Vino Vérité returns for 2020 this weekend with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Directors Bill and Turner Ross will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. The series, presented by FilmScene, Bread Garden Market and Little Village, presents films in the vérité tradition paired with hors d’oeuvres, wine and desserts. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for members and $10 for students.
From the soundtrack’s first plaintive notes (Buck Owens, “Big In Vegas”) to the Western-style font of the film’s title card (think McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets immediately declares itself to be of another era. Ohio’s Ross brothers have brought to bear a film that subverts both genre and traditional narrative structure, with the end result being a wholly unique filmgoing experience.
Not quite documentary and not quite scripted drama, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a masterful exploration of community and the importance of liminal spaces in the lives of people whose very existence goes unnoticed amid the grind of late capitalism and declining American hegemony.
The film, which ostensibly documents the last day of a dive bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas, was actually shot in New Orleans. The cast, none of whom are professional actors, were all discovered by the Rosses in bars; their charisma and vulnerabilities were accentuated under the influence of alcohol. We see customers in a bar engage with one another in light-hearted fun, intensely serious conversation, alcohol-driven mischief and everything in between.
Shot in late 2016, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets inadvertently captured the election of Donald Trump during filming and, much like the impending demise of their favorite watering hole, the election (and what it says about American values) looms large over everything in the film.
Bruce Hadnot, a black veteran, in a very clear-eyed moment of intoxicated philosophizing, predicts Trump’s impeachment. Later, with tears rolling down his face, Hadnot bemoans the utter futility of American politics: “We fought for these people and they treat us like shit and I think about that everyday of my life … But you can always come to this bar and feel like family.”
The tender way Pam, one of Bruce’s fellow patrons, proceeds to wipe the tears from his face speaks volumes to the importance of places like a bar where dissimilar people can congregate and commune with one another. Knowing that the bar is about to close permanently, as if it were the detritus of our digital culture, makes this moment of kindness deeply tragic.
In terms of style, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is equal parts Robert Altman and Werner Herzog. The Rosses deploy Altman’s voyeuristic lens, intimately capturing seemingly raw and unscripted conversation. But, similar to Herzog — known for meddling with his documentary subjects in order to achieve his own cinematic goals — the brothers gently steer the film toward a set of vaguely defined narrative goals for each scene by sending in actors or playing a particular song on the jukebox. These tiny interventions drive the action forward, without noticeably interfering with the events on-screen.
The film opens with a line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Regardless of one’s feelings about the authenticity of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as documentary, narrative film or some other beast altogether, it’s clear that nothing could be more fitting for what the Rosses have assembled: a film offering the truest expression of what we lose everyday under a system that drives us to work harder, for increasingly less benefit, while we become more and more individualized and unattached to our fellow humans.
This little cinematic gem beautifully captures everything that makes humans communal animals and the tragedy of our short-sighted need to subvert that community for the sake of profit and greed. Nothing is permanent, and as the cliche says, “you can’t go home again” — but fortunately for those lucky enough to catch this film, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reminds us of the importance of valuing what we have here and now.