Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets: An Ode to a Vanishing Dive Bar 

The Ross Brothers skirt the line between narrative and documentary.

click to enlarge The day shift watches Jeopardy! in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
  • The day shift watches Jeopardy! in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.

The greatest irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the two most dangerous things you can do are go to church and go to a bar. As independent and self-sufficient as we think we are, humans are social animals. The novel coronavirus spreads by exploiting that need for close contact, singing, and conversation.

All three of those things happen with abandon in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directors Bill and Turner Ross’ ode to the vanishing world of the barfly. The Ross brothers, who are New Orleans filmmakers, have until now worked primarily in documentary. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is billed as a hybrid documentary, which in this case basically means nonprofessional actors improvising in real locations.

In other words, this is an indie film in the oldest, and most pure, sense of the term. Was Bicycle Thieves a documentary? Did John Cassavetes make documentaries? Were the Dogme 95 films documentaries? Is Blue Citrus Hearts a documentary? As the saying goes, all films are documentaries of the time of their making.

But while the question of exactly what type of film this is may be interesting if you’re concerned about who your film is competing against at Sundance, it’s not particularly relevant to connecting with the work. The set up here is the last night of the Roaring 20s Cocktail Bar, a cozy little spot carved out of a strip mall in Las Vegas. This is not the tourist Vegas of showgirls, neon, and casinos. This is a working-class joint populated by barstool philosophers and faded honky-tonk queens. One devoted patron takes pride in the fact that alcohol didn’t derail his life. “I ruined my life sober. Then I came to you.”

The dive bar is a cultural institution, but this one is closing due to soaring rents in Sin City. “The World’s Largest Gift Shop is closing. What chance does this place have?” frets the day bartender, a huge bear of a man with a Viking beard. “Celine Dion can have this place.”

The day shift is getting tanked while the Today Show is still on. One craggy drinker named Ian gets a call from his work telling him to come in. He grumbles as he leaves, but they knew where to find him. As the bar fills up for the last time, they watch Jeopardy! together and ignore news about the election. They listen to the bartender sing out the end of his last shift with a rough but moving rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” It’s a tough song to sing, and he nails it.

click to enlarge Bruce Hadnot
  • Bruce Hadnot
That’s just one affecting moment in a film that’s made of nothing but. There’s no story to Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, just stuff that happens. It’s like two dozen character sketches stuck together with gum found under a bar table, and I mean that as a compliment. There’s the Black veteran (Bruce Hadnot) who laments getting sucked into “horseshit, stupid wars” but waxes rhapsodic about the his time in the Army. “When you in a platoon with me, you like family.”

There’s the nighttime bartender without a childcare option who just has her teenage son stick close to the bar all night until he falls asleep in the backseat of her car. He and his friends smoke weed in the back alley and crack up listening to the drunken conversations indoors. There’s the poet who begins the evening by reading his elegy to the Roaring 20s and ends by trying to fight everybody. There’s Pam, the 60-year-old who still flashes her breasts at the bar, and the young musicians who appreciate her bust.

Most poignantly of all, there’s Michael. Played by veteran New Orleans indie actor Michael Martin, he’s introduced by the day bartender with “I can’t imagine that dude functioning without this place.” Michael is the purest distillation of this little band of lovable losers. Every moment he’s not cleaning houses, he’s at the bar. Everyone wants to pretend this is just another night, but he’s the one who really sees his world crumbling around him. He tearfully tells one young musician to get out of the bar scene before it’s too late. “I used to be an actor. Now I just come to the bar.”
click to enlarge Michael Martin listens to the conversations on the last night of the Roaring 20s Cocktail Bar.
  • Michael Martin listens to the conversations on the last night of the Roaring 20s Cocktail Bar.
In the end, the regulars get too drunk, and the closing night cake, which says “This Place Sucked Anyway,” gets dropped in the middle of an impromptu parking lot dance party. The all-important sense of community, and what happens when it is taken away, is the subject of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, and today it takes on new meaning. As the pandemic stretches on, it’s increasingly apparent what we took for granted. It’s not just the gloriously disreputable neighborhood watering holes that are in jeopardy of disappearing forever, it’s the music venues, the theaters, the pizza joints with an open mic comedy night. When this disease has been tamed, we can’t take these places for granted, lest they all end up like the Roaring 20s Cocktail Bar.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is streaming on the Indie Memphis Movie Club.

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