by Ruairí McCann
I promise thee, my shameless lady,
Who laughs out loud in the sad patient night,
Always to be honestly thee,
In me waking dreams or me drunken nights.
I don’t fear the yawning sunshine morning;
I’m forward running back again.
-“Red Wine & Promises” by Lal Waterson
Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes,
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut.
All I know is I’m sick of everything that my money can buy.
A fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts.
-“Here Comes A Regular” by The Replacements/Paul Westerberg
Once John Cassavetes, when talking about the heavy drinking in his film Husbands (1970), compared the camaraderie of being in a bar to that of being in a war. In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the sixth feature from brothers Bill and Turner Ross, that comparison is not only expressly made but its sentiment shared, from beginning to end. The film is a record of the final day and night of a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s, observing all the imbroglios, both fractious and good-humoured, and the full bleeding-heart moments that flare and pass between its regulars, as they file-in for one last big piss-up.
It is a murderer’s row of strange, brash personalities. To single out just a few; there’s Michael, a once full-time actor, now full-time drinker who is eloquent and down to earth but prone to depression. Lowell is a dungaree wearing old hippy, full of peace, love and a cheeky sense of humour. While his good friend Pam, though not much younger, is the film’s wildest spirit and drunk, and wielder of some of the best lines; ‘Immature. That’s me. The American dream. Dumb, blonde Pam.’ Bruce is one of the quieter ones, an ex-marine who in between swills of beer and homemade wisdom – “A heap see, but a few know what’s going on” and a few eulogies to the closeness of army buddies—as if they were catechisms. Keeping him together in the face of the demons from which he is otherwise, silently but visibly, suffering.
There is more interest, funny bits and presence among those patrons who are middle aged and older than the younger subjects who are, overall, less clearly defined. There are still some who stand out, though. Take for example Peter, a hipster musician with a roving eye in overdrive. On this particular night he has it set on Shay, the bartender on the closing shift. She is also a single mother, learning how to deal with her teenaged son Trey—who we see periodically, checking in or hanging with his friends. He is becoming more independent, and therefore a handful; taking his first few steps towards carousing just like a regular.
At first glance the movie could be assumed to be – however unusually rowdy and decorated – a work of ethnography, preserving a specific, blue collar slice of Las Vegas nightlife in a 2016 having its last laugh and gasp. And within this select sample, collating ground-level opinion of the larger moment. There is some agitation about gentrification and Trump too, since the film was shot the day after the 2016 presidential election.
The impression that the film is ethnographic is correct, to the extent that it is not strictly documentary. Though never revealed during the film itself, The Roaring 20s is not a random Vegas bar, just stumbled upon. In fact, it was a still-operating bar in New Orleans, where the Rosses are based, and which they picked out and then dressed as if it was shuttering and in the middle of the Mojave. The patrons then are not regulars but friends of the directors, selected for their reputation as waggish drinkers, or bar flies picked out during a bout of pre-production street-casting. The directors assembled their troupe and apart from filling them in on the premise setting specific times for them to enter and some explicit direction essentially give them the freedom to be themselves, or not. To do, say and drink as much as they want, with both brothers, armed with handheld, digital cameras, shooting the results continuously for a full 18 hours.
This would put the film in line with their previous work, as a documentary portrait of a specific community – with this one being their most miniature – built using the framework or outright elements of fiction. It is also in tune with a wider tendency in 2010s American nonfiction, of the communal understanding, or even exorcism, reached through group impersonation and improvisation. Out of this crop, you can get more straight ahead documentary and therapeutic scenarios like in The Work (2017) and The Task (2017), or films with a focus on historical re-enactment and theatricality such as The Act of Killing (2012) and Bisbee ’17 (2018).
Like the latter Robert Greene film – on which both brothers worked as camera operators – Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets draws from a deep knowledge and appreciation of American cinema. Its lineage could be drawn right back to a major progenitor of docu-fiction; the sui-generis On the Bowery (1949). Filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s debut, which intermarried classical style filmmaking and a narrative with documentary footage in a short feature about being down and out in New York’s Bowery. Where its lost men scour the streets for work or otherwise kill time, tippling their pain away in smoke-filled dives: the barely furnished and hot-housed precursors to the working class and bohemian lounge of The Roaring 20s – though the latter is more diverse, in terms of race, sex and creed, and less filled with smoke than neon and bonhomie.
That film is a noted influence for the Rosses but what looms larger, in both their personal taste and the ethos and methods of this work, is the cinema Americana of the ‘70s. This termite milieu and its beloved and yet, ultimately, unromantically portrayed inhabitants wouldn’t be out of place in any number of films which roughly constitute the New Hollywood, which saw on-location shooting and the search for American spaces that were raw and out of the way become more prevalent, if not omnipresent. Out of this bunch, it is Cassavetes, another Rogosin admirer, whose ghost is the most present. There is a mutual interest in how social mores prune and bottle up human behaviour and in individuals who, whether consciously or not, try to live outside of those constraints. Along with an approach to acting, or in the Rosses’ case presenting personas, which doesn’t aim for the supposed minimalism of everyday behaviour but allows the players to performatively, in a truthful way, cycle through the full range of humanity’s wheelhouse; embarrassment, horniness, pig-headedness, cruelty, vulnerability and love. And to get those performances not through stringent blocking and hold-your-hand direction but by setting up collision courses and encouraging spontaneous action.
The Rosses’ approach to cinematography and editing is also similar. While within the bounds of the bar, where we remain for the vast majority of the film’s runtime, there are few autonomous shots. The filmmaking is instead largely reactive to all this coupling, decoupling, shying away and showboating of their subjects. Each choice of angle and cut tied to and effectively expressive of the mood and character of the encounters and relationships on-screen. Zipping up and down the bar, suddenly breaking away from one group to focus on another, letting a shot blur or get obstructed. It is a visual framework that simulates both the general air and first-person experience of a busy bar as an environment of unexpected and overwhelming stimuli. Where, as people get drunker, sights and sounds can appear suddenly distorted or muted and moods start to swing with a wider and less predictable arc.
You may be having a silly conversation that is confusing, but pleasant and silly, with one person, while out of one eye and one ear, you see and hear another breaking down. Your vision and thinking are clear one moment but mildewed the next. The directors have a canniness for capturing the intimacy of moments where two people find themselves a corner to get amiable or intimate. The emotional and physical space that forms between these two people can become their little diving chamber. As if everyone else was shut off in a separate dimension, even if in reality they are within spitting distance.
It is not just the communality or the openhearted nature of the space that they have managed to emphasize. Some of the powerful moments come when the camera sorts through the fray to zero in on an individual, usually Michael or Bruce, who, just one cut prior, were having the time of their life, but now are suddenly and totally alone.
The Cassavetes comparison is rocked by one significant aspect of Bloody Nose…’s production; the large degree of improvisation. Contrary to several well-worn anecdotes, Cassavetes’s films are largely scripted and he would generally only use improvisation to grease the wheels, so to speak. To get him and his actors out of a creative rut or injected into a specific part of a performance. Improvisation as the all-encompassing methodology, rather than just one technique, was arsenic to good acting or cinema, by his reckoning.
How it works for The Rosses is that they do apply limits, which shape the action without stifling their subjects nor seeming incongruous with the spirit of the endeavour or the place. Beautifully tinted, video interstitials of Las Vegas, that were shot during an early scouting trip, break up the action and evocatively situate the bar. They shape the film along with titles that spell out the kind of folk wisdom and wit that typically line pub walls, or timestamps that keep track of the clock until the moment everyone has drunk past the point of caring about time.
In Michael Martin, who ‘plays’ Michael, they also have someone approaching a leading man. He is the film’s most constant presence, in the bar from open, straight through to close, and the only jobbing actor in the cast, so he becomes the experiment’s control. Weaving through the haze a perceptible arc, which starts with him emerging from a hangover, cynical yet voluble and personable, before becoming increasingly muddled and depressed. He even gets a downplayed but momentous bit of soul baring in before the credits roll. Even with that clearer, purposeful structure he provides, his performance never takes up too much of the limelight. And it is loose enough to fit in and collaborate with those inexperienced, who outnumber him many to one.
Most importantly though, the improvisation works because it is in a scenario where it is innate. For good and ill, the setting is a place where an abundance of feeling and alcohol creates conditions in which consideration and politesse is left at the door and relations become impromptu. Where playing up for people, or the camera, and illogical behaviour seems less like poor acting than expected behaviour. The result is that through a mixture of methods and archetypes that are both call backs to earlier eras of cinema and up to the moment, Bill and Turner Ross have curated a treasure trove of deeply human moments and a unique work of cinema.