It’s closing time for the Roaring 20s. As in, a permanent, fare-thee-well closing time: The Las Vegas cocktail lounge, located both miles and worlds away from the glitzy hotels and amusement-park casinos dotting the strip, has been sold off. So the joint’s longtime customers plan on celebrating in style. Michael, a former actor, is awakened from his morning slumber at the end of the bar and goes to shave in the bathroom. (“That’s a lot more sun then I’m used to seeing,” he says, gazing out the front door.) John, a giant Australian, has brought donuts for breakfast and tabs of acid for later. Lowell, a hippie-ish old man in overalls, helps make signs for the big night. The day-drinking crowd slowly sidles in, sings along with the jukebox, watches Jeopardy on TV. Marc, the burly bartender with the ZZ Top-worthy beard, laments the passing of the old, weird Vegas he knew and loved. “Celine Dion can have it,” he says. “I’m fucking moving.”
Barring the occasional David Byrne-goes-cuckoo-for-color-guards collaboration, filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross have specialized in loose, free-form portraits of everyday folks in their natural habitats, be it the Midwest (45365), the dirty South (Tchoupitoulas) or the borders of the Lone Star state (Western). And the brothers’ ode to beautiful losers bidding adieu to their local presents itself as another regional variation on a theme, in which they set up shop and observe. The afternoon shift blends in with the evening crowd, and we’re introduced to the usual subjects: the barstool philosopher, the belligerent mushmouth, the Bukowski-lite boho, the oversharing lush, the veteran glaring into the bottom of his glass, the would-be tavern Casanova. Everything flows by in a bleary, buzzy haze as the friendships forged over rail-liquor shots turn sentimental or volatile, and old-timers hold court with boozehound wisdom one final time. It’s such an astute, lived-in take on both dive-bar bonding and the myth of Sin City as seen from the periphery that it’s a sobering slap across the cheek to discover the whole thing is a glorious sham.
Should you want to take Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets at face value, you want to stop reading right about now. It won’t make the experience of watching it any less rich, or keep anyone who’s logged hours among such drunkards and misfits from feeling a shudder of recognition. But as the Ross brothers have openly admitted, their doc on the last hours of Roaring 20 isn’t technically a doc. Their Vegas bar is located in New Orleans, where they live; they took over the space and set-dressed it to their specifications. The transient barflys living in the shadow of the Caesar’s Palace are actually NOLA residents who spend their days in Big Easy drinking establishments, corralled and “cast” to essentially play themselves. The filmmakers would occasionally yell out cues, offer tiny pieces of direction to individual participants, and gently guide their collaborators through this long day’s journey into a hungover dawn. But basically, the idea was: gather together people who’ve lived this life, set ’em up and see what happens.
Which begs a lot of bigger-pic questions: What does the term “documentary” even mean anymore? Is it journalism, an extension of an art form, a dessert topping, a floor wax? Do we need to keep the fiction v. nonfiction lines from being blurred in this, our age of Reality TV presidents and genuinely fake news? Or were those lines already fuzzier than a rummy’s vision way before 2020, and the point, being older than Nanook’s igloos, is long past moot?
It’s easy to get so caught up in where BNEP falls on the spectrum — or why Sundance relegated it to the doc competition’s section, and doc-centric fests have played it — that you might miss what the Ross brothers have succeeded in doing. More a Cassavetes-ish experiment than cinema vérité, this portrait of lives lived one glug at a time is as much a chronicle of the real as The Iceman Cometh. Yet by throwing a traditional three-act narrative (four sheets) to the wind, they’ve arrived at something that feels closer to genuinely examining this subculture in an extremely unflinching, if not unflattering way. It neither romanticizes the fulltime drunk’s life nor does it condemn it. It’s 100-percent manufactured and 100-proof authentic.
So call Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets a documentary, or a docufiction, or an ecstatic-truth improvisation — just don’t let it miss last call. Maybe the Ross brothers should have jettisoned the whole Vegas notion instead of building their “Vegas” bar from the ground up, and traded in a years-long obsession to tell that specific story in the name of not muddying the waters. It’s bigger than one city anyway. Besides, the idea of American Dreamers giving up and choosing to drown themselves in cheap hooch is still there. (“I pride myself on not having become an alcoholic until after I was already a failure,” Michael says at one point, and the confession is 100 times more heartbreaking than any backstory could ever be.) So is the woozy, tragic, comic and cockeyed sense of camaraderie you get when you spend endless hours in the company of soused strangers. Here comes a regular, the movie says. And there he or she is wandering into the morning light, knowing they don’t have to go home but they can’t stay here anymore.