Saturday, September 5, 2020


The party’s over in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The bar is closing down, reaching the end of the road, a dead end. By the end of the film, it’s clear so has its patrons’ lifestyle, and maybe something essential about the country, too. The film is a slice-of-life, set in the last day of a tiny dive tucked in a strip mall away from the glitz of the Las Vegas strip. Never has the term hangout movie been more appropriate. We start early in the morning, with one particular regular (Michael Martin) being awoken from last night’s stupor. He’s chummy with the owner, and proud that, though he’s an alcoholic, he “ruined [his] life before” he started drinking. He didn’t fail because he drinks; if that was the case, he says, that’d be sad. Instead he’s pleasantly buzzed, kind and gently irascible, prone to melancholy or fleeting irritation, sometimes drinking, sometimes reading, sometimes chatting, sometimes decorating for the closing festivities. As other regulars shuffle in throughout the day, the place fills with bar talk, and the film is chockablock with overheard conversations, characterizations painted with a flash of an exchange, backstories implied with a heavy glance or a twinkle in the eye. Directors Bill and Turner Ross, longtime cult-favorite documentarians of artfully edited verite and bewitching moods, have here created an enveloping experience, drawing on their nonfiction skills. Their earlier works turn observed events into swooning evocations of moments, an elevated fly-on-the-wall through soulful aesthetics. Here their specificity and artful eye is turned on a staged scenario. The patrons’ are recruited improvisers — some professional, some not — and the situation invented, but the conversations and behavior that follows is all observed. Eventually, drunken confessions and stumbling silliness accrues. There’s casual amusement here, of the people-watching, eavesdropping sort. And there’s great sadness too, of wasted potential, and soggy regrets.

It’s alive with the bustling energy of bar conversations, woozily dipping between delight and despair, and lingering on distinctive faces while the soundtrack clutters the talking with snatches of whatever is on the TV or jukebox at the time. The lively barfly energy mingles with a sense of inevitable finality. The carousing and philosophizing springs from similar sources of boozy doom. It adds up to a melancholic portrait of a particular stripe of struggling working class people. The characters—and, oh, are they characters— are veterans, factory workers, waitresses, plus stoner teens in the back alley and some old people inside who used to be them. There’s some talk of politics — this is set in 2016, after all — and generational strife. A couple guys in their late-20s or early-30s are making hay of boomer failures, expressing profound sadness that they’re coming in at the end of something, that the older folks have squandered potential and ruined it for the rest of us. But mainly there’s a sadness of a small, imperfect community passing away. There's little room for a business so small, no matter how much it means to the people there. What is lost when we can’t afford simple human contact? (Boy, is this movie timely.) Making community, making connections, doesn’t turn a profit. Here, everybody, as the Cheers theme goes, knows your name. They care. They know each other, or think they do. (Do they, really?) They recognize each another, and see themselves reflected in one another. But in the end, the morning rises on the next dawn and the bar will close its doors for good. The movie’s sadness extends not just to what’s lost, but what’s never been possible. Was this place and the community it made ultimately worthwhile? Was it an enabler? Both, I guess. We’re family, the drunks admiringly say, though some push back on that, including Martin who says, “I am someone you hang out with at the bar. I am not your family.” The party is over. In the harsh light of day, what’s left? As the song goes, “Is that all there is?”

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