“There is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more because he’s in a bar.”
There is nothing worse than when the bar shuts before you’re ready to go home.
For the patrons of the Roaring 20s — a dingy Vegas bar on the brink of closing — their home is the bar. The people drinking alongside — family. The guitar slinging bartender — the only port in the storm. On this evening, their last call on the bar’s last night before closing, there is only one thing to do: have one last big, boozy night to bid farewell to your barfly family. Leave tomorrow for tomorrow.
This is the world, a microcosm of dependence and loneliness, captured by New Orleans documentarian duo Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
This is a staged fly-on-the-wall documentary drama that sees a cast of regulars put up party lights, don party hats, and down their weight in drinks as they bid farewell to their beloved watering hole. Lonely hearts lose their only source of connection; Vegas loses another dive bar.
Except it doesn’t.
The Roaring 20s isn’t closing down. Vegas will never miss it either: the bar itself is in New Orleans. We see it occupied not by loyal regulars, but instead a hand-picked cast of drinkers. The party lights aren’t farewell decorations, but to better light the set for the camera. Despite these contrivances, the reality achieved in this film is undeniable. No matter how many states lie between the Las Vegas strip and New Orleans, the cluttered charm of this doomed dive bar atmosphere remains compellingly authentic.
With the lines unscripted and the drinks real, the Ross brothers expertly manipulate this simulated last hurrah into a realistic experience. They capture the universal environment of a bustling bar, from the everyday charisma of the patrons, to the many drunken lines falling on deaf ears, unheard and unremarkable were there not a camera and a microphone to catch them.
Yet Bloody Nose’s lack of reference to any world outside of the bar, save for the patchwork association with well-worn imagery of Las Vegas interspersed throughout, gives the film a feeling of isolation. This simulated connection to Vegas, thinly supported by pigmented shots of the city with popular quotes superimposed, serves a more generic stereotype of the drunk and downtrodden that detracts from the potential to penetrate into the authenticity and presence of these characters.
Between the black-and-white films playing on the bar televisions and the guitar-playing bartender who favours Roy Orbison and Kenny Rogers, the drinkers and the woes they drink away seem neutral and timeless. Real performances flatten into just another unknowable body at the bar, so disconnected is the setting from any personal stakes, or worldly context.
Despite several layers of real world significance — not least of which the film having been shot in 2016 on the eve of the Trump presidency — the boozy conversations that make up the entirety of the film are edited down to snippets, and characters constantly come and go without introduction or even at times a word.
Therefore, the rich symbolism of the Roaring 20s about to crash, and alcoholic elders apologising for the world they’ve left the next generation goes somewhat underexplored as the film places its focus firmly on the world inside the bar, down to the petty squabbles and spilled drinks.
However, the natural synergy of the film with the realities of 2020 is impossible to ignore. There is eerie familiarity in seeing characters being turned out onto the street in the middle of a downturn, and the shutting of social support systems. This ultimately makes the obscuring of meaning or message, promisingly introduced by the closing of the fake bar and real alcoholism that grips its regulars, frustrating to behold. The film cares not about letting us know the people whose descent into stupor we witness, and the patrons’ empty rhetoric about losing their bar family places us at an even further distance.
Despite these missteps, art is inevitably interpreted through time.. With the virtual release of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets showing at a time when this characteristically bar-going nation is stuck at home, one can’t help read the film a little differently. Seeing how socially central alcohol is to the patrons of the Roaring 20s, and watching them unlearn their differences in order to have a drink together, felt just as Australian as it did American. Aussies have long known alcohol’s unparalleled capacity to turn your need for someone into a need for anyone, with the bar being the perfect place to find those caught with the same longing. Perhaps this is the film to have a drink to, in light of all this social isolation. The community found at that bar, however simulated, is more than many of us have at the moment.
On the flip side, the film shows the ability of drink to render meaningful the most superficial of connections when under the influence. Just as alcohol dulls the senses of the characters on screen, so too does it dull the film’s capacity to emotionally engage with its audience. What few personal anecdotes or moments of intimacy do emerge does so slowly, and as tongues loosen they predictably lose their capacity to tell them. These glimpses into genuine, pre-existing relationships between individuals provide the key emotional beats of Bloody Nose, but are short and seldom due to the constant drinking. Combined with the film’s dedication to the “last night at the Roaring 20s” artifice, focus is pulled towards the reality that these individuals largely have no existing connection to one another.
While the film in no way glorifies drinking or those addicted to it, for me, the alcohol became the only character portrayed with any particular depth. Within drinking lies a paradox between its ability to build empathy and compassion, but to render those feelings artificial and superficial. It levels the social playing field, but at the detriment of one’s ability to connect with anyone deeper than an overused “we’re family” or “I love you” slurred at a stranger over a spill-tarnished bar top.
If the American dive bar experience, in all its rambling self-acclaimed profundity was something in any way under-documented or unreachable, I might’ve had a bigger spot in my heart for the drinkable warmth and humanity that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets supplies with a talented ease.
But as it stands, while bars may be closed, I don’t have it in me to miss the overlapping murmur of hardship-hardened clichés falling on alcohol deafened ears. I miss the people, not the bars. I miss not worrying, not drinking away worries. I miss sharing a drink with you, not the drink that we shared.
Blood Nose, Empty Pockets screens as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.
Matilda Dorman is a queer screenwriter, choreographer and filmmaker from the Northern Territory, based in Melbourne. She writes inclusive, noisy stories. She has written for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival, and studied at the Victorian College of the Arts.