NZIFF 2020 – Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets REVIEW
Director – Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
It’s a bit like having a perpetual hangover, but GARY STEEL just can’t stop mulling over the sozzled, discarded clientele of the bar that is no more.
I hate fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets changes everything. We’ve become so conditioned to manufactured, pretend “reality” shows that when we’re confronted with the genuine article it’s a shock to the senses.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets sounds like an unpromising proposition: simply the edited audio-visual recording of the closing down party of a rundown Las Vegas bar featuring an equally rundown cast of regulars.
I don’t know quite how the documentarians overcame the obvious technical challenges of recording the last long day/night of the Roaring ‘20s bar, but the intimacy of the epic drama it captures is extraordinary. They must have used some fairly cutting edge technology to render the bar conversations intelligible over the babble and music (and ever-present television burbling away), and figured out how to make the cameras next-to-invisible to the subjects.
Fly-on-the-wall often means “waiting for something interesting to happen”, and sometimes it never does. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets employs the technique to slowly reveal the complexities of a dysfunctional, discarded community, and while it would be stretching things to say that watching it was an enjoyable experience, it’s a film that you find yourself thinking about for days afterwards.
New Zealand pubs have a different flavour, but the essence is the same. Anyone who has spent time drinking and fraternising in such an establishment will recognise the ebbs and flows of an evening. Though echoing the drama of a conventional community, one night in a bar getting shitfaced can involve multiple dramatic incidents and inevitably, tears and vomit will follow.
The fact that it’s the last night of a bar that this sad community revolves around is clearly the instigator for the surfacing of raw emotions and raised voices. There’s history between the protagonists, and it’s complicated. The core members of this melancholy cast are men in their 60s and 70s who we get to know and empathise with as they start relatively sober and descend into various tributaries of affection, anger, resentment and self-pity in the course of the evening. What’s interesting, however, is the diversity of clientele and their love for each other: there’s an African-American transvestite, an enthusiastic fellow with eyes tattooed on his eyelids, a chap with frizzed-out hair who looks like Einstein’s sizzled bro, a 60-year-old woman proudly exposing her breasts and eventually having to be helped home in a drunken daze, and the hard-faced but soft-hearted solo mum who runs the joint with her smoking, beer-stealing school-age sons hanging around out the back.
The two stand-out characters are the late 50s-going-on-70 former actor who admits to having given up on life and ends up crying into his beer (and falling asleep on the couch) and the African-American former combat veteran who is full of advice but whose speech impediment makes it hard for others to understand what he’s saying. It’s clear that for these men, the bar is the centre of their existence and only community, and its imminent demise has them both beyond tears.
These are the forgotten people, the ones who fell down the cracks of the American dream. Is their reality any worse or better than those of us who more or less successfully navigated through a life of jobs, family and “normal” suburbia? Who knows. Whatever the case, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets inspires deep reflection on life and the universe and how society discards some of its people in favour of others. It’s a sobering (ha) experience, and while it would be untrue to say that it made me want to get to know its characters, I certainly wanted to know what happened to them after the closure of their bar. Sequel, maybe?
* Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets screens at City Gallery Wellington on Saturday July 25 at 3.15pm and Saturday August 1 at 1.30pm. It’s available to stream online from July 29 to August 3.
Check out Witchdoctor’s New Zealand International Film Festival reviews: