On the sliding scale of great works set in saloons, there is “Cheers” at one end, where everybody knows your name, and “The Iceman Cometh” on the other, where everybody knows the vast meaninglessness of existence and the inevitability of death. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” newly available as a virtual screening, takes up residence somewhere in the middle.
It’s a documentary (sort of; see below) set on the final day of the Roaring 20s, a seedy Las Vegas bar that has been hanging on to the Strip for decades and is at last being forced out by the encroachments of Corporate Vegas. As captured by filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross, the place has the warmth and beery denial of a dive, and the regulars assemble over the course of a 24-hour farewell, staking their places at the rail and determined to go down with the ship.
They’re a varied crew, mostly aging hippies who threw in the towel somewhere around the ’90s. Lowell, a white-maned fellow in overalls — he looks like a dissolute Ben Franklin — likes to crank call the bartender from the end of the bar. Pam, in her 60s, is the life of the party and wants everyone to know it. (When she flashes the twenty-something Kamari to show she’s still got it going on, he grudgingly has to admit she does.)
Pam’s an armed forces veteran, as is Bruce, an older man who keeps to himself, watching the fun and occasionally shedding a tear. What he has seen in his travels is never discussed, although his philosophy of life is mentioned more than once: “A heap see, but a frew know what’s going on.” (“Frew?” someone asks. “F-E-W, frew,” Bruce responds.)
If there’s an unofficial captain of the ship, it would be Michael (Michael Martin), a floppy-haired one-time actor who is always the first to arrive in the morning (“The best part of waking up is bourbon in your cup,” quips day bartender Marc) and always the last to leave. Michael’s like Larry Slade in “Iceman” — the one rummy who sees through the lies they all tell themselves but who keeps drinking anyway. At one point in “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” he counsels the much younger Pete to get out while he can. “I’m 58 and I look like I’m 70. . . . 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.”
As morning turns to afternoon to evening to wee hours, we see garrulous bar buddies turn sodden and argumentative. A salesman type named David arrives full of bonhomie and by nightfall is boozily aggressive. Miniature dramas unfold: Pete flirting with the evening bartender, the worn-down Shay, who’s more worried about what her teenage son and his friends are up to. (Getting high and swiping a case of beer, that’s what.) A portly truck driver named John has a mysterious brown bag that reveals its contents as night falls and who is coaxed by Pete into taking a tab of acid, which roots him to his bar stool for the remainder of the evening.
Why watch this movie? Why pay for what you can get down at the corner bar (or used to) for the price of a Genny Cream Ale? Because “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” has a rhythm and an energy that sustain its tone of deadpan empathy; the movie’s alive to the humor and calamity of these people and deeply curious about the human need to numb oneself to difficulties of being human. As the regulars take refuge here, the afternoon sunlight of Trump’s America banging on the door, we see something on the verge of vanishing, and it’s not just a bar.
Does it matter, then, that “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is on at least one level a put-on? It’s not the Roaring 20s’ final day and in fact the bar isn’t even in Las Vegas but New Orleans. The Ross brothers specialize in a hybrid style of documentary and fiction filmmaking where they set up a situation, invite in real people, and film what happens. The bar is a real bar — just not the one we think — and its denizens are genuine habitués that the Rosses met in their research and asked to participate.
Are Michael and Pam and Bruce performing? Maybe for the first five minutes, until the camaraderie and liquor kick in (although Michael, alone of the crew, retains his self-awareness to the end). Is “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” exploitative or enabling? On the contrary, it is friendly, clear-eyed, and wise — tender about our follies and unsentimental about where they lead us. A heap see but a frew know, and the Ross brothers are among the chosen frew.
BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross. Starring Michael Martin, Shay Walker, Lowell, Pam, and the gang. Available for virtual screening at www.altavod.com/content/bloody-nose-empty-pockets. 99 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, barfly nudity, drug and alcohol abuse).