Patrick Preziosi on Bill and Turner Ross’ ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ (2020)
“Documentarians” Bill Ross and Turner Ross only ostensibly fill the cinematic role bestowed upon them by film festivals and publications. Rather than present an objective version of some “truth” and slap it with the documentary tag, the brothers are just as influenced by the sinuous possibilities of fiction, how it figures into our understanding of what’s real and what isn’t (or at least what purports to be). As is posited by their newest non-fiction—don’t let the word deter you—experiment, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the impression of truthfulness is more affecting than just placing the camera at an uninfluenced distance.
The film itself doesn’t lend opportunity for questioning verisimilitude. Charting the final day of Las Vegas bar, “Roaring 20s”, into its final night, and then into morning once again, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets languishes and boozily stumbles along just as the patrons do, a motley assembly of barflies and random stragglers. Except, the Roaring 20s isn’t a real bar, both the “regulars” and others were culled from street-casting, and instead of Vegas—as suggested by brief low-resolution interstitial scene-setting montages, the product of a scouting trip to the very state—the film was shot in New Orleans. This potentially disorienting information however is relegated to interviews, press releases and the like, and in doing so, the Ross Brothers have embraced that pesty, irreconcilable symptom of documentary: those behind the camera are always in control.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets may flaunt the makings of an overly formal piece of ethnography, but this is thrown off balance with the most potent of disruptive forces: alcohol. The directors have made no secret of the rampant alcoholism present in some of their subjects, and this sliding scale of addiction is what occasionally devolves the communal spirit into bouts of drunken masculine chest-puffing (certain intergenerational relationships sour as the night goes on). But it’s what also keeps the camaraderie just barely glued together, a teetering dichotomy made clear from the very opening, when the burly daytime bartender announces “The best part of waking up is bourbon in your cup!” to still half-asleep local actor Michael Martin, pouring him a shot. It’s soon learned that Martin’s makeshift home is the Roaring 20s: he shaves in the bathroom, sleeps on the couch, and tries to sneak in some reading of Eugene O’Neil if he can concentrate well enough. There’s balming energy that manifests itself fitfully at the establishment, a welcoming homeliness with the constant hum of television and radio, and the oversized leather couches tucked in the corners; the issue is that it’s never not tethered to drink.
Martin is the first and last character to be seen on screen, and his structural presence brings him as close to a “protagonist” as the project warrants. He’s also a handy median representative, never reaching the all-consuming belligerence of others (he takes it upon himself to escort the totally incapacitated Ira to his cab) but still in possession of some latent anger, which erupts awkwardly and takes aim at friends and strangers alike. Being a permanent fixture of the Roaring 20s, he has the hindsight to pinpoint where exactly he tripped up along the way. According to him, alcoholism came only after screwing everything else up, so his advice to a younger musician who he wraps in a supine hug is to keep busy. “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,” he offers.
Though as cunningly constructed an environment as they come—all entrances, exits, musical cues, even what’s playing on the numerous televisions, was scripted—the Ross Brothers nevertheless allow for the outside world to encroach, the Roaring 20s becoming something of a receiver for all sorts of cultural detritus. Superficial parallels can be drawn between the bar crowd and everything from a round of Jeopardy!, Battleship Potemkin (1925), a newscast on Las Vegas traffic and resulting gentrification, The Cranes Are Flying (1957), A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz and Drake’s “Fuckin’ Problems” and The Misfits (1961). Sundry symbolic readings are tantalizingly encouraged (the final film, especially, is a mournful portrait of a specific Americana on the wane).
However, the patrons’ low level of engagement with the surrounding ephemera—a few scattered performative shouts are lobbed at Alex Trabek and Vegas mainstay Celine Dion, but that’s all—nullifies any accusation of metacommentative reach on the part of the Ross Brothers. These carefully cultivated cultural markers play as an intriguingly roundabout means of reaffirming our focus on the actual humans inside the Roaring 20s, preying on our own tendency to incessantly contextualize and neatly psychologise.
A microcosmic America in a soon-to-be-shuttered watering hole should remain a slippery entity, even across an 18 hour shoot, which the Ross brothers are astutely aware of. It’s how Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is able to maintain its unique frisson as it skirts the melancholy, the humorous, the political, and the discomfitingly intimate; without fully committing on an aesthetic level, it’s the subjects who brings these variegated themes and tones to the surface.
With everyone in the bar properly mic’d, there’s an Altman element of crosstalk in how the competing strands of the soundtrack hit the ear differently on each watch. Michael held my attention the most my first time around, but I was later taken with the veteran Bruce, whose naked, tearful display of emotion is just one of many instances in which the film makes clear that, despite its formal audaciousness, it’s not operating from a higher intellectual plane. The relationship between the nighttime bartender and her teenaged son is emblematic of such, contrasting biological family ties with the otherwise unrelated community, hitting relatable notes of parental concern that are counterbalanced by the lackadaisical aura of the bar itself. The Ross Brothers poke holes in universality by keeping such a wildly unpredictable setting as the central unifier; it’s exactly what brings them that much closer to the truth.
‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ is available now through virtual cinemas.