“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is an ethically dicey pseudo-doc

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Utopia)

The Ross brothers’ staged documentary about a closing Las Vegas bar tries to blend mediums but borders on exploitation instead.

“You’re just in time for the not-party! We’re not having fun in honor of the not-closing!” declares Michael, one of the regulars at the Roaring 20s. It’s a hole-in-the-wall Las Vegas bar that’s closing for good at the end of the night, and it’s where the entirety of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is set. At least, that’s the premise. In reality, Michael’s hitting the nail on the head in describing the action of Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross’ latest documentary.

Because this is no ordinary documentary. 

It bends and twists the rules of the genre to create something else entirely. It’s true that the film isn’t scripted and that over the course of the continuous 18-hour shoot, the Ross brothers were mainly there to document what unfurled. But the thing is, The Roaring 20s wasn’t really closing. In fact, it’s still open today. It’s also not really in Las Vegas; it’s in New Orleans. And most puzzlingly of all, those barflys captured on screen? Most of them had never set foot in The Roaring 20s, or even met before.

The original intention of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets started out a little more traditionally. The brothers had hoped to tell the story of a single dive bar in Las Vegas, but when it came time to get the project off the ground, they hit a wall. Either the bar wasn’t quite right, or the people they were searching for weren’t there. So they created something new. The Rosses cast their collection of characters by having conversations with regulars in bars all over New Orleans and beyond. Their ragtag team assembled, they then rented out The Roaring 20s and filled it with their cast. They let free-flowing booze and time do the rest.

What follows is 98 minutes of freewheeling, drunken discourse from people who mostly feel society has forgotten them. They argue over politics, they crack melancholy jokes about how the city just isn’t what it used to be, and they hold one another when alcohol’s depressive effects kick in. You watch what seems to be this tight-knit group of regulars and employees all bound together by a place that’s slowly disappearing from existence. You start to wonder where they’ll go at the end of the night, if they’ll see each other again.

And then you remember that the conceit isn’t real.

So, is this a documentary or not? For Turner Ross, “It’s just not really the conversation that I want to have.” Unfortunately, it’s the one we need to have because whether this is a documentary or not drastically affects how we interpret what we’re seeing.

As a fiction, I’m more forgiving of the film’s meandering style. I’m more invested in this bar’s final day, I’m more curious where these people will end up, in the relationships they have, in what they ultimately mean to each other. As a documentary, I have a lot more questions. I’m honestly concerned by the notion that you could visit multiple bars and determine that the people there were not the right kind of people for this, not the “reality” you were looking for. In this light, it starts to feel like a weird version of poverty porn, where an artist skirts around looking for the right kind of poor, the right kind of alcoholic to suit their “artistic vision” instead of seeing these people as, well, people.

I’m also a little unconvinced that the conceit is necessary for the brothers to make their point, whatever their point may be. Some of the constructed nature of it begins to feel a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall. The Ross brothers are clearly curious about what they can do with the documentary medium, but they don’t seem to be very aware of why they’re doing it. And most importantly, there’s a pretty serious ethical question to be raised about bringing a bunch of disparate alcoholics to a bar and feeding them booze on your dime so you can film them.

To be clear, the Rosses have spoken openly about the safety precautions they took during filming including ensuring rides home for the cast plus food and water to help them sober up. They even escorted people out once they became too inebriated. It’s also clear from the film that they don’t treat these people as a joke. There’s a certain level of respect there that prevents the film from becoming truly hard to watch.

But that doesn’t really erase the question at hand. The fact is that some of these people clearly seem to have serious issues, making the hyper-constructed setup of the film more exploitative than anything else. It’s a hard pill to swallow for something that in either case, can’t really live up to what it could be.

There’s a moment in the film where one of the older barflys, Bruce, says, “A heap see, but a few know what’s goin’ on!” Unfortunately, the Ross brothers aren’t among the few.

Because morality and genre aside, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is still a film lacking a narrative. It floats around subjects, briefly touching on ideas related to gentrification, the mistreatment of veterans in America, and the generational divide. But the film doesn’t do much besides present the cast discussing these things. It doesn’t really seem to have much to say about any of them itself, and viewing an idea isn’t the same as actually exploring one.

This isn’t to make a case against the blending of the mediums here, but you’d be better off spending your time with Charles Burnett’s 1997 film, The Final Insult (a poignant look at Los Angeles’s homelessness crisis), instead. There, you’ll find a much clearer construction that uses the blending of fiction and documentary to profound effect. It shows what Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets could have been if the Ross brothers had a clearer goal in mind.

There’s a moment in the film where one of the older barflys, Bruce, says, “A heap see, but a few know what’s goin’ on!” Unfortunately, the Ross brothers aren’t among the few. They present a space that dangles between reality and fiction and can’t figure out how to say much in either case. In the end, all you’re left with is a messy experiment that isn’t without its charms, but is without a conclusion.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is on VOD starting today, July 8 in honor of National Dive Bar Day, with a larger rollout this Friday, July 10.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Trailer:

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