Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets: A Dive Bar for the End of America

It’s 2016, and Trump is about to be elected President. These are the last days for a dive bar in Las Vegas. They were the last days for so many things that could tell you about how America was. Off the strip, everything is plastic and registers as a façade. A city for tourists, where people happen to live, the Roaring ’20s bar is the last bastion of human connection. It is itself a life, a kitsch throwback to populist designs, reckoning with a Vegas that could no longer face the truth, being made of parts of everything except what it was. A hotbed for aspiring Hunter Thompson types to wet their beaks. Limbo for Charles Bukowski. That the Vegas bar ever existed was an anomaly, a trick on its regulars, and certainly a trick on the viewers.

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Dir. Bill Ross & Turner Ross.

The thing is that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets operates as a fluid documentary. And yet, it is an entirely constructed reality. The bar does not exist. The people inside it are actors. It may as well be true to life. The movie does not so much admit it is anything but reality. It is fiction, that becomes its own truth. The Ross brothers — Bill Ross and Turner Ross — are, in fact, documenting something. They have brought a group together to drink very heavily and to enact the final moments of a bar, as though it is the last night on Earth.

A viewer might sit through moments of the picture, not being able to find its unreality. There is clearly a trick. It does this one thing particularly well. It holds our rapt attention, examining the clues of its big fat lie. This can feel manipulative. It can beg the question, why are we watching strangers enact an event that is not true? Is there not something real to document?

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets — Still 1
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Dir. Bill Ross & Turner Ross.

What matters is what the filmmakers find under the abject façade of the Roaring 20s. There is a sense of belonging. There are storylines, conflicts, love interests, weird sexual advances, a bad trip on drugs — a lot happens in the bar. Eventually, there are clearly admitted artifacts. Our first bartender spends half the day chummily taking care of folks drinking off their prior night’s activities, and strumming his guitar. His performance is great, a local Vegas musician, and not a bartender, his fast response to any situation convinces us the job of any good bartender is also to be sharp with improv. It’s when the second bartender takes over that the storylines fall through. Bloody Nose messily connects her to the patrons, without any meaningful subtext, and an ongoing story about her delinquent son stealing alcohol does not work. It all looks like playacting and perhaps it is useful to at least have the courage to admit what you are doing, but the film is really so special when it has the upper-hand of not seeing the mechanisms at work.

The fake veneer of it all properly represents Vegas itself. Why would a documentary, done for real, be more representative of Vegas than this artifice? It almost certainly could not be. And despite being shot at some bar in New Orleans, is this not proper creative non-fiction, in and of itself? It all feels right and even once you know the gag, it almost takes on another power of genre deconstruction. The floor doesn’t fall through entirely once you know the tricks. The world has changed and the core of our gathering spaces, our means for forming community, have slowly eroded. Bloody Nose is a reminder of the value of those spaces — where society initially formed around ale, it remembers that to continue, it must still retain those meeting spaces. The bar must operate as the distillery of the great American truth: everything is a lie.


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