We all have an ideal location to congregate after a long day, forget our misery, celebrate our triumphs. For many, that could be a nearby watering hole where the owner’s fun, the regulars are lively, and the music’s always loud. At least until the place falls victim to the clown hammer of progress. And for one Las Vegas lounge, in some of the bartender’s own words, “they’re going out with a bang, not a whimper”. Nothing could be more poetic in the subtle observations of Turner and Bill Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
The sibling duo, cameras in hand, observe the last day at a lesser-known hideaway on the strip, “The Roaring 20’s”. The ever-changing landscape on the outside alone should illustrate what its prior history could represent. Until one realizes the notable deception in place, one which I will not divulge here. But step into this grimy locale of buzzing neon lights and expensive liquor, it may not be any different from a Seattle dive. 24 straight hours are spent between the Rosses and a colorful menagerie of regulars, further blurring the line between actors playing real people, and real people just acting naturally for the cameras. Given the melodrama that arises, it would be impossible anyway to tell the difference.
Revolving around the wild historical benchmark that was the 2016 presidential election, it appears the residents of this gentle bar are left unfazed by what is happening in the real world, instead more intent on embracing each other’s company. Between the owner Marc (Marc Paradis), a folksy individual with the inner influence of both Chris Stapleton and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, its congenial senior barfly, Michael (Michael Martin) who’s there the longest, and the rest of its core group. They wile away this last day contemplating existence, fearing the future, wondering what’s next after sunrise. And it’s all with spirits high, spirits guzzled low, a few dry substances consumed.
Nothing is ever stagnant in “Bloody Nose”; it’s the opposite. Even when it looks like nothing is going on, activity remains persistent. Even down to what’s running on the TV, a mix of game shows and TCM. All while eclectic music plays on the loudspeaker, ranging from Michael Jackson to Midland. And even Peggy Lee over a closing slideshow. Look past the background noise, and there remain many simplistic vignettes woven together, much like the mingling barflies. The afternoon bartender can hold his own covering a classic Roy Orbison tune. His nighttime counterpart (Shay Walker) is stretched thin with a troublemaking teen son. Stumbling fits of drunk arguing blossom into tidbits of togetherness. Michael quietly transcends the bleak realm of a retiree hoping for better than treating his hangout like a home office.
For all the drab, dark negativity hovering like a cloud above these individuals, the sense of community they’ve built will bring a mild smile. Either in a day or over time, however the Ross brothers have approached it. That could be one of the reasons why Bloody Nose is a joy to watch. The Rosses, who have explored overlooked blossoms of Americana before, through works like Contemporary Color and Tchoupitoulas, make no small effort of challenging the documentary space. A Fear and Loathing template of quick thrills and instant satisfaction, with the laser-precise focus of traditional fly-on-the-wall photography (think D.A. Pennebaker with a fifth of whiskey). That would be the short-length description. The former’s more noticeable, the latter’s just capturing it all for a nearly false historical record. The truth is being bent in such a way that perhaps we’re seeing an improvised work of fiction, portrayed within the last great moments before reality took a huge right turn toward an uncertain future.
Perhaps it’s all in favor of reflecting on our past innocence, on what life was before a major change, how fun it could be. “You had a nice place here”, one patron utters on his last exit, resistant to such rampant change. Commerce becoming more uniform, small business’s footprint decreasing. Our meeting spaces coming with increased restrictions. And taking a most self-deprecating tone before it’s all over.
Bloody Hands, Empty Pockets is at its best when it can poke fun at its own bleak situation, equally honoring and mourning that loss of community, of innocence, of a place when everything feels more manageable. An enjoyable documentary, vaguely documenting society from an unexpected angle, satisfied in deceiving the viewer in a subtle fashion. It certainly hit me hard, thrown off my personal axis after the second round of expensive imported ale. But I suppose it’s worth lying to ourselves to narrowly avoid reality for a short time. The patrons of this Nevada bar just made it look good doing so in the long-term. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Bloody Hands, Empty Pockets debuts virtually in Seattle via SIFF on July 24; film not rated; 99 minutes.