noon, it’s clear there’s something special happening here: the subjects are too at ease, too familiar and too comfortable for all of this to be entirely off the cuff.
And in fact, it’s not. The Roaring ’20s isn’t a dive bar outside of Vegas, it’s a hole-in-the-wall (probably called something else) in New Orleans, and the “subjects” are very real people, they’re just not the long-time regulars and barflies of your neighborhood dive. But the alcohol is real, the dialogue is unscripted, and judging by the daylight outside (or lack thereof), the timeline is fairly reliable. It all plays as if it’s one extended take at a bus stop or train station, the cameras posted at their marks to capture the comings and goings over time. Some arrive, drink up and leave again. Others, like Michael, a failed actor who shaves in the bar’s bathroom and eventually falls asleep on its couch, are there when the film begins and still there when it ends nearly 24 hours later. In between, there’s every kind of interaction one would expect to see in a neighborhood watering hole, from the flirty and precocious to the tense and aggressive. It’s all enough to make you nostalgic for your favorite dive in these never-ending socially distant days.
The Ross brothers make this languid, fluid film endlessly watchable by focusing a keen eye on the subtler moments unfolding around the rowdy conversations or blaring jukebox music. However they mic’d their subjects, it works like a charm, as quiet exchanges become central and even conversations outside are captured for us to glimpse, like a voyeur peeping through a knothole in a neighbor’s fence. Several characters emerge over the course of the bar’s final night, including the tough-as-nails late-night bartender who more than holds her own among the boisterous customers (who are getting all the more so the more they drink) and the Vietnam vet sitting quietly at the end of the bar whose emotions eventually bubble up to the surface in one of the film’s more poignant moments.
As this pandemic drags on and blissfully wasting the day away at a local dive bar (where everybody knows your name…) isn’t an option, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a kind of fever dream of better times. Times when our lives intersected each other’s simply because we ended up at the same place at the same time, when evenings at the neighborhood bar could launch (or end) friendships or romances, when a drink poured by someone else is exactly what will make everything better (but one too many will make everything worse). Life will get back to normal eventually, and we’ll safely head back to bars and restaurants, museums and movie theaters. In the meantime, there are pseudo-documentaries like this one that capture the chaos and connections of one long night on the town, a time capsule to remember those days by until we can enjoy them again for ourselves.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is now streaming as part of Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental supports the theater during its limited operations.
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