A day in the life of a Las Vegas bar, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is also a portrait of the lifestyle of the professional barfly.
It’s actually the last day in the life of this bar, because the Roaring 20s is about to shut up shop for good. So there’s perhaps more of a celebratory air than usual as beers are downed and shots upended in farewell.
Michael is the first and last figure we see – weaving his way shakily across a road and towards the bar as it opens up in the morning. He downs a hair of the dog, has a shave and freshen-up in the toilets and then instals himself on his stool ready for the day’s banter and booze.
Slightly later and the TV is on – quiz shows, local news, old movies, televangelists – the jukebox is blasting out Aretha Franklyn, Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers. Barman Mark picks up a guitar and serenades the few drinkers in there at this hour with a rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying, a song for losers by the king of the genre. Mark’s got a good voice.
A bit later and Ira is the first casualty of drinking too much, his cracked voice so incomprehensible that his fellow soaks are asking for subtitles (very handy with this film). Ira abuses them all roundly – “You’re hideous…” “Go shoot yourself…” The phone rings. It’s Ira’s boss wondering why he isn’t at work. Ira doesn’t even know where work is.
A bit later still and Pam, swishing her hair and with a gleam in her eye, is showing her “60 year old titties,” to a an attractive younger man, who is gamely keeping the chat going while gently steering Pam into safer conversational waters. Pam later falls over and has to go home.
Still later, after a better dressed cohort of post-work drinkers has turned up, one of them berates Michael and his generation for fucking up the world. He wants a fight. Much later still, after trying to start something with another grey-haired regular, he ends up being thrown out.
Anyone who has spent any time at all in bars will find all of the above familiar. Look at any bar in the light of day and what you see is a filthy hole. But in the semi dark, that’s where the fuzzy magic happens, and it’s that atmosphere that the camera of brothers Bill and Turner Ross captures, in one vignette after another – a Vietnam veteran, a trans woman, the barkeep’s kid out the back smoking weed and drinking (the next generation).
They’re big cameras too – we see them reflected now and again in the bar’s mirrors – and make their presence felt, inhibiting one “performer”, freeing another, though as the drink flows and flows, the cameras become increasingly just part of the background.
Some have wondered if Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a drama masquerading as a documentary. Though the smart, self-aware and articulate Michael claims he “used to be an actor” and evening-shift barkeep Shay has a biog on imdb (though no credits before 2020) suggesting she’s not just a barkeep, this ambiguity doesn’t ruin any enjoyment of the film.
Michael points out early on that he wants it to be known that he only became an alcoholic AFTER fucking up his life. He’d hate to be thought of as one of those self-pitying losers whose lives were ruined by drink, he loudly asserts. This sort of self-promotion, self-deception and self-aggrandisement is something everyone does, but drunk people do it a lot more transparently. It’s these glimpses into the human psyche via the boozer mindset that are this bittersweet, atmospheric film’s great gift.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020