Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
COMMUNITY: In the shadows of Las Vegas, real people, in an unreal situation, face an uncertain future.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Country: USA

Some say nostalgia for past cultural epochs has been speeding up in recent times; that a decade barely finishes before we recycle its fads. Even so, it’s a jolt to feel misty-eyed for the cinema-going times of a mere fortnight ago, when the Berlinale was in full hectic flow and the coronavirus, already sadly ravaging Central China, had started to register on most attendees’ radars but had not yet shut down festivals and theatres as physical gathering places across many parts of the globe. That western complacency did not last long. With wild uncertainty prevailing around how long the pandemic and its disruption to normality will last, derailed festivals have been tentatively rescheduling dates, in fragile hope rather than confidence.

Cancellations & postponements

Cannes has forecasted late June as a potential alternative. Israel’s Docaviv and Czech Republic’s Finále Plzeň have picked new slots for September, and others, including Thessaloniki, have postponed to an as yet undecided date. There is also an urge to find alternate models by which called-off festivals can still happen right now; to bring their programmes to audiences who need cinema’s capability of expanding worlds more than ever as daily life shrinks to the home quarantine couch and its immediate vicinity, and to find a home for the long hours of creative work that have been tripped up just as theatre curtains were about to open. It makes perfect sense, then, that some festivals, such as Denmark’s CPH:DOX and Switzerland’s Visions du Reel, have moved their festivals online, with audiences in their countries (and in some cases, further afield) able to stream the selections.

Some say nostalgia for past cultural epochs has been speeding up in recent times; that a decade barely finishes before we recycle its fads.

CPH:DOX had just a week to go until opening night when it became clear that the festival’s physical version would be impossible, as the global health crisis worsened and the Danish government clampdown on gatherings and closed its borders to foreigners. It’s a nightmare for any festival team, not to mention to all the filmmakers involved. It felt consoling to still be able to help the event come alive in some way as I pressed play on the first film I had lined up as a (now virtual) press guest to watch on my couch, not to mention getting much needed artistic nutrients and distraction during self-isolation.

The roaring 20s

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also feel downhearted for the conversations, happy hour wine in hand, that I wouldn’t be having in the physical city of Copenhagen, usually a place I associate with a preternatural calm, and a festival industry hub that is always infused with laidback, convivial atmosphere. But it turns out that it was the perfect mood to be in for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a docufiction from Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV chronicling the last night in operation of a dive bar in Las Vegas called the «Roaring ‘20s». The watering hole is not real — the brothers enlisted barflies they found elsewhere to essentially play themselves in a mocked-up New Orleans location — but it nails the kind of raggedy charm and soulful sense of community that is the antithesis of standardising gentrification, and of a world that is irrevocably leaving the romance of such Bukowskian places behind. Regulars lament the Celine Dion-isation of a more commercialised Vegas, and that the bar will probably be replaced by a chain pharmacy.

Regulars lament the Celine Dion-isation of a more commercialised Vegas, and that the bar will probably be replaced by a chain pharmacy.

The bar’s scruffy couches and parodic signs («Please do not throw your butts in the urinal, it makes them soggy and hard to light,» reads one) scream anything-goes, derelict homeliness. In such a place, one can even take one’s pants off to get comfortable (and an Australian regular does). But it is the staff and clientele themselves, eccentrics from the margins raw with dashed dreams and an undimmed hunger for connection, perched on their stools for the long haul, who comprise the real heart of the place. Most have given their lives over to alcohol, but this is in no way a moralistic film; rather, it captures the essential part in the social fabric played by a congregation point, accepting of all quirks and failings, for those who have — for whatever reason — found themselves left with nowhere else, and have been drawn to the bar night after night to laugh, dance and be together. «It’s a place you can go when nobody else don’t want your ass,» says a black army veteran who has been mentally scarred by war, talking about the country he served having turned its back on him.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets-Las Vegas Documentary - post1
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a film by

A place to call home

Another regular, a washed-up actor who looks ravaged by heavy boozing hours put in over the years, is conflicted over the route his life has taken after first «ruining his life sober» as he puts it, and advises a younger patron: «There is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff but doesn’t anymore because he’s in a bar.» Boring, however, this rag-tag array of tipsy heart-to-hearts and bawdy abandon is not, because the Rosses manage to capture the pathos and radical acceptance that comes with realising every stray deserves a little TLC and a place to call home. And that very intangible quality we might call «healing community,» which, as the limits of a framework built on the aggressive primacy of the market reveal themselves amid the COVID19 crisis, we will need to work hard to find a way back to more and more. A warmth-infused last night in the bunker as an era ends, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a portal to the kind of place we’d best not forget, in this strange and uncertain blip of virus-blocking walls and virtual-only connectivity.