Celebrating the Rugged Beauty of America’s Dive Bars
A docu-fiction hybrid, the new film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” pays loving tribute to the dimly lit, booze-filled watering holes that many folks call home.
Of the many things we’ve (temporarily) lost thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, late nights at the local bar are one of the most dearly missed—unless, of course, you’re a knucklehead in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia or California who continues to visit watering holes without wearing a mask or practicing social distancing, personal and public safety be damned. For those responsible Americans pining for the beloved and time-honored ritual of staying out until the wee hours of the morning downing beers or cocktails, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets has arrived to provide a vicarious approximation of that experience—and, in the process, to pay empathetic tribute to the motley fools who call their favorite bars home.
One of the year’s best, Bill and Turner Ross’ feature (premiering in virtual cinemas on July 10) is a novel documentary-fiction hybrid set in and around the Roaring 20s, a drinking establishment situated on the outskirts of the Las Vegas strip that’s ceasing operation after a final blaze-of-glory closing-night party. In reality, though, the bar depicted on screen is actually a New Orleans joint of the same name, chosen by the filmmakers as a stand-in, and populated by patrons who are playing versions of themselves in largely improvised scenarios. It’s a unique formal gambit designed to convey a particular atmosphere and diverse array of personalities, and it works seamlessly and movingly, capturing the mixture of euphoria, mawkishness, regret, self-pity and community that defines such dives, where the corners are dark, the speech is slurred, the music is constant, and the booze is cheap and plentiful.
There’s a sloppy grace to the Roaring 20s, a kind of creaky, ramshackle weariness found in its old swivel chairs, its decorative photographs and twinkling lights, and in the sunken eyes and lined visages of the men and women who pour in through a front door that, during the day, also lets in a healthy dose of glaring sunlight. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets has an innate feel for that mood, conjuring it via cinematography that bobs and sways as it travels down the rows of glasses behind the bar, and swings and dances as it moves around its unstable subjects, peering into their faces or over their shoulders like a kindred sloshed soul. The directors’ perspective is that of an insider, a convivial friend, and it draws viewers into this haunt as it goes through one more 24-hour cycle of early beverages over morning traffic news, afternoon beers while watching Jeopardy!, and middle-of-the-night revelry where ardent espousals of love and camaraderie commingle with senseless calls to fight.
At the center of this tale is Michael Martin, a gray-haired former actor who shaves at the Roaring 20s, sleeps on its back couches, and serves as exhausted MC for its multi-generational regulars. “I pride myself on not having become an alcoholic until after I was already a failure. Because alcoholic failures are boring. And I ruined my life sober, and then I came to you,” he pronounces. The stench of disappointment and dismay oozes out of his pores, and when he subsequently states, “Success is not something that you’re responsible for. Success will happen or it won’t happen, largely due to forces outside your control,” the resignation comes across as bone-deep. His is a worldview colored by hopeless self-pity and forlorn acceptance of sorry circumstances.
Maudlin proclamations aren’t hard to come by in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Military vet Bruce Hadnot tearily laments the disgusting treatment he received following his tour of duty, claiming the bar is where he feels like family (“I fit in here”). By midday, Bruce can barely utter the phrase, “A heap see but a few know” without making “few” sound like “fruit.” Many more endearingly melancholy characters soon reveal themselves in similarly sharp, telling moments: Mark, the gregarious daytime bartender, is handy with a guitar; Shay, the night’s drink-pourer, operates as mother hen to her customers as well as to her playfully delinquent teen son Tra; tattooed musician Pete clumsily tries to woo Shay; and voluble Pam has no qualms about pulling her shirt up in order to get a review of her 60-year-old breasts.
These and other figures take up temporary residence in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ warm, comforting spotlight, each of them looking weathered and battered by life and the excessive imbibing that apparently consumes most of their waking hours. The Rosses embellish their casually chaotic action with pointed jukebox tunes and TV movies (notably, 1961’s The Misfits) without ever underlining anything. The closest the film gets to overtly articulating a point comes late, when Michael tells Pete, “You need to get out of here while you’re still a musician,” lest he wind up like Michael himself, a 58-year-old who looks 70 and gave up on his acting ambitions for his current go-nowhere existence. Michael understands that, no matter the sense of togetherness and belonging it provides, the Roaring 20s (and innumerable places like it) is also a trap, cocooning people in a hazy stupor that divorces them from themselves and their future.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets recognizes this basic fact about its milieu and yet nonetheless exudes affection for its beat-up, unpretentious charms, as well as compassion for the heavy drinkers (and drug users) who instinctively gravitate to it. Like any good hole in the wall, the Roaring 20s is at once inviting in a rundown, helter-skelter sort of way—all string lights, goofy signs, dirty floors and outdated knickknacks (like an upper-shelf carousel music box)—and more than a bit sad, a gloomy enclave that’s desperately hanging on for dear life. That the film’s story concerns a last-hurrah bash only further lends it an elegiac air, equal parts celebratory and mournful, as the rising sun heralds the end of an era, if not for Michael and company themselves, then at least for the insular establishment upon which they’d long relied for friendship, company and support.
While the Roaring 20s’ tenure comes to a close in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets—its immediate past immortalized in disposable-camera photographs shown during the film’s end credits—the stories of its patrons do not. Fittingly, there’s no big narrative conclusion to the Rosses’ gem, just a collection of sights of haggard individuals fading into the night (or dawn) in search of a new boozy home where, alongside likeminded folks, they can drink their sorrows, hopes and dreams away. If you happen to see them out one evening, don’t hesitate to buy them a round.